Invited by celebrated architect and socialite Theodate Pope, and introduced by the equally well-placed and notably outspoken Katherine Houghton Hepburn, a militant English suffragist took the stage at Hartford’s Parson Theatre today in 1913, and delivered what is now regarded as one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth-century. Emmeline Pankhurst, whose unwavering advocacy for women’s right to vote in England had led her to attack government buildings, stone the prime minister’s residence, and spend significant time behind bars – all while building one of the most effective English women’s rights organizations – hearkened back to the spirit of Revolutionary War resistance to tryranny in a speech titled “Freedom or Death. ”
Taking the stage in front of a green, white, and purple banner that read “Resistance to Tyranny is Obedience to God,” Pankhurst spoke for an hour and a half, delivering a powerful and eloquent justification for using militant tactics to agitate for women’s rights. “Tonight I am not here to advocate woman suffrage,” she declared; “I am here as a soldier who has temporarily left the field of battle in order to explain what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women.” Giving a detailed history of the trials and tribulations of the women’s movement in England, Pankhurst also made multiple references to the political ideals of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, repeatedly stressing the intolerable status quo of an entire country of women being governed without their consent: “We have been proving in our own person that government does not rest upon force; it rests upon consent… all of the strange happenings that you have read about over [in England] have been manifestations of a refusal to consent on the part of the women.”
“Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.”
– Emmeline Pankhurst, Nov. 13, 1913
Pankhurst used militaristic language throughout her speech, referring to anti-suffragists as “the enemy” and the struggle for women’s voting rights as a “civil war.” Referencing the many cases of suffragists going on hunger strikes, she dramatically declared: “We will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.”
The following day, Pankhurst left Hartford by train amid a crowd of well-wishers, taking with her $1,400 in donations (equivalent to over $35,000 in today’s dollars) to help her continue her “trouble-making” in England. Local newspaper coverage of Pankhurst’s speech was lukewarm at best; the Hartford Courant described the speaker as a “notorious militant,” the venue as mostly empty, and concluded “Mrs. Pankhurst argued the suffrage cause of woman… but not with great result.” History would prove that final sentiment wrong, as Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death” speech is now widely considered one of the greatest political speeches of the 20th century.
A speech for the ages that both defined, defended, and energized the radical women’s movement of the early 20th century, delivered today in Connecticut history.
Steve Thornton, “Connecticut’s Intersection with Women’s Suffrage,” CT Viewpoints