Freedom or Death (A great British woman speaks to an American audience)

by zeph

The famous “Freedom or Death” speech was delivered in Hartford, Connecticut on November 13 1913,
by Emmeline Pankhurst.

I do not come here as an advocate, because whatever position the suffrage movement may occupy in the United States of America, in England it has passed beyond the realm of advocacy and it has entered into the sphere of practical politics. It has become the subject of revolution and civil war, and so tonight I am not here to advocate woman suffrage. American suffragists can do that very well for themselves.

I am here as a soldier who has temporarily left the field of battle in order to explain – it seems strange it should have to be explained – what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women.

I am not only here as a soldier temporarily absent from the field at battle; I am here – and that, I think, is the strangest part of my coming – I am here as a person who, according to the law courts of my country, it has been decided, is of no value to the community at all; and I am adjudged because of my life to be a dangerous person, under sentence of penal servitude in a convict prison.

It is not at all difficult if revolutionaries come to you from Russia, if they come to you from China, or from any other part of the world, if they are men. But since I am a woman it is necessary to explain why women have adopted revolutionary methods in order to win the rights of citizenship. We women, in trying to make our case clear, always have to make as part of our argument, and urge upon men in our audience the fact – a very simple fact – that women are human beings.

Suppose the men of Hartford had a grievance, and they laid that grievance before their legislature, and the legislature obstinately refused to listen to them, or to remove their grievance, what would be the proper and the constitutional and the practical way of getting their grievance removed? Well, it is perfectly obvious at the next general election the men of Hartford would turn out that legislature and elect a new one.

But let the men of Hartford imagine that they were not in the position of being voters at all, that they were governed without their consent being obtained, that the legislature turned an absolutely deaf ear to their demands, what would the men of Hartford do then? They couldn’t vote the legislature out. They would have to choose; they would have to make a choice of two evils: they would either have to submit indefinitely to an unjust state of affairs, or they would have to rise up and adopt some of the antiquated means by which men in the past got their grievances remedied.

Your forefathers decided that they must have representation for taxation, many, many years ago. When they felt they couldn’t wait any longer, when they laid all the arguments before an obstinate British government that they could think of, and when their arguments were absolutely disregarded, when every other means had failed, they began by the tea party at Boston, and they went on until they had won the independence of the United States of America.

It is about eight years since the word militant was first used to describe what we were doing. It was not militant at all, except that it provoked militancy on the part of those who were opposed to it. When women asked questions in political meetings and failed to get answers, they were not doing anything militant. In Great Britain it is a custom, a time-honoured one, to ask questions of candidates for parliament and ask questions of members of the government. No man was ever put out of a public meeting for asking a question. The first people who were put out of a political meeting for asking questions, were women; they were brutally ill-used; they found themselves in jail before 24 hours had expired.

We were called militant, and we were quite willing to accept the name. We were determined to press this question of the enfranchisement of women to the point where we were no longer to be ignored by the politicians.

You have two babies very hungry and wanting to be fed. One baby is a patient baby, and waits indefinitely until its mother is ready to feed it. The other baby is an impatient baby and cries lustily, screams and kicks and makes everybody unpleasant until it is fed. Well, we know perfectly well which baby is attended to first. That is the whole history of politics. You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.

When you have warfare things happen; people suffer; the noncombatants suffer as well as the combatants. And so it happens in civil war. When your forefathers threw the tea into Boston Harbour, a good many women had to go without their tea. It has always seemed to me an extraordinary thing that you did not follow it up by throwing the whiskey overboard; you sacrificed the women; and there is a good deal of warfare for which men take a great deal of glorification which has involved more practical sacrifice on women than it has on any man. It always has been so. The grievances of those who have got power, the influence of those who have got power commands a great deal of attention; but the wrongs and the grievances of those people who have no power at all are apt to be absolutely ignored. That is the history of humanity right from the beginning.

Well, in our civil war people have suffered, but you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs; you cannot have civil war without damage to something. The great thing is to see that no more damage is done than is absolutely necessary, that you do just as much as will arouse enough feeling to bring about peace, to bring about an honourable peace for the combatants; and that is what we have been doing.

We entirely prevented stockbrokers in London from telegraphing to stockbrokers in Glasgow and vice versa: for one whole day telegraphic communication was entirely stopped. I am not going to tell you how it was done. I am not going to tell you how the women got to the mains and cut the wires; but it was done. It was done, and it was proved to the authorities that weak women, suffrage women, as we are supposed to be, had enough ingenuity to create a situation of that kind. Now, I ask you, if women can do that, is there any limit to what we can do except the limit we put upon ourselves?

If you are dealing with an industrial revolution, if you get the men and women of one class rising up against the men and women of another class, you can locate the difficulty; if there is a great industrial strike, you know exactly where the violence is and how the warfare is going to be waged; but in our war against the government you can’t locate it. We wear no mark; we belong to every class; we permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest; and so you see in the woman’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it is absolutely impossible to deal with it: you cannot locate it, and you cannot stop it.

