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Suffering in the Quest for Suffrage
“What our Government could not do, what it has never been able to do, is to silence our women.”
– Emmeline Pankhurst
By Rebecca Seward, Metadata Editor
Britain in the 1800s saw the rise of the women’s suffrage movement. The Suffragists would campaign and argue that women deserved the right to vote. By the 1900s their cause was still being ignored by the political elite, so in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Suffragette movement.
While the Suffragists and Suffragettes are close in name and cause – to have their political existence recognized – they could not have been further apart in temperament.
Where petitions, campaigns and a steady war of attrition had been waged by the Suffragists, the Suffragettes took a much more radical and militant approach to their cause. Chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows and participating in protests and hunger strikes were just a few of the tactics employed by the Suffragettes, who, as a result, were frequently taunted, abused, arrested and imprisoned.
“Why I Am a Militant”
The ProQuest Women’s Magazine Archive is a compelling – and somewhat unexpected – place to explore life as a Suffragette. Unexpected, because nestled between the kinds of domestic articles you would anticipate from 1914 issue of Good Housekeeping (such as what to serve for Fourth of July dinner and the influence of international conflict on summer fashion), is a first-hand account of a Suffragette’s motivations and experiences.
Emmeline Pankhurst’s article, “Why I Am a Militant” “told of almost unbelievable things that came under her personal observation, of a disregard for women that passes comprehension among us,” according to an editorial introduction. “To all who have been fair-minded enough to read the story, it has been a satisfactory explanation, if not justification, of the militant movement,” it concluded.
Like many Suffragettes, Pankhurst was arrested on numerous occasions, and her article provides wrenching insight into how women were viewed and treated by the British government and its criminal justice system; and how, rather than serve as a deterrent, incarceration fuelled the fight for equality.
The British prison system forbade detainees from speaking to each other, which Pankhurst recalled as “of all our hardships, the ceaseless silence of our lives was the worst.” Being imprisoned with her daughter and unable to communicate with her (even when her daughter fell ill) compounded the hardship for Pankhurst, who ultimately defied the rule:
Unrepentant, I told the governor that, in spite of any penalty he might impose on me, I would never again submit to the odious silence rule. To forbid a mother to speak to her child was infamous. For this I was told that I was a ‘dangerous criminal,’ and was sent into solitary confinement.
Hunger strikes were also practiced by Suffragettes in prison. Pankhurst described the inhumane techniques employed to force-feed these strikers, resulting in pain, injury, choking and vomiting. In one case, Pankhurst reported a prisoner “…was forcibly fed, and so brutally that the matron and two of the wardresses burst into tears, and the second doctor interfered.” The process caused such trauma, prisoners would often be released for convalescence, then re-arrested when they were healthy enough to return to prison.
Upon her release, Pankhurst spoke to a crowd, insisting “we should refuse to be bound by the rules made for criminals,” adding:
We were political prisoners, and since it was the international custom not to treat such prisoners as felons, we would not, in the future, for the sake of the dignity of women, for the sake of the consciences of the men of the country, and for the sake of our nation, allow the Liberal Government to treat us like ordinary lawbreakers.
While the Suffragettes fought to have their political existence acknowledged by the government, the government used its power to impede women’s progress by raiding the organization’s offices, controlling the press, savagely (and sometimes fatally) abusing protesters. In response, Pankhurst wrote:
For the methods we have been obligated to use, to bring the powerful British Government to the brink of destruction, I offer no apology. Men, when tyrants robbed them of their liberties and denied them their rights, as free citizens, took up arms; history honors them for doing so. And so, in the future, will history honor women.
Women’s Magazine Archive
Consumer magazines aimed at a female readership are recognized as critical primary sources through which to interpret multiple aspects of 19th and 20th-century history and culture. Archival issues, however, have previously been difficult to locate and navigate.
The magazines are all scanned from cover to cover in high-resolution color, ensuring that the original print artefacts are faithfully reproduced and that valuable non-article items, such as advertisements, are included. Detailed article-level indexing, with document feature flags, enables efficient searching and navigation of this content.
Most of these titles were published monthly and the length of back file ranges from 29 years to 123 years; each provides a rich seam of material attesting to changing social, historical and cultural trends over a period of many decades.
Pankhurst, E. (1914, 07). Why I am a militant. Good Housekeeping Magazine, 59, 10-a90, a91, a92, a93, a94, a95, a96, a97, a98, a99.