Writing by Amanda Finlayson Park
It’s International Women’s Day and what better time to celebrate amazing women and to take stock of where we are in the ongoing fight for gender equality.
Throughout history women have battled against discrimination, died for the right to vote, suffered gross misconduct and generally been overlooked based purely on gender. And yet, along the way, we have continued to fight for equality and to make our voice heard, no matter the risks.
And few have shouted louder than suffragette leader and activist, Emmeline Pankhurst who, along with her comrades started the first official International Women’s Day event in 1911. Born in 1858 in England, Emmeline founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1889, which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections. Not content with that, she then founded the Women’s Political and Social Union (WPSU) and began a series of political interventions, including using letter bombs, assaulting police officers and even arson, in the name of achieving equal voting rights.
In 1910, Pankhurst led a march on Parliament of more than 300 women. They were met with an aggressive and violent police response in which officers punched protesters and pulled on women’s breasts. When it looked like a conciliation bill on women’s suffrage would be derailed, Pankhurst led a campaign of window-smashing, stating, “there is something the government cares for far more than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we will strike the enemy.” The Police raided the WPSU offices and arrested Pankhurst, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit property damage. Along with many other suffragettes, she was imprisoned for 9 months, and went on a prolonged hunger strike to protest their incarceration.
At this point members were still called suffragists, but after years of activism journalists began referring to these new, feisty protestors as suffragettes. Initially this was used as a derogatory slur, a play on the term ‘ladette’ – it was used to distinguish them from women who protested peacefully to which Emmeline’s response was “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.”
She was right. Their efforts helped women from the age of 21 gain the right to vote on the same terms as men. Sadly, Emmeline died at the age of 69 on June 14th 1928, a mere 18 days before the act was passed.
Despite these significant achievements, Emmeline has many fierce critics who dismiss her for her imperialist views. She may have used violent means to get her message heard, supported WWI and turned her back on her daughter Slyvia for her socialist beliefs but that doesn’t detract from all she achieved. She wasn’t perfect but who is?! None of us can be sure we don’t hold beliefs that will be condemned in the future. We have to rid society of the sexiest view that woman have to be unflawed and perfect to be amazing.
No one can deny the tangible legacy left by Emmeline – she did whatever it took to win women the vote in Britain. And she did it against the odds and against terrifying opposition. Even her strategy of supporting the war effort progressed her argument as women filled the roles left vacant by men and their success altered prejudiced minds. That’s why I think she’s amazing. Not for all she did or believed, but as a woman of her class and times, she was remarkable.
The campaign for women’s suffrage was only one among many struggles for civil and human rights that carried on throughout the 20th century, and are still continuing around the world today. It’s hard to believe that not only in the 21st century are we are still fighting for gender equality but that we have a man in the White House declaring that it’s acceptable to “grab women by the pussies”, banning federal money from being used to perform abortions internationally, and who is a major threat to gender parity progress.
There has never been a more important time to seek solace and inspiration from all our amazing foremothers and tip our proverbial hat to women like Emmeline Pankhurst who paved the way for future generations. Together we will unite in solidarity to continue the good fight and in the words of Emmeline, “free half the human race so that we are free to help the other half.”[share]