On Nov. 13, two historical events in the women’s movement will intersect. First is the new film Suffragette which chronicles the British campaign to win the vote for women, led in large measure by Emmeline Pankhurst. The second is a talk by Pankhurst to a Hartford audience in 1913. Her presentation is considered one of the century’s most significant speeches.
Both the fictional portrayal and the actual speech challenge us to look at how much women have achieved, and how far there is to go. Pankhurst had worked in the suffrage movement for 35 years by the time she first appeared in Connecticut. She visited Hartford four times from 1909 to 1916. But it was Nov. 13, 1913 when she delivered what has become known as her famous “Freedom or Death” speech at Parson’s Theater.
To Emmeline Pankhurst and her militant sisterhood of suffragists, the liberation of women could only be achieved by civil war. She told her Hartford audience “I come to you tonight not to advocate suffrage, but as a soldier. I am a dangerous woman, with a sentence of penal servitude hanging over my head. I do not look very much like a soldier or a convict but I am both.”
This was no idle allusion. Under Pankhurst’s leadership, the suffrage movement adopted a distinctly radical strategy. English women burned down the country homes of the rich. They harassed businessmen on the street. They placed bricks in their handbags. They destroyed golf courses, poured acid in mailboxes, and cut the telegraph wires of stock brokers. In one memorable event, they enlisted supportive male dock workers to charge the Prime Minister’s office, wreaking havoc along London’s Downing Street.
“In our civil war people have suffered,” she declared, “but you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs; you cannot have civil war without damage to something. It does not matter to the practical suffragist whether she alienates sympathy that was never of any use to her.”
On stage with Katharine Houghton Hepburn and other prominent suffragists, Pankhurst described the harsh plight of women in stark economic and social terms. Working women earned the poverty wage of $2 a week on average. Wives had no right to their husband’s property and no legal say in the upbringing of their children. Divorce was a “scandalous stigma.” Girls were marriageable at 12 years old. Violent assaults on women by men rarely received significant penalties. The vote, she insisted, was the first step toward political and economic equality.
Emmeline Pankhurst and her cohorts spent long periods of time in jail for their suffrage activities. Once imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes until their physical health failed, forcing the authorities to release them– and re-arrest them when they recovered. When she returned to England after her 1913 American fundraising tour, Pankhurst fully expected to be imprisoned for an earlier conviction, and she was.
Feminist writer Germaine Greer has analyzed how Pankhurst considered property violence — and martyrdom– as necessary weapons in the struggle. Greer points out that just months before the Hartford speech, an English suffragist died after throwing herself in front of the horse owned by King George V during a race. Pankhurst did not refer to this extraordinary sacrifice, but the implication was clear. “The government of England,” Pankhurst told Hartford, “has to face this alternative: either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote.”
In 1918 some English women finally won the franchise, if they were over 30 and were property owners or wives of property owners. In 1928, all women could vote when they reached 21 years of age. Emmeline Pankhurst died a short while after the victory.
Connecticut women won the vote in 1920. Our state has its own early feminist heroines who linked political oppression to economic injustice. Local women like Dr. Emily Pierson, Edna Purtell, Mary Townsend Seymour and Josephine Bennett were labor organizers as well as suffragists. They, too, deserve recognition for their pioneering efforts, and maybe a movie of their own.
Steve Thornton is a writer of people’s history and a retired union organizer. The full text of Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1913 Hartford speech can be found at his website, ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com.