Friday, 14 June 2013

Emmeline Pankhust (15/7/1858 - 14/6/1928) -' There are women lying at death's door...' and the uncomfortable legacy

Picture above, Emmaline Pankhurst

(Repost from yesterday, forgotten spectacles)

On the anniversary of the death of one of the leaders of Britain's Suffragette movement and the fourth anniversary of this blog, thought I would reprint this speech she delivered to an American audience on the 15th November 1913.
Whilst recognising the Suffragettes heroic struggle for equal rights, inspiring many to follow in acts of civil disobedience, with Emmeline herself being imprisoned many times, it does leave me with a few questions which I will try to raise at the end of this speech.

'...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. No, 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, that they set an 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 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 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 licence 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 undergow operations, who have not given in and wont 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 stricken 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 bought 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 the 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 ... I come to ask you to help win this fight.'

Powerful stuff indeed, and it was not untill 1928 that women were granted full equal rights of voting as men in Britain. Whilst supporting the concepts of equality and freedom, I believe the Suffragette movement unfortunately helped perpetuate the myth that making an 'X' on a pice of paper can affect real change. It leaves many people with the idea that they can vote and assuage themselve of guilt for not participating in any further action, with the conviction that they have done all that they need to do.
It is noticeable that Pankhurst, persuaded her Women's Social and Political Union to halt all militant suffrage activities dring the First World War, being among the first to ssurrender their principles to the altar of war and patriotism.It is also noticeable that Emmeline Pankhurst later became a member of the Conservative Party. It is also worth noting that the ability of women to elect and be elected culminated, in Britain with the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher, whose policies of repression, which had nothing I guess with her gender,did however prove that voting alone cannot accomplish significant positive change.  in my humble opinion does not amount to much of a legacy, despite the bravery and sense of common purpose that the Suffragettes showed.

Now in 2013, democracies dominant paries still represent the few, alligned with corporations, private financiers, that exploit the resources of our nation, not for us, but for the interests of the few which they truly represent and uphold. Are we really free? Is not democracy a sham. In the last election in Britain the majority of the people voted against the Conservative Party, but now in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it is their policies that are being currently cruelly implemented across the country. Struggles outside parliament are routinely ruthlessly supressed or critisised or simply ignored by the mainstream media.
Where is the democracy that saw the arrests of many people, taking part in actions and demonstrations leading up to the G8 summit.

Where is the democracy that sees communities being torn apart, and stigmatised. The marginalised, the poor and disadvantaged singled out to pay for the crimes of the bankers and the capitalist system, aidied and abetted by nearly all the parties  operating within the Parliamentary structure.
The legacy of the Suffragettes lives on though in people who daily practice deeds not words, who participate in direct action, constantly calling out for more radical change.
On the anniversary of Emmeline's death their are still many being foce fed, from Guantanamo, Israeli Prisons, across the world, many people still fighting , still hungry for freedom. Here in Britain at the moment their is a 60 year old man called George Rolph, who has now been on hunger strike against Atos ( the organisation that carries out work capability tests on behalf of the Government) prepared  to sacrifice his life to draw attention to the fact that his disability benefits had been denied. A survivor of domestic violence and abuse, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. On all accounts an individual with severe mental health issues. Bringing attention how the most vulnerable people in the U.K are being treated by their democratic government. Many others have died because they are ill and cannot cope under the strain of this Government Policies....

So on anniverary of this blog, I thank those who have supported this blog, left a comment or too, shown some encouragement, you know who you are.
Stay free,practice solidarity.
All the best

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