“Put them in prison,” they said, “that will stop it.” But it didn’t stop it at all: instead of the women giving it up, more women did it, and more and more and more women did it until there were 300 women at a time, who had not broken a single law, only “made a nuisance of themselves” as the politicians say.

Then they began to legislate. The British government has passed more stringent laws to deal with this agitation than it ever found necessary during all the history of political agitation in my country. They were able to deal with the revolutionaries of the Chartists’ time; they were able to deal with the trades union agitation; they were able to deal with the revolutionaries later on when the Reform Acts were passed: but the ordinary law has not sufficed to curb insurgent women. They had to dip back into the middle ages to find a means of repressing the women in revolt.

They have said to us, government rests upon force, the women haven’t force, so they must submit. Well, we are showing them that government does not rest upon force at all: it rests upon consent. As long as women consent to be unjustly governed, they can be, but directly women say: “We withhold our consent, we will not be governed any longer so long as that government is unjust.” Not by the forces of civil war can you govern the very weakest woman. You can kill that woman, but she escapes you then; you cannot govern her. No power on earth can govern a human being, however feeble, who withholds his or her consent.

When they put us in prison at first, simply for taking petitions, we submitted; we allowed them to dress us in prison clothes; we allowed them to put us in solitary confinement; we allowed them to put us amongst the most degraded of criminals; we learned of some of the appalling evils of our so-called civilisation that we could not have learned in any other way. It was valuable experience, and we were glad to get it.

I have seen men smile when they heard the words “hunger strike”, and yet I think there are very few men today who would be prepared to adopt a “hunger strike” for any cause. It is only people who feel an intolerable sense of oppression who would adopt a means of that kind. It means you refuse food until you are at death’s door, and then the authorities have to choose between letting you die, and letting you go; and then they let the women go.

Now, that went on so long that the government felt that they were unable to cope. It was [then] that, to the shame of the British government, they set the example to authorities all over the world of feeding sane, resisting human beings by force. There may be doctors in this meeting: if so, they know it is one thing to feed by force an insane person; but it is quite another thing to feed a sane, resisting human being who resists with every nerve and with every fibre of her body the indignity and the outrage of forcible feeding. Now, that was done in England, and the government thought they had crushed us. But they found that it did not quell the agitation, that more and more women came in and even passed that terrible ordeal, and they were obliged to let them go.

Then came the legislation – the “Cat and Mouse Act”. The home secretary said: “Give me the power to let these women go when they are at death’s door, and leave them at liberty under license until they have recovered their health again and then bring them back.” It was passed to repress the agitation, to make the women yield – because that is what it has really come to, ladies and gentlemen. It has come to a battle between the women and the government as to who shall yield first, whether they will yield and give us the vote, or whether we will give up our agitation.

Well, they little know what women are. Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible. And so this “Cat and Mouse Act” which is being used against women today has failed. There are women lying at death’s door, recovering enough strength to undergo operations who have not given in and won’t give in, and who will be prepared, as soon as they get up from their sick beds, to go on as before. There are women who are being carried from their sick beds on stretchers into meetings. They are too weak to speak, but they go amongst their fellow workers just to show that their spirits are unquenched, and that their spirit is alive, and they mean to go on as long as life lasts.

Now, I want to say to you who think women cannot succeed, we have brought the government of England to this position, that it has to face this alternative: either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote. I ask American men in this meeting, what would you say if in your state you were faced with that alternative, that you must either kill them or give them their citizenship? Well, there is only one answer to that alternative, there is only one way out – you must give those women the vote.

You won your freedom in America when you had the revolution, by bloodshed, by sacrificing human life. You won the civil war by the sacrifice of human life when you decided to emancipate the negro. You have left it to women in your land, the men of all civilised countries have left it to women, to work out their own salvation. That is the way in which we women of England are doing. Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.

So here am I. I come in the intervals of prison appearance. I come after having been four times imprisoned under the “Cat and Mouse Act”, probably going back to be rearrested as soon as I set my foot on British soil. I come to ask you to help to win this fight. If we win it, this hardest of all fights, then, to be sure, in the future it is going to be made easier for women all over the world to win their fight when their time comes.

Emmeline Pankhurst.

16 Comments to “Freedom or Death (A great British woman speaks to an American audience)”

  1. Incredible! Herstory needs to be taught everywhere. Loved the part about cutting the telegraphy lines 🙂

  2. “If there is a great industrial strike, you know exactly where the violence is and how the warfare is going to be waged; but in our war against the government you can’t locate it. We wear no mark; we belong to every class; we permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest; and so you see in the woman’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it is absolutely impossible to deal with it: you cannot locate it, and you cannot stop it.”

