Values into Action: Emmeline Pankhurst

We arrive here today from all our different activities and obligations
Involved in lives that distract and pull at us
Inside, each of us carries great hopes and desires
We bear values that shape our vision of who and what we long to be
By the light of this flame, may our deepest commitments come into sight and be forever in our view
May they guide us toward the actions that will fulfill our dreams


Emmeline Pankhurst's Freedom or death (excerpt)

This speech was delivered in Hartford, Connecticut on November 13 1913

...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. 

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.
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. 

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.

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.

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. 

Message, by Andy Pakula

Yesterday, I wasted paper, left lights on that I didn’t need, and passed by homeless people on the street without trying to help them in any way.

These actions and lack of action don’t fit particularly well with my values, which include helping to protect the earth’s environment and to promote the worth and dignity of every person.

On the other hand, I kept to a vegetarian diet, and planned work to support the living wage and the welcoming of Syrian refugees. I spent time with my family and was kind and caring to my dog. These actions were a good fit with my values. 

My values and my actions were not completely out of alignment yesterday, but they were certainly not a perfect match. They never are. In fact, I don’t know what a perfect match would look like. Would I need to live off the grid, give away all my possessions, take no medicine, and make my own clothes from whatever I can find? 

For the next three months, our theme is ‘Values into action.’

Does anyone live in a way that their actions perfectly match their values? I certainly can’t think of anyone. Even the people who initially come to mind had major gaps in this respect. Only in myth can we find anyone who seems to have lived in this kind of way. 

We are a community of some very strongly-shared values, and we’ll look at what those values are. 

And many - if not all - of us have a sense that our actions fall short of our values. Why is that? What accounts for the gap between our values and our action? 

Do we know how to put our values into action? What does that take? Can anyone take effective action or is it something that only some can do? Can it be learned? 

Why is it that some people can see oppression and look away whilst others feel driven to act? 
Among us, we have varying amounts of privilege based on our class, skin colour, sex, national origin, gender identity and sexual orientation. How do our values and actions depend on our level of privilege?  

These are the sort of questions we will wrestle with over the next three months.

Along the way, we’ll look at at a few specific people to see what we can learn from them about putting values into action. Today, we consider Emmeline Pankhurst, the prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage who lived from the middle of the 19th century into the early 20th.

As we talk about Emmeline Pankhurst, it’s important to remember that she is just one person who turned her values into action. I don’t mean to hold her up as any kind of ideal or exemplar. She was a real person with virtues and flaws and I suspect that, as we look at her life and work, we will have very mixed feelings.  

And the ways in which Pankhurst turned values into action are not by any means the only way. There are many kinds of action and there have been many ways to be effective. People have made a big difference with their money or their words or their political influence. People have made a difference with violence and others have made a difference with love. People have made a difference as leaders and others have made a difference by following or in leaderless movements.

Some activists became well known. Pankhurst was one. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Granville Sharp and others may come to mind. But the names of many many more are unknown to us. In fact, if the only people working for justice were the people we know about, there would have been virtually no progress. None of these people could have done what they did alone and much more change has happened through the work of people whose names history has forgotten or never knew.

Emmeline Pankhurst was born Emmeline Goulden in 1858 in Manchester. If there’s anything genetic to activism, then Emmeline had the right genes. Her parents were activists and her grandparents too had activism and political action in their histories.

Emmeline’s father, Robert Goulden, was active in campaigns against slavery. Her mother, Sophia, was a feminist. Both parents were involved in the movement for women’s right to vote. Emmeline and a younger sister, Mary, participated in their first political demonstration when Emmeline was ten. Emmeline began attending women’s suffrage meetings with her mother when she was in her early teens.

Whether through nature or nurture, Emmeline Pankhurst seems to have been born to be an activist. She was surrounded by strong, radically anti-oppressive values from her earliest years. And the tools of activism would also have been familiar to her even from childhood. She saw anti-slavery and women’s suffrage campaigns personally and she would have heard stories of the experiences of her grandparents.

Emmeline was also recognised as extremely bright from childhood. She read very early - possibly from the age of three. At nine, she read Homer’s Odyssey.

Despite her intelligence and her parents’ views of women’s rights, Emmeline and her sisters had opportunities and expectations very different from those of their brothers.

Emmeline recalled that when she was young she overheard her father saying, "What a pity she wasn't born a lad."

After attending a school in Paris, Emmeline returned to Manchester and, at the age of 20, met and married Richard Pankhurst. 

Emmeline’s choice of husband did nothing to dilute her focus on political action. Richard Pankhurst was also an activist. A barrister and much older than Emmeline at 44, he already spent years involved in work for women's suffrage, freedom of speech and education reform. He had drafted one of the first pieces of legislation that successfully gave some unmarried women householders to vote in local elections.

In the first six years of their marriage, Emmeline and Richard had four children: Christabel, Sylvia, Frank and Adela.

Even during the early years of marriage and having children, Emmeline was involved in political action through work with the Women's Suffrage Society. 

The family moved to London in 1886. Emmeline became involved in the Matchgirls Strike - further expanding her understanding of injustice and her experience of labour activism. 

