Christabel Pankhurst Transcript

Rob Perks on Christabel Pankhurst's Women's Suffrage Speech

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One of the best ways to get campaign ideas across is to talk about them and some of the best speeches, in fact, have been made by campaigners. The best example perhaps, is Martin Luther King's famous I have a Dream speech about racial injustice in the States in the 60’s and that’s a fantastic example. 

The Christabel Pankhurst speech in 1908 is an interesting example of very early recorded speech. It’s extremely rare – very few speeches were recorded before the First World War. And in fact, it’s, I would probably think, fairly unusual for Pankhurst to be making a recording like this. She would have been much more used, as a leading feminist fighting for women’s right to the vote, to be outside in the open air on a street corner. This was a really important period for street corner oratory, long before radio and television began to have an impact. She would have been used to talking to huge crowds.

What we have in this recording is, I think, a slightly disappointing, rather scripted speech. There’s something of the message there but it lacks the vigour and spontaneity that you would expect from an outdoor speech of that particular time. For me, at least, it doesn’t quite work. However there’s some interesting things that you can point out in the speech. Firstly her accent, which is quite interesting, it’s sort of quite posh. She uses, by our standards today, quite formal language. And most interesting, I think, is her determination to be very measured in her argument. And I think this is important because what she’s effectively trying to do I think, is to counter the criticism that was very prevalent at the time aimed at Suffragettes, that they were sort of mad extremists. And she uses some very interesting phrases. Notably when she says “avoid the excesses of men’ and I think that’s a very important part of the speech.

Christabel Pankhurst on Women's Suffrage

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The militant Suffragists who form the Women's Social and Political Union are engaged in the attempt to win the parliamentary vote for the women of this country. Their claim is that those women who pay rates and taxes and who fill the same qualifications as men voters shall be placed upon the parliamentary register. The reasons why women should have the vote are obvious to every fair-minded person. The British constitution provides that taxation and representation shall go together. Therefore, women tax payers are entitled to vote. Parliament views questions of vital interest to women such as education, housing and the employment questions and upon such matters, women wish to express their opinions at the ballot box. The honour and safety of the country are in the hands of Parliament. Therefore, every patriotic and public spirited woman wishes to take part in controlling the actions of our legislators. For forty years, this reasonable claim has been laid before Parliament in a quiet and patient manner. Meetings have been held and petitions signed in favour of votes for women but failure has been the result. The reason of this failure is that women have not been able to bring pressure to bear upon the government and government moves only in response to pressure. Men got the vote, not by persuading but by alarming the legislators. Similar vigorous measures must be adopted by women. The excesses of men must be avoided, yet great determination must be shown. The militant methods of the women today are clearly thought out and vigorously pursued. They consist in protesting at public meetings and in marching to the House of Commons in procession. Repressive legislation make protests at public meetings an offence but imprisonment will not deter women from asking to vote. Deputations to parliament involve arrest and imprisonment yet more deputations will go to the House of Commons. The present Liberal government profess to believe in democratic government yet they refuse to carry out their principles in the case of women. They must be compelled by a united and determined women's movement to do justice in this measure…[inaudible]… we have waited too long for political justice; we refuse to wait any longer. The present government is approaching the end of its career. Therefore, time presses if women are to vote before the next general election. We are resolved that 1909 must and shall be the political enfranchisement of British women.