The Battle against Victorian Values

Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the “Women’s Social and Political Union,” was an integral contributor to the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. Born in Manchester to politically active parents, Pankhurst was introduced to the suffrage movement at a young age. She subsequently married Richard Pankhurst, a supporter of women’s suffrage who supported her activist work. In her 1913 writing “Militant Suffragist,” Pankhurst asserts that the suffrage movement in England, unlike its counterpart in the United States, had progressed past the state of advocacy into a revolutionary and civil war. ((Emmeline Pankhurst, Militant Suffragist, 1913)) The text was authored in the midst of the WPSU’s energized campaigning. The group condoned destruction of property and even arson as tactics to achieve suffrage, staying true to the title of “militant.” The use of such approaches explains Pankhurst’s self-conceptualization as a soldier rather than simply an activist. Part of her duty as a soldier fighting for liberty was a willingness to die for her cause; Pankhurst states that her group forced the government to accept that “either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote.” Her impassioned writing aimed at converting men to her cause. She beseeched men in the United States specifically to consider whether they would rather kill women they respected than give them equal citizenship. ((Emmeline Pankhurst, Militant Suffragist, 1913))


Pankhurst during her first prison sentence in 1908. She was imprisoned for “obstruction” after attempting to give a document of protest to the Prime Minister.

Pankhurst represented a significant shift away from the glorification of middle class “virtues” prevalent in the Victorian Era. During the nineteenth century, female authors such as Elizabeth Poole Sanford and “Mrs. Beeton” authored self-help works instructing women to be contented with their inferior position and avoid leaving their domestic sphere. Pankhurst’s text was the antithesis to the concept that a woman should live to please her husband, an idea which bred anti-suffragist concerns about a man simply deciding for whom his wife would vote. Victorian middle class values were largely an illusion, only attainable by the wealthy and perpetuated by those it subjugated. Pankhurst aided in the eventually successful fight for women’s suffrage, accounting for the partial destruction of values oppressive to women. In thinking about the dramatic differences between the writings and lives of the two Victorian authors versus Pankhurst, I would ask what major social, cultural, or economic factors may have influenced the divide.

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Pankhurst and Women’s Suffrage

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the socially “ideal” woman was reserved, obedient, and dependent on her husband. Her roles were to manage the household and engage in charitable work. It was frowned upon for her to speak for herself, disagree with her spouse, and have a career.

Emmeline Pankhurst, a British political activist, challenged these social values in 1913. She targeted middle class men with the document “Militant Suffrage”, in which she explained why they should treat women differently. She advocated women’s suffrage, and explained that women were “in pursuit of liberty and the power to do useful public service”. She referred to the social struggle for women as “our civil war”.

Emmeline Pankhurst on Women’s Suffrage

The predominant middle class value system of the 19th and early 20th centuries articulated an image of the “ideal woman.” This ideal woman was to be quiet and reserved, obedient and dependent on her husband, and the manager of the domestic sphere (the household). While much of the middle class, women included, aspired to exhibit these ideals, there were many who were dissatisfied with the prevailing notions of women’s role in society.   One critic in particular, Emmeline Pankhurst, in the document titled Militant Suffragist, 1913, rejected many of society’s conceptions concerning women. She was a staunch advocate of women’s suffrage. She tried to accomplish her goals by any means possible, including the use of violence. She argued that women were disserving of this inalienable right because, similarly to men, they have lived “useful lives,” and are “animated with the highest motives.” Pankhurst was radical because of her implementation of militant tactics, but she was also radical for the mere fact that she was active in the public sphere. She was not afraid to voice her opinions publicly, and rejected the notion that women’s only place in society was within the domestic sphere.

Militant Suffragist

Author: Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) was British political activist who advocated for women’s suffrage, lead the suffragette movement, and eventually succeeding in winning women the right to vote in Britain. In 1878 she married Richard Pankhurst, who supported and encouraged her activism, and she was known for her militant approach to suffragism.
Context: Militant Suffragist was a speech delivered by Pankhurst in 1913 as part of her speaking tour through the United States. At the time, U.S. suffragettes were beginning to experiment with Pankhurst’s militant strategies, and the women’s suffrage movement was undergoing a period of revitalization.
Language: The language is concise and accessible, and Pankhurst takes the tone of a General addressing her soldiers in preparation for what she dubs a “civil war.”
Audience: Pankhurst’s audience is an assembly of American women’s rights activists and others interested in her ideas on the suffragette movement.
Intent: Pankhurst’s primary intent is to assert her dedication to the women’s suffrage movement and reinforce the severity of the war that women’s rights activists are facing. She maintains that she is not speaking to advocate for women’s suffrage, but rather to fight and possibly die for it.
Message: The message that Pankhurst conveys is one of frankness and gravity. She is intensely determined to fight for her rights and seeks to mobilize American women into doing the same. She emphasizes the the time for advocacy has passed and that women across the world have entered into a period of civil war. Women must be willing to die for their rights or they will never realize them.

Pankhurst and Militant Suffragist

A: Emily Pankhurst was a British Political activist and leader of the woman’s suffragist movement that took the world by storm in the beginning of the 20th century. She was raised in Manchester, England and was introduced to the suffragist movement (by her very politically active parents) before her tenth birthday. From this time forward, her life was dedicated to getting women the right to vote.

C: This was written in 1913, right around the heyday for womens’ rights activism. At this point in time there were many people fighting for womens rights in both America and England. Over the next 15 years the movement would gain steam, and women would begin to gain the right to vote (among other rights) all across the world.

L: The language used is very inflammatory. Pankhurst refers to herself as a “soldier that has left the field of battle”, referring to the fact that men and women are locked in fierce conflict over these withheld rights. She tells the men that they have two options: to kill all the women, or to give them their rights.

A: This is written to all of the men in America and Britain that are against giving women the right to vote.

I: She wants all of the men to understand what the women are feeling like: very under appreciated and, frankly, looked down upon. She is writing to make sure they understand that she is coming across the aisle and extending an olive branch to the men before she makes very drastic steps in her process. She is offering them the chance to end their conflict now before the disagreement gets ugly.

M: She is telling the men to not let their disagreement go on any further. If they keep on fighting the women, it will hold all of them back, not just the women. If they give the women the right to vote, however, they will all be able to move forward together in peace and harmony.