Sunday, 3 March 2013

Getting angry about Emmeline

Emmeline Pankhurst, by Photoprint
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
I recently spent many lunch hours in a well known coffee establishment reading reading Emmeline Pankhurst's book, My Own Story, and getting very cross. On the outside I may have been calmly sipping a latte on a sofa, but on the inside I was stamping, fuming and shouting.

You probably already know about the endless rallies, arrests, imprisonments, police brutality, hunger strikes and forced feeding that the suffragettes went through on the long journey to get women the right to vote. There are few surprises in the book, but plenty that is shocking.

Criminals not campaigners

Mrs P draws parallels between the way the suffragettes were treated and the way different groups of men engaged in political protest were treated around the same period. At least, she tries to draw parallels. What is shocking, is that the women campaigning for suffrage are consistently punished more harshly for acts of political protest than men.

The presiding authorities refuse to see the women as political campaigners acting in the only way they can to get themselves heard. Instead they see them as wild and out of control harpies, wilfully committing acts of violence against society. I found this shocking. I stamped about a little. 

Deaf politicians

I was also shocked by the flat refusal of the political heavies of the time to even listen to Mrs P and her compatriots. 

The suffragettes wanted to get the vote through persuasion - by getting people and politicians on their side through lobbying and debate. But over time it became clear they would not be listened to, and when they tried to arrange an appointment with the senior political figures of the day, they were evaded at every turn. Hence they resorted to more violent tactics.

It shocked me that these political figures include men who we've come to regard as heroes - both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill evaded the suffragettes' pleas and refused to countenance the idea of votes for women. This made me fume a lot. 

Intelligent, eloquent and organised, but not as good as men

I can't understand how they (the ruling politicians) could continue to dismiss these women as inferior when they showed at every turn the ability to structure an eloquent and logical argument, whilst also organising a campaign with absolute military precision - when their office was shut down they still managed to write, print and distribute their newsletter. 

At every other page I wanted to shout 'but if they can do that, why aren't they good enough to vote?' It wasn't the most relaxing read. 

Of course I knew before I read the book what the prevailing attitude of the early 20th century was towards women, but actually confronting it through Mrs P's experiences was still a shock. Having grown up never questioning that I was equal to my brothers, the boys in my class at school, my husband and my male colleagues, I find the idea that I might be inferior to all of them incomprehensible. When I have finished being incomprehensed I get angry. And that's when I want to shout.*

Mrs P being arrested in 1914.

The Pankhurst legacy

Women were finally granted the right to vote in the UK in 1918, just as long as they were over 30 and owned property. It was another ten years before all women over 21 were allowed to express themselves at the ballot box. 

Mrs P went through several hunger strikes, at one point serving a long prison sentence a few days at a time as she was imprisoned, starved herself, was let out to recover, and as soon as she could stagger to her feet again was taken into prison to continue her sentence. 

The fortitude of this woman and many of her fellow suffragettes who suffered just as much, denying themselves food, water and medical attention, is shocking.

It shocks me that they were physically able to do this (I don't think I could), and it shocks me that they had to do this - that only by undertaking such extreme actions could women finally be given the same rights as men.  

The impact of this on Mrs P's health led to her early death, aged 69.

My Own Story, by Emmeline Pankhurst, is free on the Kindle if you’re interested. But you don't really need to read Mrs P's book to honour her memory - just spare a thought for the women who fought and died so that we could be recognised as equal to men, and cast your vote in the next election. 

* As I didn't want to put other people off their lattes, I did actually refrain from shouting.

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