As I’ve been getting involved in direct action recently, I wanted to do some reading on the topic. I thought I’d start with the women’s suffrage movement, Britain’s own high point for non-violent direct action.
My Own Story is, as the name suggests, Emmeline Pankhurst’s memoirs as a leader in the movement. (This particular edition is a shorter version and part of the Vintage Feminism series) It details her early experiences working in urban poverty relief and debtors prisons, and her realisation that decisions were being made by men on the basis of economics. If the same decisions were made by women, she reasoned, there would be much more compassion for vulnerable people. That would be true across the whole of politics, and women getting the vote would affect poverty, education, rights for children and many other areas of law and policy: “I began to think about the vote in women’s hands not only as a right but as a desperate necessity.”
At the time however, women were treated as a ‘servant class’ in Britain. There were politicians who claimed they were committed to women’s rights, but concrete proposals were rare. The campaign had been going on for a long time with no results, and Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 with plans to up the ante. Interestingly, she was pushed by her daughters, who saw the patient advocacy of their parents’ generation as inadequate. This a theme I keep hearing from climate campaigners, many of whom are acting today for their children or grandchildren.
It’s hard to imagine the level of antagonism the movement faced. Activists would attend political events and ask about women’s votes during Q&A sessions. They would be ejected from the meeting just for asking the question. Then women were banned from the meetings, and politicians (including a young Winston Churchill) would travel with bouncers in order to keep women away. Activists would hide in the rafters or under the stage in order to disrupt the meetings and demand that their question be acknowledged.
While the women’s protest marches and demonstrations were always non-violent towards people, if not property, the police response was very heavy handed. That was perhaps the difference that stood out most to me – the right to protest that we have today is a remarkable privilege. For all the distrust of the police, the differences between protesting today and protesting a hundred years ago are very stark and we shouldn’t take that for granted. The British police are among the world’s more patient and accountable, and there are few countries where I could safely take my children along to an act of civil disobedience.
Another important lesson in Pankhurt’s book is how resilient movements need to be. She has her statue near Parliament now, but she was a pariah at the time. She was arrested on sight on many occasions. She spent time in prison, as did her daughters, enduring force feedings in response to their hunger strikes. Their demands were repeatedly knocked back, year after year. Votes for women were not fully granted until 1928, a quarter of a century on from the founding of her organisation. There are times when direct action can have swift results, but we shouldn’t count on it. Any movement encouraging radical action should have a plan to avoid burnout and keep up morale in the face of opposition.
Pankhurt’s legacy is contested. Some argue that her militancy went too far and undermined the movement. That’s not in this book, and neither is the wider context or the historical detail. What you get here instead is a clear sense of Pankhurst’s thinking, her courage and her moral perspective. There is unfortunately a sense of unfinished business, given ongoing gender inequalities. And you get a call to arms. “We disregard your laws, gentlemen,” says Pankhurst in one of several speeches reproduced. “We set the liberty and the dignity and the welfare of women above all such considerations… I incite this meeting to rebellion.”