Freedom or Death Speech | Study Guide

Emmeline Pankhurst

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Freedom or Death Speech | Summary & Analysis



A Passionate Activist for Women's Suffrage

On November 13, 1913, British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) addressed an audience of Americans at a meeting of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association in Hartford, Connecticut. At that time, both American and British women were working to gain the right to vote. Some U.S. states allowed women to vote, but most did not. American women could not vote in any federal elections.

In her argument for women's suffrage, Pankhurst incorporates a range of persuasive techniques, the language of revolution, and historical allusions. She explains why many British women had become self-proclaimed militant activists in a "civil war" for suffrage. She urges her American audience to avoid a similar conflict in their own country.

Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. The WSPU motto was "Deeds Not Words." Pankhurst was a zealous political activist whose public demonstrations of protest brought attention to the cause of women's suffrage. Her tactics led to multiple imprisonments. In prison she continued her protest through hunger strikes. A 1913 British law required that hunger strikers be released when they became deathly ill and then taken back into custody after they regained their strength. At the time of the Hartford speech, Pankhurst had been released via this so-called "Cat and Mouse Act." She fully expected to be imprisoned again as soon as she returned to Britain.

"I Am Here as a Soldier"

Pankhurst introduces herself to her audience by defining herself not as an advocate for women's suffrage but as a soldier on leave from battle. This assertion is intended to provoke her audience rather than appeal for sympathy. It frames women's suffrage not as an abstract aim but as a cause worthy of violent uprising. Pankhurst has chosen her language carefully. She knows the words revolution and civil war will resonate with Americans, whose nation was founded after a war for independence from Great Britain (1775–83). Moreover, at the time of her speech, the country was only 50 years removed from the divisiveness of the American Civil War (1861–65).

Pankhurst explains that in depriving her of the right to vote, the British government had concluded that her life is of no value. Yet because she agitates for her rights, she is considered dangerous and is currently under sentence. Referring to recent political uprisings in Russia (1905) and China (1911–12), Pankhurst acknowledges that her audience expects revolutionaries to be male. She argues that women have had to adopt revolutionary tactics in order to win their basic human rights.

To support her point, Pankhurst poses a rhetorical question. Her aim is to guide the men in the audience to an understanding of a disenfranchised woman's perspective. She asks, what if the men of Hartford had a grievance the government ignored? Her answer is that they would vote out the government. But what if the men of Hartford did not have the power to vote? Pankhurst predicts two outcomes: the men would either submit, or they would rise up just as their ancestors did during the American Revolution. Here Pankhurst draws an implicit parallel between the grievances of the American colonists against the "obstinate" British government in the 1770s and those of disenfranchised women in 1913. The fight for women's right to vote, she implies, is one for independence and has already become a war.

The Path to Militancy

Pankhurst provides some context for the rise of the self-proclaimed militant suffragists (who were also commonly referred to as suffragettes). She explains how British women have been roughly treated for merely inquiring about their rights. While no man has ever been punished for questioning an elected official, many suffragists were ejected from public meetings and jailed, despite having broken no laws. Pankhurst uses the analogy of the crying baby to illustrate the dynamic of effective politics. Those who are most vocal and disruptive get covered in the news, gain the public's attention, and see their grievances addressed. Pankhurst argues it is for this reason the suffragists decided to turn from patient advocacy to militancy. The shift in attitude and tactics is a logical one, and she notes proudly, it has gotten results.

Pankhurst concedes that there is a price to be paid for militant action and civil war. The war in this case is between disenfranchised women and a powerful government run by men. Returning to the example of the American revolutionaries, she notes that women suffered and sacrificed for the men's pursuit of glory. But this current civil war is being waged by women, and their goal is to bring about "an honorable peace." Pankhurst's tone changes from pathos—an emotional appeal that arouses feelings of sadness—to pride as she describes the sabotage committed by suffragists in Glasgow, Scotland, in February 1913. They used wire cutters and explosives to interrupt telegraphic communication lines, disrupting commerce across Britain. What she is describing is war without guns and by any means possible. This assault in Glasgow used the tactics of guerrilla warfare. Pankhurst marvels at the women's ingenuity and suggests that they will not stop the disruptions until they have won the war and gained the vote.

Pankhurst warns that the civil war waged by women is different from other kinds of social conflicts. One example she gives is the Industrial Revolution, which created a sudden shift from a primarily agrarian economy—one based on agriculture—to one dominated by manufacturing. It also disrupted traditional gender roles and served as one catalyst for the fight for women's suffrage in both Europe and the United States. As Pankhurst sees it, industrialization resulted in a class war with clearly denoted sides—the wealthy factory owners versus the working poor. However, in the civil war over suffrage, there are no clear sides because the enemy—women—are everywhere, in every class and community. Pankhurst argues there is no way to successfully fight a war against women. To illustrate this point, she discusses the steps the British government has taken against the suffragists: imprisonment and legislation. These tactics, however, have failed to keep the suffragists down.

