"Why We Are Militant," Emmeline
Beginning in the late nineteenth
century, women in Great Britain
began to call for female suffrage. Despite massive, peaceful protests
and petitions, the Women's Movement in England failed to gain the
support of the political establishment. As a result, suffrage advocate
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) organized the Women's Social and
Political Union in 1903. This new organization used hunger strikes,
violence, and attacks on private property to publicize the cause of
female suffrage. The document below is the text of a speech that
Pankhurst gave in New York in 1913 in defense of her organization's
Questions for Consideration
- According to Pankhurst, why did men get the vote? Why had women
been to that point unsuccessful in gaining the franchise?
- In Pankhurst's view, what event revitalized the suffrage
- How does Pankhurst justify the use of violence and law breaking
to achieve suffrage? Do you agree?
- What other groups have pursued Pankhurst's tactics?
Are Militant," Emmeline Pankhurst (1913)
I know that in your minds there are
questions like these; you are
saying, 'Woman Suffrage is sure to come; the emancipation of humanity
is an evolutionary process, and how is it that some women, instead of
trusting to that evolution, instead of educating the masses of people
of their country, instead of educating their own sex to prepare them
for citizenship, how is it that these militant women are using violence
and upsetting the business arrangements of the country in their undue
impatience to attain their end?'
Let me try to explain to you the
Although we have a so-called
democracy, and so called representative
government there, England is the most conservative country on earth.
Why, your forefathers found that out a great many years ago' If you had
passed your life in England as I have, you would know that there are
certain words which certainly, during the last two generations,
certainly till about ten years ago, aroused a feeling of horror and
fear in the minds of the mass of the people. The word revolution, for
instance, was identified in England with all kind of horrible ideas.
The idea of change, the idea of unsettling the established order of
things was repugnant.
The extensions of the franchise to
the men of my country have been
preceded by very great violence, by something like a revolution, by
something like civil war, In 1832, you know we were on the edge of a
civil war and on the edge of revolution, and it was at the point of the
sword -no, not at the point of the sword-it was after the practice of
arson on so large a scale that half the city of Bristol was burned down
in a single night, it was because more and greater violence and arson
were feared that the Reform Bill of 1832 was allowed to pass into law.
In 1867, John Bright urged the people of London to crowd the approaches
to the Houses of Parliament in order to show their determination, and
he said that if they did that no Parliament, however obdurate, could
resist their just demands. Rioting went on all over the country, and as
the result of that rioting, as the result of that unrest, which
resulted in the pulling down of the Hyde Park railings, as a result of
the fear of more rioting and violence the Reform Act of 1867 was put
upon the statute books.
In 1884 came the turn of the
agricultural labourer. Joseph Chamberlain,
who afterwards became a very conservative person, threatened that,
unless the vote was given to the agricultural labourer, he would march
100,000 men from Birmingham to know the reason why. Rioting was
threatened and feared, and so the agricultural labourers got the vote.
Meanwhile, during the '80's, women,
like men, were asking for the
franchise. Appeals, larger and more numerous than for any other reform,
were presented in support of Woman's Suffrage. Meetings of the great
corporations, great town councils, and city councils, passed
resolutions asking that women should have the vote. More meetings were
held, and larger, for Woman Suffrage than were held for votes for men,
and yet the women did not get it. Men got the vote because they were
and would be violent. The women did not get it because they were
constitutional and law-abiding. Why, is it not evident to everyone that
people who are patient where mis-government is concerned may go on
being patient! Why should anyone trouble to help them? I take to myself
some shame that through all those years, at any rate from the early
'80's, when I first came into the Suffrage movement, I did not learn my
I believed, as many women still in
England believe, that women could
get their way in some mysterious manner, by purely peaceful methods. We
have been so accustomed, we women, to accept one standard for men and
another standard for women, that we have even applied that variation of
standard to the injury of our political welfare.
Having had better opportunities of
education, and having had some
training in politics, having in political life come so near to the
'superior' being as to see that he was not altogether such a fount of
wisdom as they had supposed, that he had his human weaknesses as we
had, the twentieth century women began to say to themselves. 'Is it not
time, since our methods have failed and the men's have succeeded, that
we should take a leaf out of their political book?'
We were led to that conclusion, we
older women, by the advice of the
young-you know there is a French proverb which says, 'If youth knew; if
age could,' but I think that when you can bring together youth and age,
as we have done, and get them to adopt the same methods and take the
same point of view, then you are on the high road to success.
Well, we in Great Britain, on the eve
of the General Election of 1905,
a mere handful of uswhy, you could almost count us on the fingers of
both hands-set out on the wonderful adventure of forcing the strongest
Government of modern times to give the women the vote. Only a few in
number; we were not strong in influence, and we had hardly any money,
and yet we quite gaily made our little banners with the words 'Votes
for Women' upon them, and we set out to win the enfranchisement of the
women of our country.
