Maybe you’ve heard it all before. Maybe you know all about the suffragettes. Think again. Although My Own Story, Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1914 autobiography, is not a new publication, there is a brand new edition being released on the 11th of December, here, which encouraged me to read the story I had never got around to. The one-hundred year anniversary of its publication is, of course, a perfect chance to take another look at a topic you perhaps thought you knew all about. I thought that, after studying various history modules on British politics, I knew enough about the suffrage movement to understand its development. I admired Emmeline Pankhurst and her fellow suffragettes but until I read this book, I was unaware of the true extent of suffrage campaigning.
Although My Own Story is an autobiography, it is also a political-social commentary and a recounting of historical events. Despite it being written from Pankhurst’s personal perspective, it felt more informative and educative than anything I had been taught before about the suffrage movement. With extracts from both suffragette’s and parliamentary speeches, newspaper articles from both pro-suffrage and national publications and descriptions of major historical events, including some that I hadn’t heard of, I soon felt like I was learning more about the suffragettes than ever before. Looking back on my school experiences, I remember the rather negative portrayal of the suffragette movement, whose wild militancy delayed rather than hastened the extension of the franchise to women. That is why I would class ‘My Own Story’ as necessary reading for anybody with the slightest interest in political and/or social history and particularly those with an interest in women’s rights, democracy and activism. I was particularly surprised at learning of the widespread support for the cause of women’s enfranchisement, Westminster’s obstinacy in refusing to listen to demands, the high level of organisation of the W.S.P.U. and found the extracts from speeches rather moving.
The only criticism that I have for this book, which is completely unfair, as it has nothing to do with the writing itself, is that I wish Pankhurst had waited a few more years before writing it. Published in 1914, Pankhurst had yet to see what would happen during the First World War (1914-1918); she had not yet seen the role that women would take, and did not know that women would be enfranchised for the first time. I would have loved to read her thoughts on all of these developments. On the other hand, it is a touching reminder to anyone, especially women, who take their voting rights for granted that women fought and died for the right to vote. Take for instance, the following extract:
“Other histories of the militant movement will undoubtedly be written; in times to come when all constitutional countries of the world, all women’s votes will be as universally accepted as men’s votes are now; when men and women occupy the world of industry on equal terms, as co-workers rather than as cut-throat competitors; when, in a word, all the dreadful and criminal discriminations which exist now between the sexes are abolished, the historian will be able to sit down in leisurely fashion and do full justice o the strange story of how the women of England took up arms against the blind and obstinate Government of England and fought their way to political freedom. I should like to live long enough to read such a story, calmly considered, carefully analysed, conscientiously set forth.
‘My Own Story’ was an inspiring read which I sped through in only a few days, fitting it in and around my commute to school, between lectures, and then an extra few pages before bed. Although many people will have learned about the suffragettes at some point in their lives, it is nothing compared to reading about it from an actual suffragette, and especially such an important leader of the movement. This is a book about the fight for votes, and the struggle is emphasised in a way in which it is rarely portrayed in schools or in the media, thus shedding a new light on the issue. What is your opinion on the suffragettes? What do you think Emmeline Pankhurst and the other suffragettes would think of our world today?