    Thanks Sheila, the suffragettes got a lot of support from the American people; Lucy Burns and Alice Paul campaigned with them in the UK. They met there, then returned to the US to continue the fight for women’s freedom.

  3. HOW is it possible that I was taught about all those unutterable bores in history classes at school, drilled to remember those irrelevant dates, and I have never, in my life, heard of this speech.


  4. Hi cherryblossomlife – I think it’s similar to the fact that students are taught “history” which covers everything important, and then there is this sub-category called “women’s history” that the suffrage movement probably fits into. “Women’s history” is seen as some niche area of interest, despite women making up, oh I don’t know, around half the world’s population. I think it’s the old “men are the universal human, women are the ‘other'”.

  5. Yes, Cherry, it is only when you study the things not approved by academia; that you realise women have no idea who they are! How can we know what amazing, ingenious, brave, brilliant, people we are, when our herstory is simply missing? Not just lied about, but so often, never even mentioned at all. How can we know how many great battles we have won? Men take the credit for all our improvements of condition, as if they didn’t fight tooth and nail against them.

    Emmeline’s own sister Mary, died under the cat and mouse act. But they focus on one brave suicide undertaken by Emily Davison; because they want to draw attention away from the women who died under the savage law they invented to try to put a stop to the suffragettes once and for all. But we were braver than that! And we just kept coming at them. Gandhi was an admirer of the suffragettes, and learned many of the tactics he would later use in India, from them.

  6. On the fight in the USA, Australians Miles Franklin and Alice Henry were very involved in the fight for suffrage. Both lived in Chicago and there are photos of them. Miles Franklin is best known for the writing prize set set up, but she spent years in the demand for suffrage.

  7. I’m really glad I came across the Pankhursts back in high school .. doing my own research in the library. All incredible. And Emma Goldman too, I’m not sure how I managed to stumble across them but they blew my mind. And I used to wonder when we were going to hear about them in history class.. sigh

  8. The film about Alice Paul was I think called the Iron Jawed Angels???? or something like that!……Hilary Swank played the was a brilliant portrayal…Swank pulls no punches in the performance… of my favourite actors….
    Here in UK they now teach about the Suffragettes in Herstory at A level…..and some younger feminists here at the last feminist conference have adopted suffraget dress and ideas for their own campaigns.
    Yes Ghandi did emulate much of what he saw suffragists (not gettes) doing, gists were peaceful and gettes were into terrorist attacks…..always with the gettes but come the 1st world war all the womon down tools and supported the pointless slaughter of men, there is a touch of irony in here, don’t you think? They supported the men going to the slaughter in Europe……and ran the Counrty while the deaths piled up….

  9. Emily Wilding Davidson…….another great suffragette

  10. Here is Gandhi’s 1906 editorial:

    “Deeds better than Words” [October 26, 1906]

    “The second example illustrating this saying is more remarkable. It is the movement in England for women’s right to vote, which the Government is unwilling to concede. The women therefore go to the House of Commons and harass the Members. They have sent petitions, written letters, delivered speeches and tried many other means. Last Wednesday, they went to the House of Commons as soon as it opened and demanded the right to vote; they caused some damage also, for which they were prosecuted and sentenced to furnish a security of £ 5 each. On their refusing to do so, they were sentenced to imprisonment, and they are now in gaol. Most of the women have got three months. All of them come from respectable families and some are very well educated. One of these is the daughter of the late Mr. Cobden who was highly respected by the people. She is serving her term in gaol. Another is the wife of Mr. Lawrence. A third is an LL.B. On the very day these women went to gaol there was a huge meeting here in support of the resolve adopted by the brave ladies, and a sum of £ 650 was collected on the spot. Mr Lawrence announced that he would pay £ 10 a day as long as his wife was in gaol. Some persons regard these women as insane; the police use force against them; the magistrate looks upon them with a stern eye. Cobden’s brave daughter said, “I shall never obey any law in the making of which I have no hand; I will not accept the authority of the court executing those laws; if you send me to gaol, I will go there, but I shall on no account pay a fine. I will not furnish any security either.” It is no wonder that a people which produces such daughters and mothers should hold the sceptre….”

    The suffragists, did not go to prison, they never went on hunger strikes, they never laid down their own bodies or put their lives on the line for the cause. Ghandi, as is clear from his editorial above, admired the suffragettes and employed many, if not all, their tactics in his own struggle. The Mr Lawrence he refers to, was himself, a suffragette supporter.

    The suffragettes had no option but to support the war, most of the British public supported the war and everyone thought it would be over by Christmas! Trying to label the suffragettes as war mongers is ridiculous, but it is a common tactic of male writers of their history, What a surprise! We women should be cautious about picking up these memes and running with them; everything male historians say about us, is at best spun, at worst a lie.

