Suffragette: My Own Story

suffragette_newEmmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. The group had a single focus: Votes for Women. And they were willing to do whatever they had to to get that vote. They spoke up against those who professed to be political allies if they would not take action for women’s suffrage. They spoke out at political gatherings and sessions of Parliament. When imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes. When released to recover, they resisted re-arrest while continuing their public protests. They broke windows and set fires. They were a subject of controversy then, and some perhaps would question their methods even today.

Pankhurst wrote this autobiography in 1914, during a time when the women of the WSPU had put their work on pause to concentrate on the war effort. Although she was taking a break from pursuing suffrage, her passion for the cause remained strong. Her belief was that giving women the vote would improve conditions not just for voting women but for all the poor women, children, and elderly who were overlooked by the men in power.

The book functions as a defense of the WSPU’s methods, with Pankhurst explaining at each step why the group members felt they had no other choice but to become more militant and more disruptive. Often, she notes how men taking the same actions for different causes were subject to far less punishment than the women. Men were in charge of deciding what was just and adjudicating accordingly. The result was injustice for women who wanted only what was fair:

Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for men to fight for theirs.

They have decided that for men to remain silently quiescent while tyrannical rulers impose bonds of slavery upon them is cowardly and dishonourable, but that for women to do that same thing is not cowardly and dishonourable, but merely respectable. Well, the Suffragettes absolutely repudiate that double standard of morals. If it is right for men to fight for their freedom, and God knows what the human race would be like today if men had not, then it is right for women to fight for their freedom and the freedom of the children they bear. On this declaration of faith the militant women of England rest their case.

When it comes to protest, I have in the past thought that violent protest is rarely productive and best avoided. Better to go through official channels, to protest in times and places set apart for it. To stay within bounds. But those bounds are often set by the very people who are targeted by protestors. At some point, doing things their way means settling for the status quo, letting the powerful stay comfortable. To be heard, the suffragettes had to make the powerful uncomfortable. In their case, peaceful protest wasn’t enough. It took violent action (toward property but not people) to startle people out of their complacency. How effective their actions were is unclear. They raised awareness, but women’s suffrage did not come to the UK until 1918, and even then it was a partial measure. Full suffrage for women was granted in 1928.

I was glad to get this first-person insiders’ perspective, as I’ve read very little about the suffrage movement, either in the U.S. or U.K. I was aware of the hunger strikes, forced feedings, and violence from some of the historical fiction I’ve read, but that’s the extent of my knowledge. There were a few times when I wished I understood the British system a little better so I could more fully comprehend why certain events were and were not to the suffragettes’ advantage. Most of the time, though, that wasn’t a problem. Pankhurst’s focus is on the logic behind the movement and decisions and actions taken. Her passion for the cause shines through, even when the details aren’t clear.

Hesperus Press is releasing a new edition of Pankhurst’s autobiography in connection with the upcoming film Suffragette, in which Meryl Streep is playing Pankhurst. I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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15 Responses to Suffragette: My Own Story

  1. This sounds fascinating. I don’t know an awful lot about the movement, but this first hand account would be a good starting point.

    • Teresa says:

      It was close to a starting point for me, and I liked learning about the movement through her eyes. I’d like to find something else that steps back and puts her in context now.

  2. Lisa says:

    I recently read a history of the women’s rights movement in the US, which mentioned bringing in the British tactics in the early 1900s. I think I will add this to my reading list. I hadn’t heard of the film before.

    • Teresa says:

      What was the book called? I’d like to read about the U.S. movement as well.
      The film isn’t coming out until October, but I expect it’ll get a lot of attention. It also has Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter.

      • Lisa says:

        It’s Century of Struggle, by Eleanor Flexner. It was first published in 1959 & has been reissued with revisions several times. I think it’s excellent.

  3. Thank you very much for your review. I think it’s always hard to be a person of conscience, whether it’s in deciding to take possibly inflammatory tactics like Parkhurst did, or following the edicts of passive resistance, like Gandhi did. What always matters more to the powers that be and to society in general is fitting in and not creating dissension, even when that dissension is productive of positive change. I’m glad to hear Meryl Streep is involved; she’s a fine actress, and I can “see” her in the part already.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been thinking about the difficulty of resistance a lot as I listen to news stories about what’s been happening in Baltimore. A different cause, but similar questions. For Pankhurst, nonviolence was getting women nowhere. They kept being told to wait, that their allies would help them, but no one was doing anything. But it seems like those allies were more concerned with protecting the status quo than with helping women.

      • What amazes me about the situation going on now in places like Ferguson to Baltimore is that it keeps happening again and again, and it seems to me as if the police force with any sense would try to keep shootings of unarmed black people from happening in their town. There was one single instance about two weeks ago of a cop who refused to fire on an unarmed man who was trying to commit “suicide by cop,” but since that was in the news the same week as the cop who “apprehended” a suspect by running him down with a car, it didn’t get much coverage. So, are we supposed to think that this is just the overall response of policemen everywhere, a sort of unified front response to black protesters, or that this is what has been going on all along, without the rest of the world being aware of it? I think your comparison of it to the women’s suffrage movement is apt, because in that case too, there had been historical inequality, enforced by custom and usage, plus a backlash when resistance was offered.

      • Teresa says:

        The police response is another parallel. Pankhurst talks about one march that was supposed to be peaceful that turned violent because the police used excessive force to stop them.

  4. Jenny says:

    My goodness, what a timely post. This sounds very interesting — I would love to read a good overall history of the movement, then this.

    • Teresa says:

      So much of what she has to say is relevant to what’s happening right now.

      I think she explains the situation well enough to be able to get by without reading a history first, but I would like to get a more wide-angle history to put her work in context.

  5. Bina says:

    This looks really good, perhaps I can get it read before the movie comes out!
    It’s great that their not peaceful protest methods are discussed as well. Even if I don’t condone violence in general, successful changes have rarely happened without it. Peaceful demonstrations only are for the privileged.

    • Teresa says:

      When you have privilege, it’s easy to assume the official channels will work. These women turned to violence only after it was clear to them that it other methods weren’t working.

  6. Christy says:

    I am very fuzzy on the specifics of the women’s suffrage movement – UK or US. What comes to mind first is the satirical character of the mom in Mary Poppins, of all things.

  7. Romster says:

    Whenever people say that first wave feminism was peaceful, the examples of bombing and fighting is what comes to mind. First wave feminism was not this peaceful, sunshine and rainbows movement as everyone seems to believe, these women got their hands dirty. We talk about the blatant misandry that comes with feminists today and we seem to forget that some of these women hated men just as much as some modern feminists http://romolagarai.org/
    :)

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