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When I hear people, especially women, say they don't intend to cast their vote in an election, I get really cross because just around 100 years ago a group of women suffered terrible and frequently painful indignities so that we could have that vote. The name most closely associated with the fight for women's suffrage in Britain is Emmeline Pankhurst who founded a movement which ultimately is responsible for the political freedoms that women enjoy today. Throughout her life she fought on behalf of the women of this country and all women owe her and her fellow suffragettes a huge debt of gratitude.
Emmeline published 'My Own Story' in 1914 just as the country was going to war and it has frequently been reprinted ever since. A 2010 edition in paperback is available from Amazon for £19.93 but it's now also possible to download in Kindle format and one Kindle version is available for free!
Emmeline introduces her autobiography by reflecting on how mild the struggles for women's suffrage will seem when compared against the horrible war that has just begun and wonders whether women will be rewarded for taking the place of those men who are fighting at the front. She also comments that the militancy of men throughout history has "drenched the world with blood" whereas women's militancy has harmed no human life except those who fought "the battle of righteousness". This may come across as somewhat purple prose and a bit melodramatic to twenty-first century women but there's no doubt that the actions of Emmeline, along with her daughters and fellow suffragettes changed our world.
From the beginning of this autobiography, it's clear than Emmeline had been brought up in a liberal household and her parents were campaigners for the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Required bedtime reading for Emmeline was 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' so the sense of right and wrong was inculcated from a very early age. Despite the liberality of her parents, Emmeline was very conscious of the fact that her brothers were educated differently to herself and her sisters and all around was evidence that men were considered superior to women and she determined at a very young age to fight against that injustice.
After school, Emmeline was 'finished' like all well-to-do young ladies and spent some time in Paris before returning to Manchester. Her liberal sympathies involved her in the woman's suffrage movement and through this she met her husband, Dr Richard Pankhurst who was some 24 years her senior. They were married when Emmeline was 21 and amazingly, throughout the book her husband is always referred to as Dr Pankhurst. However, it appears to have been a match founded on similar political beliefs and, I assume, also on love and Emmeline claims the marriage was happy. She adds "I have heard the taunt that suffragists are women who have failed to find any normal outlet for their emotions, and are therefore soured and disappointed beings. This is probably not true of any suffragist, and it is most certainly not true of me. My home life and relations have been as nearly ideal as possible in this imperfect world."
This account by Emmeline Pankhurst isn't an autobiography in the fully accepted sense as there are few descriptions of her childhood or her marriage and family, except to relate certain events during that time which led her to take up the fight for women's suffrage and some of these events are quite shocking.
Emmeline claims she was involved in the women's suffrage movement in all its various manifestations from the age of fourteen, though her life followed a fairly traditional pattern to begin with. Shortly after her marriage she moved to London when Dr Pankhurst was elected as a Liberal MP and there Emmeline became involved in the famous Bryant & May strike and some years later, when the Pankhursts returned to Manchester, her association with the women's suffrage movement intensified.
Her fight for the right for women to be recognised as equally relevant as men wasn't just a whim, it was founded on her experiences of the injustices against women which she witnessed in her daily life. She'd been advised by members of the Liberal party that for women's suffrage to be taken seriously she, and others like her, would need to take public office and Emmeline was duly elected onto the Board of Poor Law Guardians. With her customary zeal, she seems to have moved onto the Board and shaken things up a bit. She lambasts her other board members for being mean with the money meant for these poor people and she described her horror when she first visited a workhouse and saw not only pregnant women but little girls in thin frocks on their hands and knees scrubbing the stone paved floors and refers to the fact that many upper-middle class children were being educated at schools which were set up specifically for the education of poor children and yet those very children were living in abject poverty and receiving no education at all.
Although she goes into great detail about the plight of the workhouse population and of the females in particular, in no way could it be described as tub thumping. Throughout her book, she's states the facts as she saw them in a very no-nonsense style. Although she lived a life of privilege and never wanted for anything she was very conscious of the huge divide between the classes as well as the common bond between women of all classes.
Emmeline recounts another instance which set her on the path to militancy. When Dr Pankhurst died in 1898 which she calls "an irreparable loss" she was left with five young children to support, the oldest only seventeen and she resigned from the Board of Guardians and immediately took up a salaried post as Registrar of Births and Deaths in Manchester. This post again reinforced her feelings about the lot of women, especially working women and she mentions frequently having little girls of thirteen come to register the birth of their child and that often it was a male member of the family that was responsible. The shame was all upon the daughter and her child with the men getting away scot free despite these young girls being well below the age of consent.
