Friday, July 6, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Emmeline Pankhurst, "Freedom or Death"

I would have liked seeing British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in action. When we say her movement fought for votes for women, it really fought: The suffragette movement in the UK was unusually violent. Pankhurst, known for her theatrics, addressed crowds from a stretcher, broke out of prison, got smuggled into lecture halls to avoid the police, and spoke (as shown in the photo here) from automobiles and pretty much any venue she could find.

Her "Freedom or Death" speech, considered her most famous, happened in Hartford, Connecticut, on a fundraising tour of the United States that took place late in 1913. She traveled there with a warrant out on her head. Feminist and author Germaine Greer sets the scene:
During the preceding 18 months she had been imprisoned 12 times, but had served no more than 30 days, all of them on hunger strike. According to her daughter and comrade, Christabel Pankhurst, prison staff never dared to force-feed her. In response to public revulsion, force-feeding was abandoned in 1913 and the "Cat and Mouse Act" brought in, which provided that fasting female inmates whose health was suffering be released until their health improved, then rearrested as often as necessary until their sentence was served out.
In this fundraising speech, Pankhurst announced early on that she would not be defending the right of women to vote, but instead to explain why the movement had turned to more aggressive and violent means to achieve its ends. "I do not look either very like a soldier or very like a convict, and yet I am both," she said frankly, and much later, having cast the movement as a civil war, said, "you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs; you cannot have civil war without damage to something." It's interesting that her speaking style, as noted in her obituary in the New York Times,was not itself loud and fiery. Here are some things you can learn about public speaking from this speech:
  • Find a comparator to throw your argument into high relief: Pankhurst uses the speech to compare the women's vote movement to other international uprisings unrelated to her topic, and compares herself to Sir Edward Carson, who was leading the Ulster rebellion in Ireland at the time. She's effective in noting that he had done everything she had, but was not imprisoned for it--and had the privilege of the vote, to boot. The comparison deftly demonstrates an injustice.
  • Call it what it is:In 1913, men could vote, but women, the poor, criminals and the insane were forbidden to do so. Seizing on that status as part of the dregs of society, Pankhurst spoke to men direcctly: "It is quite evident you do not all realise we are human beings or it would not be necessary to argue with you that women may, suffering from intolerable injustice, be driven to adopt revolutionary methods." In doing so, she got back to her primary point: The violent methods stemmed from a real injustice.
  • Create a local angle: Pankhurst asks her audience to imagine these issues were playing out in their own streets, and among men, rather than women: "But let the men of Hartford imagine that they were not in the position of being voters at all, that they were governed without their consent being obtained, that the legislature turned an absolutely deaf ear to their demands, what would the men of Hartford do then?" In playing to the locals, she takes what might have seemed like a faraway issue and brought it home.
You can read an edited version of this speech, part one and part two, which appeared in a 2007 top ten great speeches of the 20th century list compiled by the Guardian (Pankhurst, Margaret Thatcher and Virginia Woolf were the only women to make that list). Greer's appreciation appeared alongside the speech. Pankhurst's book, My Own Story, is available for free on Amazon Kindle, and you also can consult the biography Emmeline Pankhurst.

Below is the first part of a BBC documentary, Suffragette City, that puts the movement and Pankhurst's leading role in context. What do you think of this famous speech?

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