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”.

Marry Wollstonecraft, before her time

When the ideas of equality in Western Europe, specifically in France and England, are discussed, one thinks of the disparity of wealth between the aristocrats, the bourgeoisie, and the peasant classes. However the subject of equality comes specifically out of a male dominated society.

In France during the 1790’s Women were treated as inferior to men in all respects, both physically and mentally. They were not represented equally politically, and had practically no voice in the changes that were coming to France at that time.

During the Same period the wife of an aristocrat in England Marry Wollstonecraft, was able to take advantage of the education that her status provided, and wrote about the plight of women during the period. Wollstonecraft commented on both the sexism and the belief of most men during the period that women were simply social objects. Wollstonecraft’s writings were ahead of her time. She could be considered to be one of the first Western European women’s rights activists. In her writing she specifically describes how men would never ask the opinion of women on any subjects having to do with social or political issues. She also describes how many men treated women like objects, or as a delicate thing that may break if it was handled poorly. Wollstonecraft’s argument is that women should be included in the workings of western society. She cited the fact that women are never consulted, and therefore are not able to influence their surroundings, and therefore are at the mercy of men.

Wollstonecraft’s writings were heavily influenced by the events of the French Revolution, and the fact that women, especially peasant women bore the brunt of many atrocities that the revolution produced. Wollstonecraft was ahead of her time in the way that she argued for increased representation of women in the political realms of her time.

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.