My Own Story
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My Own Story

Emmeline Pankhurst

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eBook - ePub

My Own Story

Emmeline Pankhurst

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About This Book

The British suffragette who led the movement to victory tells her story of tireless activism in this political memoir.

One of the most influential leaders of the women's suffrage movement, Emmeline Pankhurst developed a confrontational style of protest that would get her and her followers arrested many times before ultimately winning all women over the age of twenty-one the right to vote. Born in Manchester in 1858, Pankhurst became a dedicated suffragette at the age of fourteen. By 1927, she would run for parliament.

Told in her own words, this is Pankhurst's story of organization and outrage, hardship and hunger strikes, and her dogged determination to dismantle the many roadblocks designed to stop her and all women from claiming their freedom. This fascinating memoir is the basis for the award-winning film Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst.

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Book III

The Women’s Revolution

Chapter I

Parliament had reassembled on October 25th, 1911, and the first move on the part of the Government was, to say the least of it, rather unpropitious. The Prime Minister submitted two motions, the first one empowering them to take all the time of the House during the remainder of the session, and the second guillotining discussion on the Insurance Bill so as to force the measure through before Christmas. One day only was allotted to the clauses relating to women in that bill. These clauses were notoriously unfair; they provided for sickness insurance of about four million women and unemployment insurance of no women at all. Under the provision of the bill eleven million men were ensured against sickness and about two and a half million against unemployment. Women were given lower benefits for the same premium as men, and premiums paid out of the family income were credited solely to the men’s account. The bill as drafted provided no form of insurance for wives, mothers and daughters who spent their lives at home working for the family. It penalised women for staying in the home, which most men agree is women’s only legitimate sphere of action. The amended bill grudgingly allowed aside from maternity benefits, a small insurance, on rather difficult terms, for workingmen’s wives.
Thus the re-elected Government’s first utterance to women was one of contempt; and this was followed, on November 7th, by the almost incredible announcement that the Government intended, at the next session, to introduce a manhood suffrage bill. This announcement was not made in the House of Commons, but to a deputation of men from the People’s Suffrage Federation, a small group of people who advocated universal adult suffrage. The deputation, which was very privately arranged for, was received by Mr. Asquith, and the then Master of Elibank (Chief Liberal Whip). The spokesman asked Mr. Asquith to bring in a Government measure for universal adult suffrage, including adult women. The Prime Minister replied that the Government had pledged facilities for the Conciliation Bill, which was as far as they were prepared to go in the matter of women’s suffrage. But, he added, the Government intended in the next session to introduce and to pass through all its stages a genuine reform bill which would sweep away existing qualifications for the franchise, and substitute a single qualification of residence. The bill would apply to adult males only, but it would be so framed as to be open to a woman suffrage amendment in case the House of Commons desired to make that extension and amendment.
This portentous announcement came like a bolt from the blue, and there was strong condemnation of the Government’s treachery to women. Said the Saturday Review:
With absolutely no demand, no ghost of a demand, for more votes for men, and with—beyond all cavil—a very strong demand for votes for women, the Government announce their Manhood Suffrage Bill and carefully evade the other question! For a naked, avowed plan of gerrymandering no Government surely ever did beat this one.
The Daily Mail said that the “policy which Mr. Asquith proposes is absolutely indefensible.” And the Evening Standard and Globe said: “We are no friends of female suffrage, but anything more contemptible than the attitude assumed by the Government it is difficult to imagine.”
If the Government hoped to deceive any one by their dishonest reference to the possibility of a woman suffrage amendment, they were disappointed. Said the Evening News:
Mr. Asquith’s bombshell will blow the Conciliation Bill to smithereens, for it is impossible to have a manhood suffrage for men and a property qualification for women. True, the Premier consents to leave the question of women’s suffrage to the House, but he knows well enough what the decision of the House will be. The Conciliation Bill had a chance, but the larger measure has none at all.