The Suffrage movement was almost
dead. The women had lost heart. You
could not get a Suffrage meeting that was attended by members of the
general public. We used to have about 24 adherents in the front row. We
carried our resolutions and heard no more about them.
Two women changed that in a twinkling
of an eye at a great Liberal
demonstration in Manchester, where a Liberal leader, Sir Edward Grey,
was explaining the programme to be carried out during the Liberals'
next turn of office. The two women put the fateful question, 'When are
you going to give votes to women?' and refused to sit down until they
had been answered. These two women were sent to gaol, and from that day
to this the women's movement, both militant and constitutional, has
never looked back. We had little more than one moribund society for
Woman Suffrage in those days. Now we have nearly 50 societies for Woman
Suffrage, and they are large in membership, they are rich in money, and
their ranks are swelling every day that passes. That is how militancy
has put back the dock of Woman Suffrage in Great Britain.
Now, some of you have said how wicked
it is (the immigration
commissioners told me that on Saturday afternoon), how wicked it is to
attack the property of private individuals who have done us no harm.
Well, you know there is a proverb which says that you cannot make
omelettes without breaking eggs. I wish we could.
I want to say here and now that the
only justification for violence,
the only justification for damage to property, the only justification
for risk to the comfort of other human beings is the fact that you have
tried all other available means and have failed to secure justice, and
as a law-abiding person-and I am by nature a law-abiding person, as one
hating violence, hating disorder-I want to say that from the moment we
began our militant agitation to this day I have felt absolutely
guiltless in this matter.
I tell you that in Great Britain
there is no other way. We can show
intolerable grievances. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Lloyd
George, who is no friend of the woman's movement, although a professed
one, said a very true thing when speaking of the grievances of his own
country, of Wales. He said that there comes a time in the life of human
beings suffering from intolerable grievances when the only way to
maintain their self respect is to revolt against that injustice.
Well, I say the time is long past
when it became necessary for women to
revolt in order to maintain their self respect in Great Britain. The
women who are waging this war are women who would fight, if it were
only for the idea of liberty -if it were only that they might be free
citizens of a free country-I myself would fight for that idea alone.
But we have, in addition to this love of freedom, intolerable
grievances to redress.
All my life I have tried to
understand why it is that men who value
their citizenship as their dearest possession seem to think citizenship
ridiculous when it is to be applied to the women of their race. And I
find an explanation, and it is the only one I can think of. It came to
me when I was in a prison cell, remembering how I had seen men laugh at
the idea of women going to prison. Why they would confess they could
not bear a cell door to be shut upon themselves for a single hour
without asking to be let out. A thought came to me in my prison cell,
and it was this: that to men women are not human beings like
themselves. Some men think we are superhuman; they put us on pedestals;
they revere us; they think we are too fine and too delicate to come
down into the hurly-burly of life. Other men think us sub-human; they
think we are a strange species unfortunately having to exist for the
perpetuation of the race. They think that we are fit for drudgery, but
that in some strange way our minds are not like theirs, our love for
great things is not like theirs, and so we are sort of sub-human
We are neither superhuman nor are we
subhuman. We are just human beings
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 that you show you are not fit for it.'
Now, gentlemen, in your heart of
hearts you do not believe that. You
know perfectly well that there never was a thing worth having that was
not worth fighting for. You know perfectly well that if the situation
were reversed, if you had no constitutional rights and we had all of
them, if you had the duty of paying and obeying and trying to look as
pleasant, and we were the proud citizens who could decide our fate and
yours, because we knew what was good for you better than you knew
yourselves, you know perfectly well that you wouldn't stand it for a
single day, and you would be perfectly justified in rebelling against
such intolerable conditions.
Well, in Great Britain, we have tried
persuasion, we have tried the
plan of showing (by going upon public bodies, where they allowed us to
do work they hadn't much time to do themselves) that we are capable
people. We did it in the hope that we should convince them and persuade
them to do the right and proper thing. But we had all our labour for
our pains, and now we are fighting for our rights, and we are growing
stronger and better women in the process. We are getting more fit to
use our rights because we have such difficulty in getting them.
People have said that women could
never vote, never share in the
government, because government rests upon force. We have proved that is
not true. Government rests not upon force; government rests upon the
consent of the governed; and the weakest woman, the very poorest woman,
if she withholds her consent cannot be governed.
They sent me to prison, to penal
servitude for three years. I came out
of prison at the end of nine days. I broke my prison bars. Four times
they took me back again; four times I burst the prison door open again.
And I left England openly to come and visit America, with only three or
four weeks of the three years' sentence of penal servitude served. Have
we not proved, then, that they cannot govern human beings who withhold
And so we are glad we have had the
fighting experience, and we are glad
to do all the fighting for all the women all over the world. All that
we ask of you is to back us up. We ask you to show that although,
perhaps, you may not mean to fight as we do, yet you understand the
meaning of our fight; that you realise we are women fighting for a
great idea; that we wish the betterment of the human race, and that we
believe this betterment is coming through the emancipation and
uplifting of women.