Emmeline Pankhurst was kick ass. She was also a grand dragon of an privileged lady, you can tell, chock full of class prejudice and sometimes you want to hit her and her daughters (maybe mostly Christobel, I quite love Sylvia). I like to think some of those fierce striking match girls did just that, but that’s probably wishful thinking.
Still, I wish I’d read My Own Story (1914) back when I was a baby organiser, she was a master of tactics and some of her assumptions about her own privilege is actually what everyone should feel all the time. She writes:
In accordance with this custom we heckle Cabinet Ministers. Mr Winston Curchill, for example, is speaking. ‘One great question,’ he exclaims, ‘remains to be settled’
‘And that is woman’s suffrage,’ shouts a voice from the gallery.
Mr Churchill struggles on with his speech: ‘The men have been complaining of me–‘
‘The women have been complaining of you, too, Mr Churchill,’ comes back promptly from the back of the hall.
The next day I was fairly ill, but I said nothing about it. One does not expect to be comfortable in prison
No one does not. Heh.
On one day women went out with stones and hammers and broke hundreds of windows ‘in the Home Office, the War and Foreign Offices, the Board of Education, the Privy Council Office, the Board of Trade, the Treasury, Somerset House, the National Liberal Club, several post offices, the Old Banqueting Hall, the London and South Western Bank, and a dozen other buildings, including the residence of Lord Haldane and Mr. John Burns, Two hundred and twenty women were arrested.’ Damn. Even more amazing to me reading this today:
Ever since militancy took on the form of destruction of property the public generally, both at home and abroad, has expressed curiosity as to the logical connection between acts such as breaking windows, firing pillar boxes, et cetera, and the vote. Only a complete lack of historical knowledge excuses that curiosity. For every advance of men’s political freedom has been marked with violence and the destruction of property. Usually the advance has been marked by war, which is called glorious. Sometimes it has been marked by riotings, which are deemed less glorious but are at least effective’.
Awesome. Pankhurst announced an assembly in Parliament Square one evening, to prepare for it the police massed, horses and all, merchants shut down their shops and barricaded the premises…but in fact the evening assembly was just a ruse, and the demonstration had been carried out that morning in Knightsbridge instead, where nearly every pane of glass in the high street was demolished and almost all 100 women participating got away.
They didn’t always get away though. Tales of beatings, arrests, hunger strikes and force-feeding highlight the courage women showed in winning the rights we have today, and they faced down police brutality bravely:
Orders were evidently given that the police were to be present in the streets, and that the women were to be thrown from one uniformed or un-uniformed policeman to another, that they were to be so rudely treated that sheer terror would cause them to turn back. I say orders were given and as one proof of this I can first point out that on all previous occasions the police had first tried to turn back the deputations and when the women persisted in going forward, had arrested them. At times individual policemen had behaved with cruelty and malice toward us, but never anything like the unanimous and wholesale brutality that was shown on Black Friday.
I enjoyed immensely reading about how they went after politicians’ favourite golf courses, replacing all of the flags marking the holes with WSPU flags saying votes for women, as well as burning slogans into the turf with acid. She actually calls this ‘guerilla warfare against the Government through injury to private property’.
Not even the raid on their offices and multiple arrests could stop the regular publication of their paper The Suffragette. They produced it overnight, the front page bearing in large letters ‘RAIDED’. As Pankhurst writes: ‘We are so organised that the arrest of leaders does not seriously cripple us. Every one has an understudy, and when one leader drops out her substitute is ready instantly to take her place’.
My last favourite story is how they concealed barbed wire under bunting, a gift to the police who came to rip it down. All of these things impressed me immensely, but of course there was plenty to un-impress. The aristocratic assumption of leadership, her descriptions of some of the ‘girls’ like Annie Kenney, the lack of solidarity with other struggles as a political choice and her dismissal of struggles like those of the miners. These things are fairly cringeworthy, and nothing can take that away. Still, the good stuff in here? It’s good.