I have quoted these newspaper leaders to show you that our opinion of the Government’s action was shared even by the press. Universal suffrage in a country where women are in a majority of one million is not likely to happen in the lifetime of any reader of this volume, and the Government’s generous offer of a possible amendment was nothing more than a gratuitous insult to the suffragists.
The truce, naturally, came to an abrupt end. The W. S. P. U. wrote to the Prime Minister, saying that consternation had been aroused by the Government’s announcement, and that it had been decided accordingly to send a deputation representing the Women’s Social and Political Union to wait upon himself and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the evening of November 21st. The purpose of the deputation was to demand that the proposed manhood suffrage bill be abandoned, and that in its place should be introduced a Government measure giving equal franchise rights to men and women. A similar letter was despatched to Mr. Lloyd-George.
Six times before on occasions of crisis had the W. S. P. U. requested an interview with Mr. Asquith, and each time they had been refused. This time the Prime Minister replied that he had decided to receive a deputation of the various suffrage societies on November 17th, “including your own society, if you desire it.” It was proposed that each society appoint four representatives as members of the deputation which would be received by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Nine suffrage societies sent representatives to the meeting, our own representatives being Christabel Pankhurst, Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, Miss Annie Kenney, Lady Constance Lytton and Miss Elizabeth Robins. Christabel and Mrs. Lawrence spoke for the Union, and they did not hesitate to accuse the two Ministers to their faces of having grossly tricked and falsely misled women. Mr. Asquith, in his reply to the deputation, resented these imputations.
He had kept his pledge, he insisted, in regard to the Conciliation Bill. He was perfectly willing to give facilities to the Bill, if the women preferred that to an amendment to his reform bill. Moreover, he denied that he had made any new announcement. As far back as 1908 he had distinctly declared that the Government regarded it as a sacred duty to bring forward a manhood suffrage bill before that Parliament came to an end. It was true that the Government did not carry out that binding obligation, and it was also true that until the present time nothing more was ever said about a manhood suffrage bill, but that was not the Government’s fault. The crisis of the Lord’s veto, had momentarily displaced the bill. Now he merely proposed to fulfil his promise made in 1908, and also his promise about giving facilities to the Conciliation Bill. He was ready to keep both promises. Well he knew that those promises were incompatible, that the fulfilment of both was therefore impossible, and Christabel told him so bluntly and fearlessly. “We are not satisfied,” she warned him, and the Prime Minister said acidly: “I did not expect to satisfy you.”
The reply of the W. S. P. U. was immediate and forceful. Led by Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, our women went out with stones and hammers and broke hundreds of windows in the Home Office, the War and Foreign Offices, the Board of Education, the Privy Council Office, the Board of Trade, the Treasury, Somerset House, the National Liberal Club, several post offices, the Old Banqueting Hall, the London and South Western Bank, and a dozen other buildings, including the residence of Lord Haldane and Mr. John Burns. Two hundred and twenty women were arrested and about 150 of them sent to prison for terms varying from a week to two months.
One individual protest deserves mention because of its prophetic character. In December Miss Emily Wilding Davison was arrested for attempting to set fire to a letter box at Parliament Street Post Office. In court Miss Davison said that she did it as a protest against the Government’s treachery, and as a demand that women’s suffrage be included in the King’s speech. “The protest was meant to be serious,” she said, “and so I adopted a serious course. In past agitation for reform the next step after window-breaking was incendiarism, in order to draw the attention of the private citizens to the fact that this question of reform was their concern as well as that of women.”
Miss Davison received the severe sentence of six months’ imprisonment for her deed.
To this state of affairs I returned from my American tour. I had the comfort of reflecting that my imprisoned comrades were being accorded better treatment than the early prisoners had known. Since early in 1910 some concessions had been granted, and some acknowledgment of the political character of our offences had been made. During the brief period when these scant concessions to justice were allowed, the hunger strike was abandoned and prison was robbed of its worst horror, forcible feeding. The situation was bad enough, however, and I could see that it might easily become a great deal worse. We had reached a stage at which the mere sympathy of members of Parliament, however sincerely felt, was no longer of the slightest use. Reminding our members this, in the first speeches made after returning to England I asked them to prepare themselves for more action. If women’s suffrage was not included in the next King’s speech we should have to make it absolutely impossible for the Government to touch the question of the franchise.