"We Withhold Our Consent"

Pankhurst explores the concept of the consent of the governed. This consent is a basic principle of the social contract as outlined by English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Locke argued that no civil government can rule without the permission of the people. Pankhurst notes that the British government expects women to submit to its unjust laws. She points out a flaw in that reasoning. As long as women consent to the injustice of being denied their rights, they will be unjustly governed. However, by withholding their consent, they become empowered. As unconsenting citizens, they live outside the law and can generate chaos until their demands are met.

To protest their imprisonment, some suffragists, including Pankhurst, went on hunger strikes. Pankhurst recognizes that a hunger strike is an action of last resort. The fact that many suffragists were willing to starve themselves showed the "intolerable sense of oppression" they felt. To counter these strikes, the British government instituted the procedure of force-feeding the strikers. While Pankhurst herself was never force-fed, she describes the process as a violation. The procedure involved forcibly holding or strapping down the hunger striker so that a long rubber tube could be inserted into her nostril or throat and threaded down to her stomach. Next—while the striker screamed, gagged, and gasped for air—a liquid mixture of bread and milk was poured into the tube to force nutrients into the woman's body. Accounts from women who experienced force-feeding called the practice barbaric and excruciatingly painful. Pankhurst shames the government for its implementation of this cruel practice. Yet, despite the force-feeding, suffragists were not discouraged from their activism. They continued to protest, be imprisoned, and embark on hunger strikes. In addition, publication in newspapers of illustrations of the forced-feedings began to shift public sympathy toward the suffragists.

Accepting that force-feeding had failed as a deterrent, the British government changed its policy. It ceased all forced-feeding and enacted the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act of 1913. The law required that hunger strikers be released from prison when they became too ill to serve their sentences. If they recovered while released, they would then be taken back into custody. The law became known as the "Cat and Mouse Act" for the way the government toyed like a cat with its weakened prey. As Pankhurst notes, the law was not effective. It was intended to make the women yield. Instead, it inspired them. She recalls how hunger-strike-weakened activists were carried on stretchers to suffrage meetings, providing inspiration to the cause. Pankhurst herself is touring the United States while on reprieve from prison to recover from her most recent hunger strike.

A Stark Choice: Women Will Gain Voting Rights or Die

Pankhurst concludes her speech by making logical, emotional, and ethical appeals. Pointing to the suffragists' efforts to embarrass and weaken the British government, she sums up the outcome of the conflict in binary terms. If the government wants to end the civil war, then it must either kill women or give them the vote. She urges the American men in her audience to avoid putting their own government in the same position. She tells them they "must give those women the vote." To Pankhurst, the logic is obvious. If the Americans give women the right to vote, they can avoid a civil war like the one going on in Britain.

Next Pankhurst employs ethical appeal. She speaks again about the tradition of American men fighting for freedom. She reminds them of how they fought for independence from Britain during the Revolutionary War and again to emancipate enslaved African Americans during the Civil War. However, she accuses them of having failed American women, leaving them to fight on their own for the right to vote. While African American men gained the right to vote through the 15th Amendment (1870), passed after the Civil War, women were excluded from this expansion of suffrage.

Deliberately or not, Pankhurst's language echoes language used in the American revolutionary Patrick Henry's (1736–99) fiery "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech (1775). Pankhurst implies that like the American patriots who were willing to die for the cause of independence, British and American women will risk their lives for their rights. She warns that American women, like their British counterparts, may end up forcing their government to choose between enfranchising women and having to kill them.

Finally Pankhurst ends her speech with an emotional appeal. Facing certain imprisonment upon her return to Britain, she pleads for the Americans' help in winning "this hardest of fights." Once British women have won the right to vote, women around the world will also become enfranchised in their turn. It is a vision of universal suffrage.

Post-War Suffrage

Less than a year after Pankhurst delivered this speech, World War I (1914–18) broke out in Europe, drawing Great Britain into the conflict. Pankhurst and the British government agreed to a truce. The government released all imprisoned suffragists so they could join the workforce and support the war effort. In the years following the war, women in countries around the world gained the right to vote. In 1918, Great Britain granted the right to vote to women over age 30. With the passage of the "Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act" (1928), all British women finally were given the right to vote. The law was passed several weeks after Pankhurst's death. Women throughout the United States gained the right to vote in all elections in 1920 through the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

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