What finally clinched Emmeline's decision to make her fight for women's rights her life's work was when she was made a member of the School Board. School Boards at that time had a good deal of influence and were responsible for many aspects of education including building schools, appointing teachers etc. When a law was passed which disbanded the School Boards replacing them with a system which took responsibility out of the hands of women and gave it all to men, Emmeline decided enough was enough.
Her two daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, had always shared their mother's wish for women's suffrage but when Christabel made a chance remark about how long her mother's generation had been fighting for equality and that she meant to actually get it, Emmeline decided that the way forward was to encourage younger women into the movement to reinvigorate it and following a visit from the American suffragette, Susan B Anthony, Emmeline became more militant and she founded the Women's Social and Political Union and the battle for women's suffrage really began.
As Emmeline pointed out, the Establishment were denying women rights granted to them centuries before, such as the right of petition which is written into the Bill of Rights drawn up when William and Mary acceded to the throne. When all their peaceful protests failed, the fight for women's suffrage became more militant and was brought to London and to Parliament. The women began to march in the streets and heckle various politicians (Winston Churchill was a favourite target, as was Lloyd George, a fierce opponent of women's suffrage) and these actions resulted in many politicians losing their seats and in the women being imprisoned, usually on trumped up charges. On her first court appearance for incitement to riot, Emmeline stated "We are here not because we are law breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law makers."
Emmeline's descriptions of her various periods in prison are written without embellishment and the stark way in which these incarcerations are described makes it all the more shocking. Modern day prisons aren't my idea of heaven but to be locked up in one of those dank and forbidding Victorian fortresses must have been absolutely awful. The women were not separated from common criminals and their requests to be treated as political prisoners were denied and frequently resulted in periods of solitary confinement.
Once the hunger strikes began things really took a turn for the worse and, again, the descriptions of force feeding are truly shocking. These weren't conducted gently or with the best interests of the women in mind and many of the women's health suffered irreparable damage, especially where food was injected mistakenly into the lungs instead of the stomach!
One of the most prominent events to take place during the struggle for women's suffrage was the death of Emily Davidson who threw herself in front of the King's horse at Epsom. Mrs Pankhurst pays tribute to Emily Davidson by recounting her involvement in the movement and, reading somewhat between the lines, it seems that possibly Emily Davidson was rather more of a zealot than Mrs P and was determined to die for the cause because she maintained that a death would serve the cause better than anything. It seems she made a failed attempt to kill herself whilst in jail and I do wonder whether she was quite sane. Whatever the state of her mind, her eventual death certainly highlighted the cause and garnered more support.
This book had me totally gripped. This is not only a glimpse back into the past which shows just how terrible the lives of the less well off were but also demonstrates how far this country has come in the last 120 years or so. The starkness of Emmeline's story forcibly brings this home and the retelling in her own words in such a clear and largely emotionless way fills me with admiration for the extraordinary lengths to which she and her fellow suffragettes went in order to ensure that women today can live as we do. It also clearly demonstrates that politicians were every bit as slippery and dishonest and full of empty promises then as they are today!
The paperback edition has several photographs but I can't comment on these because I have the text only Kindle version. Google Images has plenty of pictures of Mrs Pankhurst, however, showing a rather proper looking lady. Who'd have guessed that beneath that refined exterior there lay the fighting spirit of an Edwardian Boudicca.
At the time this book was published in 1914, women still didn't have the vote and Emmeline Pankhurst's fight was halted in order to support the war effort but her story wasn't finished and, having the benefit of hindsight, we now know that women wouldn't get the full vote until 1928, the very year Emmeline died.
As we all face the prospect of voting for or against AV which could result in a change in the voting system and we're told that the expected turnout is very low, I wonder just how Emmeline Pankhurst would have viewed this. She'd have been horrified, I'm sure, to know that so many women won't even bother to use their vote, a right which was won by our grandmothers and great-grandmothers in a struggle which puts the Women's Liberation movement of the 1970s completely in the shade. So don't let Mrs P down, ladies, use your vote. It was a very hard won privilege!