International Women’s Day 2020: Emmeline Pankhurst in Three Defining Speeches

8th March 2020

Wander the streets of Manchester and there’s a chance that between the red and blue scarves and worker bees, you might catch sight of a word or two from famed Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Scrawled on t-shirts made famous by Meryl Streep. The phrase reads: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”

Born in Moss Side, South Manchester, Emmeline Pankhurst became an icon of the Women’s suffrage movement. As an avid reader and the daughter of a playhouse owner, Pankhurst was exposed to the works of Shakespeare and other great literature from a young age, resulting in a mastery of powerful speech and rhetoric.

The three following speeches are among her best remembered.

‘We have tried to be womanly, we have tried to use feminine influence and we have seen that it is of no use.’ – Bow Street Magistrates Court, 24th October 1908

Standing in the dock of London’s famous Bow Street Magistrates Court, Emmeline Pankhurst threw back the claims of her accusers, declaring: ‘We are here not because we are law-breakers. We are here in our efforts, to become law-makers.’

Despite the speech reportedly bringing a number in the courtroom to tears, the Magistrate remained unmoved; sentencing Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel and co-defendant Flora Drummond to prison on charges of inciting the public to riot.

However, the point centred her argument, invoking the changing approach of her Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Without the protection of the vote, continually denied to them by established powers, women had no reasonable access to representation beyond direct action.

The WSPU was set up to diverge from the patient approach of existing advocacy groups as Pankhurst and her associates grew frustrated with a lack of political priority afforded for women’s suffrage. Following continued disregard for their speeches, rallies, publications and petitions, the WSPU grew more militant. The founding motto rang true: ‘Deeds, not words.’

In the face of a system that had maligned, misrepresented and ridiculed the women’s suffrage movement, the WSPU was exposing the status quo of incited physical and systematic violence against women.

 ‘And my last word is to the government: I incite this meeting to rebellion.’ – Royal Albert Hall, 17th Oct 1912

The upturn in direct action taken by suffragists of the WSPU drew a violent response from the authorities in the shape of arrests and police violence on the streets, most notably Black Friday in 1910 brought changes to both suffragist and police approaches.

Marion Wallace Dunlop’s held the first hunger strike in 1909, protesting the awful prison conditions she was kept in – held with common criminals and denied political status – proved effective. Soon afterwards the action was taken up by more WSPU members.

The courthouse became a soapbox as the images of women locked up and force-fed during hunger strikes became movement-defining. Whether they drew ire, discomfort or camaraderie, the images in newspapers could not be ignored.

However, WSPU militancy drew criticism from government ministers, journalists and eventually other suffragists. Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) later denounced hunger strikes as publicity stunts and obstacles to the suffrage movement.

Pankhurst retorted, pointing to the irony of men waging wars from office buildings but criticising the use of violence: “It always seems to me when the anti-suffrage members of the government criticise militancy in women that it is very like beasts of prey reproaching the gentler animals who turn in desperate resistance when at the point of death.”

She also rejected criticism of the WSPU’s militancy, openly embracing the term but clarifying its purpose as a last resort. Pankhurst denied accusations of reckless disregard for human life, claiming the militants never sought to endanger anyone, putting only themselves at risk.

Militancy, Pankhurst claimed, had many means of expression – from the occupation of the House of Commons to campaigning against the government in by-elections – but the central pillar was clear: the destruction of property.

Invoking comparison to the Chartists, Pankhurst’s rallying cry went out: “There is something that Governments care for far more than human life and that is the security of property. And so, it is through property that we shall strike the enemy.”

The final words of the speech went down in history, “I incite this meeting to rebellion.”

The Suffragettes of the WSPU were in open rebellion. Incidentally, Pankhurst wasn’t invited back to the Royal Albert Hall.

‘They have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.’ – Hartford, Connecticut, 13th November 1913

In a speech during a fundraising trip to the US while on temporary release from prison, Pankhurst gave what seemed to be the ultimate solidification of her rhetoric, echoing the famous words of American revolutionary politician Patrick Henry: ‘give me liberty or give me death.’

She also invoked more directly the American revolutionary concept that her previous speeches had alluded to – demanding no taxation without representation and referring to suffrage as a civil war.

Pankhurst had been released under the Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act – better known as the Cat and Mouse Act – under which prisoners too weak to stay in prison were released and re-arrested upon their return to health.

The Cat and Mouse Act represented a problem for the authorities. Unwilling to let women die in prison, the purgatory of releasing and re-arresting relied upon the WSPU fatigue. As it continued, stories of force-feeding were a PR nightmare for the government.

Taking advantage of this, Pankhurst threatened perpetual conflict until they were heard: ‘there are women lying at death’s door, recovering enough strength to undergo operations who have not given in and won’t give in, and who will be prepared, as soon as they get up from their sick beds, to go on as before.’

Invoking the weight of the female population, she continued: ‘We wear no mark. We belong to every class. We permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest. So you see, the women’s civil war, it is absolutely impossible to deal with – you cannot locate it and you cannot stop it.’

War breaks and Votes for Women

The cat and mouse deadlock was eventually broken by war. The outbreak of World War One divided Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Adela, who had been by her side throughout most of the movement but brought her closer with the authorities she had spent years battling.

Critical of pacifists and conscientious objectors, Pankhurst and daughter Christabel advocated a pause in the suffrage movement so women could join the workforce and support the war effort. The government responded with amnesty for Suffragettes caught up in the Cat and Mouse Act.

Pankhurst also took on responsibilities helping so-called War Babies – children born out of wedlock to fathers who had gone off to fight. In time, she would adopt four of these babies.

The enfranchisement of women through their work supporting the war effort appeared to sway both popular and governmental opinion and the Representation of the People Act 1918 received royal assent on 6th February, nine months before the war’s end. Though gender-specific age and property restrictions were installed to ensure women wouldn’t represent a majority of the electorate.

It would be another ten years before women got equal rights to vote with the Representation of the People Act 1928 bringing the voting age to 21. Having emigrated to Canada some years earlier, Pankhurst died on the 14th June, mere months after the passage of a bill she’d fought for her entire life. Women over the age of 21 voted in their first general election in May 1929 but the fight for equality continues.

‘Manchester is a city which has witnessed a great many stirring episodes’ – My Own Story, 1914

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 was celebrated in Manchester in 2018 with the unveiling of a statue in Pankhurst’s honour in St. Peter’s Square. The statue became the first of a woman on Manchester’s street since one celebrating Queen Victoria over 100 years ago.

62 Nelson Street, Manchester, Pankhurst’s first home and the birthplace of the WSPU is now the home of the Pankhurst Centre, continuing the fight for women’s equality into modernity as a women’s centre and headquarters of Manchester Women’s Aid. The Pankhurst Centre provides confidential services to victims of domestic abuse and supports women’s activism in Manchester and the local community.

The museum at the Pankhurst Centre – currently unfunded and reliant on volunteers – tells the story of the suffrage movement. Saved, rebuilt and run by women, the Pankhurst Centre is testament to inspiring power of women past and present.

If you’re feeling inspired for International Women’s Day 2020, you can volunteerdonate or fundraise for the Pankhurst Centre or take a tour to learn more about the inspirational women of Manchester, taking in the history of Emmeline Pankhurst as well as the People’s History Museum and the home of novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.

Trust in God – she will provide.

All videos courtesy of Royal Holloway, University of London. For more historical videos, take a look at Royal Holloway’s History Hub YouTube channel.