Emmeline Pankhurst grew up all too aware of the prevailing attitude of the day: that men were considered superior to women. When she was just fourteen she attended her first suffrage meeting, and returned home a confirmed suffragist. Throughout the course of her career she endured humiliation, prison, hunger strikes and the repeated frustration of her aims by men in power, but she rose to become the guiding light of the Suffragette movement. This is the story, in Pankhurst’s own words, of her struggle for equality.
‘My Own Story’ was very readable, and Emmeline Pankhurst is a very convincing narrator. While her glowing descriptions of her fellow suffragettes/martyrs were sickening at times, her sassy comments about politicians and legal systems of the time were quite simply amazing. She also managed to explain political and legal systems and procedures without boring me to tears, which I consider an incredible feat. Admittedly at times she came off as a little pompous. She often wrote of the glorious crowds and supporters that her and her fellow suffragettes’ speeches and marches brought, especially after the women began to be arrested. I think Pankhurst underestimated the sheer entertainment value that these processions offered to the public. I often found myself thinking a good portion of these supporters were actually spectators who found the sight of middle class women rioting and being arrested entertaining.
Despite the engaging writing style, I don’t find this account completely reliable. Pankhurst frequently contradicts herself. She first states that Hunger Strikes in prison were a form of protest that they the women were being treated as common criminals, rather than the political prisoners that militant suffragettes believed themselves to be. Later in the narrative, when the Cat & Mouse Act was passed, she then claims that Hunger Strikes were employed as a means to avoid jail time. Pankhurst speaks scornfully of the Act, which was designed to enforce prisoners who need medical treatment to resume their sentence when they were well. It was a deliberate counterattack against the Hunger Strikes, and while it was not effective I’d say it’s a hundred times more humane than Force Feeding.
While I completely understand the frustration that led the suffragettes to militancy, I cannot fully condone it. There was definite sexist and unfair treatment of suffragettes in the early days of militancy compared to men who committed similar or worse acts while protesting their rights to vote and other matters. However, it reached a point where the suffragettes were damaging their cause and their reputation by destroying the property of the voting public. I’m pretty sure that if the militants had stuck to heckling and damaging the Liberals by-elections they would have reached a result sooner.
Pankhurst is a very arresting author, and I have a far better understanding of the Suffragette Movement as a result of ‘My Own Story’. While at times I found her narrative unreliable, I think that can be said of any autobiography, especially a political one. At the time of publishing ‘My Own Story’ women were still fighting for the right to vote, and Pankhurst was attempting to explain the frustration of militants and the importance of Votes for Women. I may not agree with the methods of herself and her followers, but they were brave women and for that they have my respect.