    “Iron Jawed Angels” is linked here on the hub.

    “Miles Franklin is best known for the writing prize set set up, but she spent years in the demand for suffrage.”

    Very interesting Susan, it brings home just how many generations had to fight for the vote and how much of their time and effort went into achieving it.

  11. The suffragist movement was so radical, it had to be partially erased, and interestingly enough was made fun of in movies like Mary Poppins. Then there were radical feminists like Matilda Joselyn Gage who went even farther in the cause of anti-patriarchy. Her radical feminism was erased from the American movement by Susan B. Anthony, only to be rediscovered yet again by 1960s feminists like Mary Daly.

    Women have to deal with men erasing our greatest heroines, and backlash of women who are just too uncomfortable with radical feminism itself.

    These speeches are incredible, and I know they would have just captivated me as a girl in high school.
    I notice that there are almost no documentaries on feminism, and its rise and herstory… but we sure waste an awful lot of time studying male bores and wars.

    This blog does a great service in making the Pankhursts come alive for today…. and on an unrelated note Elizabeth Warren is running for the US Senate in Massachusettes! A champion of Americans and greatly feared by Wall Street… women are heroic.

  12. “The suffragist movement was so radical, it had to be partially erased, and interestingly enough was made fun of in movies like Mary Poppins.”

    Yes Sheila, if you were going to make them visible at all it has to be as a joke! They tried to treat them as a joke at the time. Here is the rest of that article by Gandhi:

    “Today the whole country is laughing at them, and they have only a few people on their side. But undaunted, these women work on steadfast in their cause. They are bound to succeed and gain the franchise, for the simple reason that deeds are better than words. Even those who laughed at them would be left wondering. If even women display such courage, will the Transvaal Indians fail in their duty and be afraid of gaol? Or would they rather consider the gaol a palace and readily go there? When that time comes, India’s bonds will snap of themselves.

    We have sent petitions; made speeches; and we shall continue to do so. But we shall gain our object only if we have the kind of strength we have spoken of. People do not have much faith in articles and speeches. Anyone can do that, they call for no courage. Deeds after all are better than words. All other things are unavailing, and no one is afraid of them. The only way therefore is to sacrifice oneself and take the plunge. We have much to do yet, no doubt of that.”

    This article, “Deeds Better than Words,” dated 26 October 1906, was published in Gandhi’s weekly, Indian Opinion, and republished (in English, translated from Gujarati) in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 6, pp. 29-30. It has since been partially reprinted by James D. Hunt, in “Suffragettes and Satyagraha,” Indo-British Review, 9:1 (1981), p. 67.

    “Deeds not Words” was the suffragette motto, their emphasis was on direct action rather than the lobbying favoured by Millicent Fawcett and the suffragists.

  13. I can’t believe we never learned about the suffragettes in high school in the 90s but there were entire subjects on wars and revolutions. Thanks so much for posting this, and all the other great links to inspiring, brilliant speeches made by the brave freedom fighters to whom we all owe so much.

  14. Thanks sea, apparently there is now a new ‘man pedalled theory’ that the suffragettes were a fabricated conspiracy and men just gave women the vote as a crafty political strategy! Sure, sure, thats why many men do all they can today to smear the suffragettes! Gandi was there! So we have his speech and indeed the words of Lord Pethic Lawrence, and many other eminent men who were there at the time, including the great Kier Hardy who believed women’s full participation in politics was essential to social progress. He was a life long friend of the Pankhursts and risked his career as the builder and leader of the Labour Party to support their cause.

    But you are on the nail sea; the fact that we do not know our own history because it was not taught in schools leaves us susceptible to these nonsensical memes. The link below leads to a short piece by Lord Pethic Lawrence, listing a few of the social changes that came about as a result of women attaining the vote, and therefore being able to directly influence government policy.

  15. Herstory needs to be taught everywhere.

    Yep, herstory never gets taught enough. Today’s academia is really depressing (I’m studying in it). In ‘feminist’ classes, you aren’t even allowed to say that you dislike males for what they have done to us. You aren’t even allowed to “go on about” how oppressed womyn are, or the ‘feminist’ teachers their accuse you of “overemphasising” oppression while you’re sinply being realistic. Since the so-called “fall” of ‘2nd wave’ feminism, the academia has become increasingly boring…

    Thanks for this, Zeph. I had no idea how radical the Suffragette movement was until I read about it through radical feminist writings.

    “Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.”

    It would be really good if womyn could become roused and determined sometime soon, especially during our times when patriarchy is striking harder than ever…

  16. Hi Maggie, what a shame academia has diluted feminism so much; they always institutionalise the rebel, sigh.

    “It would be really good if womyn could become roused and determined sometime soon, especially during our times when patriarchy is striking harder than ever…”

    We have done it before, we can do it again! 🙂

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