Two years later, Emmeline’s four year old son, Frank, died suddenly from diphtheria. Both parents were broken-hearted. Emmeline’s biographer, June Purvis, writes that “Emmeline feverishly sought forgetfulness by channelling her energies into a whirl of activity.”

It was at this time that the family moved to a new home in Russell Square which became, as Purvis describes it, “a centre for political gatherings of a wide array of social reformers – socialists, Fabians, anarchists, suffragists, free thinkers, agnostics and radicals.”

In 1893, the Pankhursts moved back to Manchester where Emmeline became involved in new ways. 

She became a Poor Law Guardian in Chorlton-on-Medlock. She was shocked by the conditions she observed Manchester workhouse:

The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years old on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors ... bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time ... I found that there were pregnant women in that workhouse, scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their babies came into the world ... Of course the babies are very badly protected ... These poor, unprotected mothers and their babies I am sure were potent factors in my education as a militant.

All of this and more experiences provide background for the work for which we know

Emmeline Pankhurst - her so-called militant activity on behalf of women’s suffrage. Her strength and determination are obvious from the excerpt of her speech as we heard earlier. “Freedom or death” was its title, and this was no exaggeration for Pankhurst. She put her own safety and life and those of others at risk for the cause of the right to vote.

In 1903, at the age of 45, Pankhurst had had enough of the slow and frustrating work going on in parliament and the approach of various women’s suffrage organisations. 

Pankhurst and her three daughters founded the Women's Social and Political Union. The WSPU was open only to women, focused only on suffrage, and dedicated to action. 

Over the next nine years, the WSPU led a campaign of escalating provocation in the quest for its goal of women’s suffrage. Disrupting meetings moved onto clashes with police. There were women imprisoned for their work to gain the right to vote, which shocked the nation.

Eventually, the WSPU added destruction of property and arson to its tactics. Many of its members were imprisoned. They famously went on life-threatening hunger strikes and were brutally force-fed in prison to keep them alive.

There was no longer any issue of the women’s suffrage campaign being invisible. It was impossible to ignore and Emmeline Pankhurst was at the centre of the action.

Pankhurst was a forceful, charismatic, leader. She was strong in ways that were both effective and - in some ways - abusive.

Here is how a Manchester teacher, Teresa Billington Greig, described her after meeting Pankhurst and joining the WSPU in 1903:

Emmeline Pankhurst was at once recognised by me as a force, vital and resourceful. She had beauty and graciousness, moving and speaking with dignity, but with no uncertainty of mind and movement. Later I was to see her captivating the mob, turning commonplace men and women into heroes, enslaving the young rebel women by the exploitation of emotion.
To work alongside of her day by day was to run the risk of losing yourself. She was ruthless in using the followers she gathered around her, as she was ruthless to herself. She took advantage of both their strengths and their weaknesses suffered with you and for you while she believed she was shaping you and used every device of suppression when the revolt against the shaping came. She was a most astute statesman, a skilled politician, a self-dedicated reshaper of the world - and a dictator without mercy.

The WSPU ceased its work in 1914 with the outbreak of the first world war but a major step forward took place in 1918 when women over 30 were given the right to vote. Women finally achieved voting equality with men in 1928, weeks before the death of Emmeline Pankhurst at the age of 70.

There is disagreement about the impact of Pankhurst’s activism. Some say that her militancy set back the cause of women’s suffrage. Others insist that the cause would have otherwise remained nearly invisible for many more years without an aggressive approach that could not be ignored by those in power.

Why was Emmeline Pankhurst so able to put her values into action?

We know that she was steeped in political thought and activism from an early age. Knowledge and experience were clearly an important element of what enabled her.

She was smart, charismatic and charming. This allowed her to influence people - both individually and large groups.

She was also strong - perhaps tyrannical - as a leader. Of course, this quality can be subject to much debate.

She could tolerate pain and suffering - both her own and that of her comrades and followers - even that of her own daughters. 

She was passionate and focused - nothing got in the way of the pursuit of her goal.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s story has made me think about activism and about what I would be able to do to put my values into action. It has made me think too, about what I would be willing to do. For which causes would I disrupt meetings. For which would I risk prison. For which would I destroy property. For which would I be willing to injure or kill others.

In every era, there are people who criticise as too extreme those activists who protest too loudly or are disruptive. They tell them to wait and be patient - that change will come eventually.

There was violence and law-breaking in the battle against slavery. In retrospect, we may feel that was right to do. We may feel there should have been more.

There are people in our time who are criticised and imprisoned for their actions. Animal rights activists, radical environmentalists, Black Lives Matter activist, and others. How will history look upon them.

What we do to put our values into action depends on who we are, our experiences, and on the challenges we face.

In the end, we must understand our deepest values and the ways in which the world currently impedes the flourishing of those values. 

We must ask ourselves who we are, what we can bear, and how far we are willing to go.

And then, we must act. For dreams are not realised by dreaming alone. 

May we be among the wise and courageous ones who do the work that needs to be done.

In a world where oppression continues
In a world where injustice is a constant reality
Let us know and stand by our values
Let us, each according to our nature and talents, take action
Let us do our part to realise the dream of a world of justice