Freedom or Death is a political and agitativespeech pronounced by the British women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 1913.The speech isaddressed to both men and women of the United States in order to make themaware of the suffragist movement and the struggle of English women for the right to vote and thecomplete rights of citizenship , and in orderto make the governmental repression against women visible who did make the choice to struggle until their death forobtaining their demandss1 . Pankhurst presentsherself as a prisoner as well as a soldier, having left temporarily the fieldof battle. She considers their struggle as a civil war which used, waged bywomen and supports, s2 direct action as the only means to achieve their aims. She considersher fight for women’s political andcivic rights as fair, without taking in0 account in which way those aims would beachieved. The suffragistmovement in Great Britain, that started before the end of the 19thCentury, had not been able to obtain the right to vote after 50 years of work,strictly framed into legality, therefore Pankhurst split with the moderatebranch of the movement and, in 1903 founded the WSPU – Women’s Social andPolitical Union – that stood for directaction and sabotage.
They were called Suffragetteunlike the Suffragist, gathered in the NUWSS –National Union of Women’sSuffrage Societies – an earlier union, dated from 1897, but legalist. In order to make her speech close to her interlocutors, Pankhurstmention some revolutions, violent ones like the one that had begun with theBoston Tea Party in 1773. The American colonies of the British Empire struggledwith the model of upper taxation, theBritish monarch had set up, and started a series of protests that turned out tobecome no less than the independence of the Thirteen Colonies from the BritishEmpire. Sometimes, the author notes, if the laws are unfair or the rulers don’tdo anything to modify oppressive laws or systems based on the force, the actsof warfare are justified enough.Pankhurst complainsin her speech about the glorification of men who lead this revolutions whilewomen are criminalize for the same actions. The oppressed, whodon’t hold the force, are not able tochange their own circumstance of oppression, since they cannot ascend to thespheres which would be allowing to do so; thus they have to come up with othermechanism in order to be listened or being taken into consideration (takenserious???). That is exactly what the suffragist movement in Great Britain weregoing through, despite the political persecution and repression the women hadto deal with. Pankhurst alsomentions in her speech a fact that resulted in a great impact beyond GreatBritain, the forced alimentation of sanehunger striking women, they were subjected to.
The author herself had to gothrough it. She interpellates the possible doctorsin the audience to make them aware of how awful the fact of being forced to is, for a person on hunger strike, who is rejectingwith all the strength to be fed. However, she claimsthat not even then, all the determined women in prison, gave up their ideas oractions. Moreover, they felt empoweredand certain to go forward, until deathin order to oblige the government to make a move.And the government made it, indeed, but notin the direction they were expecting to. I’m referring to the the so-called”Cat and Mouse Act” , a new law which allowed to release those women on thebrink of death under license, and once they were recovered, to incarcerate themagain, in order to prevent them from dying inside.
This speech, as well as others writtenbefore and at the time for the women’s right to vote or emancipation (Théroignede Méricourt, George Sand, Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxembourg, all of them excellentorators), has an incredible strength in my opinion, Far from having a victimizing tone, theirwords emit a determination and positive energy, that, in the face of theoppressive circumstances those women were submitted to is at least astonishing. Pankhurst herself has to remind in Hartfordthat women are human beings fighting to win rights of citizenship. This obviousclarification might be suraprising to us, from a 21st centuryperspective, but it was not unjustifiedat the time.The women in the 20th century didnot have autonomy at all. They were dependent on a male figure, either thehusband, a brother or the father. Their only space was the domestic one.
The irruption of the women into the publicand political space, shook the foundations of the bourgeois order. After theliberal revolutions, the women paradoxically lost some spaces of freedom theyhad benefit from before, they had access to work, admittedly, because of new market needs rather than for a socialtransformation that would put them in an equal position with men. When Pankhurst herself and the suffragettes,like her daughter Christabel among many others, decided to take this space,that traditionally had been reserved for men, they turned into an enemy for thegovernment, formed by men. The actions they developed against property, power structures and public buildings, ultimately the symbols of theiroppression, didn’t take the women onlyto jail, but also to pathologise , disrespect them and denigrated them becausethey had defied their required gender roles: hysteric, deviant, resentful spinsters, and so on.
Discrediting their struggle, coming from aconscious political movement, from the militancy as Pankhurst claimed , provedin my opinion that the government did not have major arguments to deny theirdemands.Or even worse, despite their demands werefair – and opinions in favour of doing so were not lacking, including by men inthe Parliament – what was at stake was the same constituted order, the one whosees the female spaces only in the sphere of reproduction, of domestics and submission; the one based on disciplining.Therefore, the imprisoned suffragettes were always treated as a criminals instead ofas political prisoners.
Besides, the suffragette movement wastraversed class variety. A fact that provided the struggle with a hugepotential, not only for the revolutionary richness and the multidimensionalapproach, but also because it made it more difficult for the power to locateand hence to repress the movement.Pankhurst herself warns in the meeting: “inthe woman’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it isabsolutely impossible to deal with it: you cannot locate it, and you cannotstop it.” As a woman, I do feel deep respect and greatadmiration for those women, who defied the patriarchal power and their owngender roles, for their emancipation and to break the chains of theiroppression.
They did it until the ultimate consequences, they risked theirfreedom and lives for a fairer world. Their contribution is precious. Whetherthey achieved their objectives or not – the women’s right to vote in Great Britain was conferred only in1928, after World War I, and as a payment for their services during thestruggle, their legacy cannot be forgotten. Regrettably, we arestill very far away from living in a fair society, we live in a system based oninequalities and in terms of gender equality, there is still a lot to fightagainst: inequality at work, art and culture, feminicides are the order of theday.
The struggle of those women is a source of inspiration to me and areminder of the fact that only if we struggle ourselves against the oppressionof women by men, we will be able to abolish this tyranny and whether we succeedor not, we could say at least we have tried to.