Last year a movie based on the book Suffragette came out, and I would love to see it but wanted (as any good reader would) to read the book first. So I did what I always do: bought a copy of the book and then left it sitting on my shelf for several months before deciding it was time to actually read it. Well, months is pretty good (I have books I bought which I haven’t read for years!). But read it I did, and I’m very glad that I did.
Suffragette is a memoir written by Emmeline Pankhurst explaining her journey towards militant political action in her quest for votes for women, and the way the suffragettes were treated by those in political power. It is an extremely powerful book. Pankhurst’s intelligence and political acumen strike you immediately, and the feeling only grows as she described the terrible struggle these women undertook in order to be heard. She begins with the origins of her own conviction that women needed to be represented in the political system, which came about following her own experience as a Poor Law Guardian which saw her trying to improve conditions in the workhouses particularly for women and children. As a child brought up in a politically aware and social conscious environment, she found the approach to the workhouses to be incomprehensible and wasteful. Her experiences here seeded her conviction that women needed the opportunity and the power to make social change, and that the only route to doing so was through political enfranchisement. As well as the poor conditions, Parkhurst was appalled by the dual standards applied to women, the unfairness of the women’s position. She found old women, sixty or seventy years old, consigned to the workhouse not for being dissolute or criminal but merely for being widows. She saw girls punished for bearing illegitimate children when the fathers – often respectable men – bore no punishment or scandal at all. She found poor houses run by impractical men. But it was the removal of women, by Parliament, from the schooling system which propelled Pankhurst into her lifelong quest for female suffrage.
The movement started peaceably enough, with suffragettes seeking peaceful means to acquire the vote: canvassing ‘sympathetic’ MPs and supporting the Liberal party who appeared to support the fight for female suffrage. However, Pankhurst eventually realised that however sympathetic the MPs were, they were not prepared to advance the issue of suffrage and, even if they did, without the support of the Government the likelihood of a Bill being passed was extremely slim. They tried campaigning directly, taking their deputations to the Government, but all attempts to see the Prime Minister were refused, and the women were constantly frustrated in their attempts to have the women’s vote question considered. Routes which would be open to men progressing a cause were closed to women. Eventually Pankhurst realised that the only route left open to them was militancy, and yet even this was punished with greater severity than men campaigning in the same way received. As she describes here:
“Through all the stages of our agitation we had been punished with the greatest severity, sent to prison like common criminals, and of late years tortured as no criminals have been tortured for a century in civilised countries of the world. And during all these years we had seen disastrous strikes that had caused suffering and death, to say nothing at all of the enormous economic waste, and we had never seen a single strike leader punished as we had been. We, who had suffered sentences of nine months’ imprisonment for inciting women to mild rebellion, had seen a labour leader who had done his best to incite an army to mutiny released from prison in two months by the Government. And now we had come to a point where we saw civil war threatened, where we read in the papers every day reports of speeches a thousand times more incendiary than anything we had ever said. We heard prominent members of Parliament openly declaring that if the Home Rule Bill was passed Ulster would fight, and Ulster would be right. None of these men were arrested. Instead they were applauded. Lord Selbourne, one of our sternest critics, referring to the fact that Ulstermen were drilling under arms, said publicly: ‘The method which the people of Ulster are adopting to show the depth of their convictions and the intensity of their feelings will impress the imagination of the whole country.’ But Lord Selbourne was not arrested. Neither were the mutinous officers who resigned their commissions when ordered to report for duty against the men of Ulster who were actually preparing for civil war.
What does this all mean? Why is it that men’s blood-shedding militancy is applauded and women’s symbolic militancy punished with a prison cell and the forcible feeding horror? It means simply this, that the men’s double standard of sex morals, whereby the victims of their lust are counted as outcasts while the men themselves escape all social censure, really applies to morals in all departments of life. Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs.
They have decided that for me to remain silently quiescent while tyrannical rulers impose bonds of slavery upon them is cowardly and dishonourable, but that for women to do that same thing is not cowardly or dishonourable, but merely respectable. Well the Suffragettes absolutely repudiate that double standard of morals. If it is right for me to fight for their freedom, and God knows what the human race would be like today if men had not, since time began, fought for their freedom, then it is right for women to fight for their freedom and the freedom of the children they bear. On this declaration of faith the militant women of England rest their case.”
Not being fully acquainted with the details of the suffragette’s struggle, the true opposition they were up against, this book was quite eye opening to me. It reads, in parts, like a manifesto (this is not a criticism, just an observation. It seems right that Pankhurst sets out what she was trying to achieve), and yet examines in some detail the hypocrisy of a government which on the one hand was prepared to use women’s labour, but on the other was not willing to accord them the right to a say in their governance or, in fact, willing to admit they weren’t willing to do that. The extent to which the tactics used by the suffragettes had been used before by others, men, and which were punished much less severely was quite a surprise to me. Not surprisingly, I found some of the events quite angering: the duplicity of the government, the mistreatment of women who were expected to ‘submit’ to rules they had no part in designing and no say in, the uselessness of a sympathetic ear not aligned with political power and will for change. Sadly I see that some of those frustrating tactics remain in place even now, a reminder, perhaps, of the importance of Parliament being a representative space in which all can be properly represented and heard (which it still isn’t).
I was glad I read Suffragette. I think it was overdue. It was saddening to know that Pankhurst died before seeing her goal achieved, but her daughters ably carried the banner for her. It has given me a greater appreciation of how difficult it must have been for those women to maintain their resolve to achieve their goal, and how hard people will work to maintain their own political power-base when under challenge. It is an easy book to read and yet not easy. It was frustrating at times, angering, I rankled at the injustice and wondered if there would ever be anything I so cared about that I would be willing to commit, as these women did. I hope I never have to find out, but if I did I’d be happy to read this wonderful book again and be reminded how it is done.