Freedom or Death is a political and agitative
speech pronounced by the British women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 1913.
The speech is
addressed to both men and women of the United States in order to make them
aware of the suffragist movement and the struggle of English women for the right to vote and the
complete rights of citizenship , and in order
to make the governmental repression against
women visible who did make the choice to struggle until their death for
obtaining their demandss1 .
herself as a prisoner as well as a soldier, having left temporarily the field
of battle. She considers their struggle as a civil war which used, waged by
women and supports, s2 direct action as the only means to achieve their aims. She considers
her fight for women’s political and
civic rights as fair, without taking in0 account in which way those aims would be
movement in Great Britain, that started before the end of the 19th
Century, had not been able to obtain the right to vote after 50 years of work,
strictly framed into legality, therefore Pankhurst split with the moderate
branch of the movement and, in 1903 founded the WSPU – Women’s Social and
Political Union – that stood for direct
action and sabotage. They were called Suffragette
unlike the Suffragist, gathered in the NUWSS –National Union of Women’s
Suffrage Societies – an earlier union, dated from 1897, but legalist.
In order to make her speech close to her interlocutors, Pankhurst
mention some revolutions, violent ones like the one that had begun with the
Boston Tea Party in 1773. The American colonies of the British Empire struggled
with the model of upper taxation, the
British monarch had set up, and started a series of protests that turned out to
become no less than the independence of the Thirteen Colonies from the British
Empire. Sometimes, the author notes, if the laws are unfair or the rulers don’t
do anything to modify oppressive laws or systems based on the force, the acts
of warfare are justified enough.
in her speech about the glorification of men who lead this revolutions while
women are criminalize for the same actions.
The oppressed, who
don’t hold the force, are not able to
change their own circumstance of oppression, since they cannot ascend to the
spheres which would be allowing to do so; thus they have to come up with other
mechanism in order to be listened or being taken into consideration (taken
serious???). That is exactly what the suffragist movement in Great Britain were
going through, despite the political persecution and repression the women had
to deal with.
mentions in her speech a fact that resulted in a great impact beyond Great
Britain, the forced alimentation of sane
hunger striking women, they were subjected to. The author herself had to go
through it. She interpellates the possible doctors
in the audience to make them aware of how awful
the fact of being forced to is, for a person on hunger strike, who is rejecting
with all the strength to be fed.
However, she claims
that not even then, all the determined women in prison, gave up their ideas or
actions. Moreover, they felt empowered
and certain to go forward, until death
in order to oblige the government to make a move.
And the government made it, indeed, but not
in 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 the
brink of death under license, and once they were recovered, to incarcerate them
again, in order to prevent them from dying inside.
This speech, as well as others written
before and at the time for the women’s right to vote or emancipation (Théroigne
de Méricourt, George Sand, Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxembourg, all of them excellent
orators), has an incredible strength in my opinion, Far from having a victimizing tone, their
words emit a determination and positive energy, that, in the face of the
oppressive circumstances those women were submitted to is at least astonishing.
Pankhurst herself has to remind in Hartford
that women are human beings fighting to win rights of citizenship. This obvious
clarification might be suraprising to us, from a 21st century
perspective, but it was not unjustified
at the time.
The women in the 20th century did
not have autonomy at all. They were dependent on a male figure, either the
husband, a brother or the father. Their only space was the domestic one.
The irruption of the women into the public
and political space, shook the foundations of the bourgeois order. After the
liberal revolutions, the women paradoxically lost some spaces of freedom they
had benefit from before, they had access to work, admittedly, because of new market needs rather than for a social
transformation 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 the
government, formed by men.
The actions they developed against property,
power structures and public buildings, ultimately the symbols of their
oppression, didn’t take the women only
to jail, but also to pathologise , disrespect them and denigrated them because
they had defied their required gender roles: hysteric, deviant, resentful spinsters, and so on.
Discrediting their struggle, coming from a
conscious political movement, from the militancy as Pankhurst claimed , proved
in my opinion that the government did not have major arguments to deny their
Or even worse, despite their demands were
fair – and opinions in favour of doing so were not lacking, including by men in
the Parliament – what was at stake was the same constituted order, the one who
sees the female spaces only in the sphere of reproduction, of domestics and
submission; the one based on
Therefore, the imprisoned suffragettes were always treated as a criminals instead of
as political prisoners.
Besides, the suffragette movement was
traversed class variety. A fact that provided the struggle with a huge
potential, not only for the revolutionary richness and the multidimensional
approach, but also because it made it more difficult for the power to locate
and hence to repress the movement.
Pankhurst herself warns in the meeting: “in
the woman’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it is
absolutely impossible to deal with it: you cannot locate it, and you cannot
As a woman, I do feel deep respect and great
admiration for those women, who defied the patriarchal power and their own
gender roles, for their emancipation and to break the chains of their
oppression. They did it until the ultimate consequences, they risked their
freedom and lives for a fairer world. Their contribution is precious. Whether
they achieved their objectives or not – the women’s right to vote in Great Britain was conferred only in
1928, after World War I, and as a payment for their services during the
struggle, their legacy cannot be forgotten.
Regrettably, we are
still very far away from living in a fair society, we live in a system based on
inequalities and in terms of gender equality, there is still a lot to fight
against: inequality at work, art and culture, feminicides are the order of the
day. The struggle of those women is a source of inspiration to me and a
reminder of the fact that only if we struggle ourselves against the oppression
of women by men, we will be able to abolish this tyranny and whether we succeed
or not, we could say at least we have tried to.