The two top leaders in the British suffrage movement were Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. There is far too much to write about these women in a short post. The quick version is that Emmeline Pankhurst was the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. After years of being patient and working with politicians, the WSPU took on the motto of “Deeds Not Words”. In 1910, the WSPU started violent protests in the United Kingdom. These included vandalism and arson. There were violent conflicts with police, arrests, hunger strikes, and forced feedings.
Americans Alice Paul and Lucy Burns met Christabel and joined the WSPU while working abroad. Paul and Burns took part in suffrage protests where conflicts with police led to them being arrested, jailed, and force-fed. This is when Paul became convinced that more militant action was also needed in the United States.
The American and British suffrage movements had always been sister projects. Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst did a lecture tour in America in 1910, and even made a cameo in the American suffrage film “What 80 Million Women Want.” She was a popular draw at suffrage events and fundraisers so she was invited back. Pankhurst was actually still in the middle of a prison sentence and was on recovery furlough because of the “Cat and Mouse Act” which released sick prisoners for health reasons, allowed them to recuperate, and then rearrested them to serve the rest of their time. It was created specifically for hunger striking suffragettes in England. Ellis Island almost didn’t let her in because of her prison sentence and outstanding time owed.
Emmeline Pankhurst gave a very successful lecture tour in the fall of 1913. One of her most famous lectures is the “Freedom or Death” speech delivered in Hartford Connecticut. (Link to full speech in sources.) In it she emphasizes the need to be a soldier in a civil war where women must stand up and fight for freedoms like the right to vote. If a man from any other country came and explained how he did not have rights in his own government yet paid taxes and was subject to the law, the need to support a revolution, even a military one, would be obvious yet women endure the same oppression and wait patiently. She drew comparisons to the vandalism of the Boston Tea Party when men were taxed without representation and that militant Irish rebellions were often supported in America. Men are lauded as brave revolutionaries when they stand up to oppression. If women are truly equal human beings then they must take up arms and be soldiers just as men would do.
She stressed that the violence would be completely unnecessary if women had some measure of political voice within their government but when they are continually ignored, they must be disruptive in order to survive. Her point is illustrated in this excerpt. “I don’t know, Mrs. Hepburn, whether I have used the domestic illustration in Hartford, but it is a very good one: it is quite worth using again. You have two babies very hungry and wanting to be fed. One baby is a patient baby, and waits indefinitely until its mother is ready to feed it. The other baby is an impatient baby and cries lustily, screams and kicks and makes everybody unpleasant until it is fed. Well, we know perfectly well which baby is attended to first. That is the whole history of politics.”
The “Mrs. Hepburn” mentioned several times in the speech is Katherine “Kit” Houghton Hepburn, suffragist, family planning advocate, and mother to actor Katherine Hepburn.
Bonus: Smoking and feminism have a long history together but it didn’t start during suffrage.
2nd Bonus: In his 1913 novel “John Barleycorn” author Jack London admitted he voted for yes for suffrage in California (1911) in order to strengthen the temperance movement. He naively hoped that not being able to get alcohol would help him quit for good. http://www.online-literature.com/london/john-barleycorn/1/
This week’s song pick:
“Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett. Video pick is a fan compilation of UFC fighter Ronda Rousey https://youtu.be/uF4Ef5jQExY
Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1914 autobiography is available free online:
“Freedom or Death” Speech Hartford CT November 1913
Transcript from a speech made in Geneva, New York 1910 American speaking tour
Katharine Houghton Hepburn