‘Kill me, or give me my freedom…’

‘Kill me, or give me my freedom…’
Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst
14 July 2016

On 14 July 1913, a very frail and fragile Emmeline Pankhurst appeared at the London Pavilion to deliver a speech to her fellow militants in pursuit of women’s suffrage cause. It was on the eve of her 55th birthday and her extreme weakness—the result of multiple imprisonments and hunger strikes—did not prevent her from delivering a dramatic and forceful speech:

I know that women, once convinced they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave. I would rather die than submit… I mean to be a voter in the land that gave me birth or that they shall kill me, and my challenge to the Government is: ‘Kill me or give me my freedom: I shall force you to make that choice.’

Coronation demonstration headed by Mrs Pankhurst and Mrs Pethick Lawrence 1911, Papers of Bessie Rischbieth, nla.cat-vn2655892

The 158th anniversary of Emmeline Pankhurst’s birth prompts some reflection on her political strategies. The fight for women’s suffrage had started in the 1860s in Britain. Since then, the Government had done no more than make empty promises, postponing any decision in the House of Commons. Suffragists and suffragettes had been put in a double bind. Emmeline Pankhurst explained how:

When we were patient, when we believed in argument and persuasion, they said: ‘You don’t really want it because, if you did, you would do something unmistakable to show you were determined to have it.’ And then when we did something unmistakable they said, ‘You are behaving so badly you show you are not fit for it.’

In so doing, the Government legitimised violent activism.

Whether direct and violent action advanced the cause of women’s suffrage or hampered it is still the subject of historical debate. But it is worth remembering that before resorting to lawless actions, women themselves were made ‘outlaws’ by a state that excluded them from citizenship. There is no denying that suffragettes did great damage to public and private property, smashing windows, burning churches and stations, pouring acid into letter boxes, and much else. But it is necessary to emphasise that they never hurt anybody. British suffragettes restricted their violence to the destruction of property, but were themselves the recipients of violence. They were the ones who were beaten up, thrown to the ground, trampled, or sexually molested by police and other men who held them in contempt. Numerous hunger strikers were force fed by doctors in prison, where steel implements were used to keep their jaws open; where tubes were inserted through their noses to pour in food. This was nothing short of torture. Emmeline Pankhurst was never force fed, but she explained in her autobiography that she would never forget the cries of women who underwent this horror in the prison cells next to hers.

Welsh Crowd and Suffragettes, part of A Pictorial History of the Suffragette Movement in Great Britain, 1906-1913, Papers of Bessie Rischbieth, nla.cat-vn2655892

It is always timely to reflect on state violence, whether it be physical, verbal or symbolic—a subject on which Emmeline Pankhurst pondered in 1914:

The militancy of men, through all the centuries, has drenched the world with blood, and for these deeds of horror and destruction men have been rewarded with monuments, with great songs and epics. The militancy of women has harmed no human life save the lives of those who fought the battle of righteousness. Time alone will reveal what reward will be allotted to the women.

Mrs Pankhurst, between 1903-1913, Papers of Bessie Rischbieth, nla.cat-vn2655892

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