The King’s speech, when Parliament met in February, 1912, alluded to the franchise question in very general terms. Proposals, it was stated, would be brought forward for the amendment of the law with respect to the franchise and the registration of electors. This might be construed to mean that the Government were going to introduce a manhood suffrage bill or a bill for the abolition of plural voting, which had been suggested in some quarters as a substitute for the manhood suffrage bill. No precise statement of the Government’s intentions was made, and the whole franchise question was left in a cloud of uncertainty. Mr. Agg Gardner, a Unionist member of the Conciliation Committee, drew the third place in the ballot, and he announced that he should reintroduce the Conciliation Bill. This interested us very slightly, for knowing its prospect of success to have been destroyed, for we were done with the Conciliation Bill forever. Nothing less than a Government measure would henceforth satisfy the W. S. P. U., because it had been clearly demonstrated that only a Government measure would be allowed to pass the House of Commons. With sublime faith, or rather with a deplorable lack of political insight, the Women’s Liberal Federation and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies professed full confidence in the proposed amendment to a manhood suffrage bill, but we knew how futile was that hope. We saw that the only course to take was to offer determined opposition to any measure of suffrage that did not include as an integral part, equal suffrage for men and women.
On February 16th we held a large meeting of welcome to a number of released prisoners who had served two and three months for the window breaking demonstration that had taken place in the previous November. At this meeting we candidly surveyed the situation and agreed on a course of action which we believed would be sufficiently strong to prevent the Government from advancing their threatened franchise bill. I said on this occasion:
“We don’t want to use any weapons that are unnecessarily strong. If the argument of the stone, that time-honoured official political argument, is sufficient, then we will never use any stronger argument. And that is the weapon and the argument that we are going to use next time. And so I say to every volunteer on our demonstration, ‘Be prepared to use that argument.’ I am taking charge of the demonstration, and that is the argument I am going to use. I am not going to use it for any sentimental reason, I am going to use it because it is the easiest and the most readily understood. Why should women go to Parliament Square and be battered about and insulted, and most important of all, produce less effect than when we throw stones? We tried it long enough. We submitted for years patiently to insult and assault. Women had their health injured. Women lost their lives. We should not have minded if that had succeeded, but that did not succeed, and we have made more progress with less hurt to ourselves by breaking glass than ever we made when we allowed them to break our bodies.
“After all, is not a woman’s life, is not her health, are not her limbs more valuable than panes of glass? There is no doubt of that, but most important of all, does not the breaking of glass produce more effect upon the Government? If you are fighting a battle, that should dictate your choice of weapons. Well, then, we are going to try this time if mere stones will do it. I do not think it will ever be necessary for us to arm ourselves as Chinese women have done, but there are women who are prepared to do that if it should be necessary. In this Union we don’t lose our heads. We only go as far as we are obliged to go in order to win, and we are going forward with this next protest demonstration in full faith that this plan of campaign, initiated by our friends whom we honour to-night, will on this next occasion prove effective.”
Ever since militancy took on the form of destruction of property the public generally, both at home and abroad, has expressed curiosity as to the logical connection between acts such as breaking windows, firing pillar boxes, et cetera, and the vote. Only a complete lack of historical knowledge excuses that curiosity. For every advance of men’s political freedom has been marked with violence and the destruction of property. Usually the advance has been marked by war, which is called glorious. Sometimes it has been marked by riotings, which are deemed less glorious but are at least effective. That speech of mine, just quoted, will probably strike the reader as one inciting to violence and illegal action, things as a rule and in ordinary circumstances quite inexcusable. Well, I will call the reader’s attention to what was, in this connection, a rather singular coincidence. At the very hour when I was making that speech, advising my audience of the political necessity of physical revolt, a responsible member of the Government, in another hall, in another city, was telling his audience precisely the same thing. This Cabinet Minister, the right Honourable C. E. H. Hobhouse, addressing a large anti-suffrage meeting in his constituency of Bristol, said that the suffrage movement was not a political issue because its adherents had failed to prove that behind this movement existed a large public demand. He declared that “In the case of the suffrage demand there has not been the kind of popular sentimental uprising which accounted for Nottingham Castle in 1832 or the Hyde Park railings in 1867. There has not been a great ebullition of popular feeling.”
