Emmeline Pankhurst, Freedom or Death, 1913

Emmeline Pankhurst


Emmeline Pankhurst’s idea of a well-mannered lady was a woman who dressed meticulously, lived fashionably and embraced militant politics at all costs. Along with her daughter, Christabel, Pankhurst led the radical, female-only Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903. Fed up with the polite tactics of other British suffrage groups, the WSPU pursued an uncompromising strategy. They began with marches and soapboxes, and soon moved into arson, bombs and acid. WSPU women broke windows, slashed paintings, chained themselves to railings and refused to pay taxes. One member, Emily Davison, famously died by throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby.

By the time Pankhurst visited the United States in 1913 to raise funds for the WSPU, she had been jailed several times. The long speech she delivered to an audience of men and women at the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association, then led by Katharine Houghton Hepburn (the Hollywood actress’s mother), is both forthright and wryly self-aware. She describes the hunger strikes and force-feeding British suffragettes had endured. She points to the hypocrisy of a revolution that does not include women; wondering, for instance, why the Boston Tea Party men did not follow the tea dumping by also ‘throwing the whiskey overboard’. She is pragmatic about violence (‘you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs’), and doggedly optimistic about the power of a women’s movement. ‘We wear no mark; we belong to every class,’ she declares, ‘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.’

Freedom or Death 1913

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 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…. I dare say, in the minds of many of you … that I do not look either very like a soldier or very like a convict, and yet I am both.

… 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….

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