The “popular sentimental uprising” to which Mr. Hobhouse alluded was the burning to the ground of the castle of the anti-suffrage Duke of Newcastle, and of Colwick Castle, the country seat of another of the leaders of the opposition against the franchise bill. The militant men of that time did not select uninhabited buildings to be fired. They burned both these historic residences over their owners’ heads. Indeed, the wife of the owner of Colwick Castle died as a result of shock and exposure on that occasion. No arrests were made, no men imprisoned. On the contrary the King sent for the Premier, and begged the Whig Ministers favourable to the franchise bill not to resign, and intimated that this was also the wish of the Lords who had thrown out the bill. Molesworth’s History of England says:
These declarations were imperatively called for. The danger was imminent and the Ministers knew it and did all that lay in their power to tranquillise the people, and to assure them that the bill was only delayed and not finally defeated.
For a time the people believed this, but soon they lost patience, and seeing signs of a renewed activity on the part of the anti-suffragists, they became aggressive again. Bristol, the very city in which Mr. Hobhouse made his speech, was set on fire. The militant reformers burned the new gaol, the toll houses, the Bishop’s Palace, both sides of Queen’s Square, including the Mansion House, the custom house, the excise office, many warehouses, and other private property, the whole valued at over £100,000—five hundred thousand dollars. It was as a result of such violence, and in fear of more violence, that the reform bill was hurried through Parliament and became law in June, 1832.
Our demonstration, so mild by comparison with English men’s political agitation, was announced for March 4th, and the announcement created much public alarm. Sir William Byles gave notice that he would “ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention had been drawn to a speech by Mrs. Pankhurst last Friday night, openly and emphatically inciting her hearers to violent outrage and the destruction of property, and threatening the use of firearms if stones did not prove sufficiently effective; and what steps he proposes to take to protect Society from this outbreak of lawlessness.”
The question was duly asked, and the Home Secretary replied that his attention had been called to the speech, but that it would not be desirable in the public interest to say more than this at present.
Whatever preparations the police department were making to prevent the demonstration, they failed because, while as usual, we were able to calculate exactly what the police department were going to do, they were utterly unable to calculate what we were going to do. We had planned a demonstration for March 4th, and this one we announced. We planned another demonstration for March 1st, but this one we did not announce. Late in the afternoon of Friday, March 1st, I drove in a taxicab, accompanied by the Hon. Secretary of the Union, Mrs. Tuke and another of our members, to No. 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister. It was exactly half past five when we alighted from the cab and threw our stones, four of them, through the window panes. As we expected we were promptly arrested and taken to Cannon Row police station. The hour that followed will long be remembered in London. At intervals of fifteen minutes relays of women who had volunteered for the demonstration did their work. The first smashing of glass occurred in the Haymarket and Piccadilly, and greatly startled and alarmed both pedestrians and police. A large number of the women were arrested, and everybody thought that this ended the affair. But before the excited populace and the frustrated shop owners’ first exclamation had died down, before the police had reached the station with their prisoners, the ominous crashing and splintering of plate glass began again, this time along both sides of Regent Street and the Strand. A furious rush of police and people towards the second scene of action ensued. While their attention was being taken up with occurrences in this quarter, the third relay of women began breaking the windows in Oxford Circus and Bond Street. The demonstration ended for the day at half past six with the breaking of m...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Illustrations
  4. Acknowledgements
  5. Foreword
  6. Book I: The Making of a Militant
  7. Book II: Four Years of Peaceful Militancy
  8. Book III: The Women’s Revolution
  9. Copyright