The Prisoners at Bow Street
Mrs. Pankhurst’s Speech
October 21, 1908 — Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, London UK
Sir, I want to endorse what my daughter has said, that in my opinion we are proceeded against in this Court by malice on the part of the government. I want to protest as strongly as she has done. I want to put before you that the very nature of your duties in this Court—although I wish to say nothing disrespectful to you—make you perhaps unfitted to deal with a question which is a political question, as a body of jurymen could do. We are not women who would come into this Court as ordinary law-breakers, and we feel that it is a great indignity—as have all the other women who have come into this Court—that for political offense we should come into the ordinary police-court. We do not object to that if from that degradation we shall ultimately succeed in winning political reform for the women of this country.
Mrs. Drummond here is a woman of very great public spirit; she is an admirable wife and mother; she has very great business ability, and she has maintained herself, although a married woman, for many years, and has acquired for herself the admiration and respect of all the people with whom she has had business relations. I do not think I need speak about my daughter. Her abilities and earnestness of purpose are very well known to you. They are young women. I am not, sir. You and I are older, and have had very great and very wide experience of life under different conditions. Before you decide what is to be done with us, I should like you to hear from me a statement of what has brought me into this dock this morning.
Why I am in this Dock.
I was brought up by a father who taught me that it was the duty of his children, boys and girls alike, to realize that they had a duty towards their country; they had to be good citizens. I married a man, whose wife I was but also his comrade in all his public life. He was, as you know, a distinguished member of your own profession, but he felt it his duty, in addition, to do political work, to interest himself in the welfare of his fellow countrymen and countrywomen. Throughout the whole of my marriage I was associated with him in his public work. In addition to that, as soon as my children were of an age to permit me to leave them, I took to public duties. I was for many years a Guardian of the Poor. For many years I was a member of the School Board, and when that was abolished I was elected onto the Education Committee. My experience in doing that work brought me in contact with many of my own sex, who in my opinion found themselves in deplorable positions because of the state of the English law as it affects women. You in this Court must have had experience of women who would never have come here if married women were afforded by law that claim for maintenance by their husbands which I think in justice should be given to them when they give up their economic independence and are unable to earn a subsistence for themselves. You know how inadequate are the marriage laws to women. You must know, sir, as I have found out in my experience of public life, how abominable, atrocious, and unjust are the divorce laws as they affect women. You know very well that the married woman has no legal right of guardianship of her children. Then, too, the illegitimacy laws; you know that a woman sometimes commits the dreadful crime of infanticide, while her partner, the man who should share her punishment, gets off scot-free. I am afraid that great suffering is inflicted upon women because of these laws, and because of the impossibility that women have of getting legal redress. Because of these things I have tried, with other women, to get some reform of these laws. Women have petitioned members of Parliament, have tried for many, many years to persuade them to do something to alter these laws, to make them more equal, for they believe, as I do that in the interests of men quite as much as of women it would be a good thing if laws were more equal between both sexes. I believe it would be better for men. I have a son myself, and I sometimes dread to think that my young son may be influenced in his behavior to the other sex by the encouragement which the law of the land gives to men when they are tempted to take to an immoral life. I have seen, too, that men are encouraged by law to take advantage of the helpless of women. Many women have thought as I have, and for many, many years women have tried by that influence we have so often been reminded of, to alter these laws, but we have found for many years that that influence counts for nothing. When we went to the House of Commons we used to be told, when we were persistent, that Members of Parliament were not responsible to women, they were responsible only to voter, and that their time was too fully occupied to reform those laws, although they agreed that they needed reforming.
I Have Tried Constitutional Methods
Ever since my girlhood, a period of about 30 years, I have belonged to organizations to secure for women that political power which I have felt was essential to bringing about those reforms which women need. I have tried constitutional methods. I have been womanly. When you spoke to some of my colleagues the day before yesterday about their being unwomanly, I felt that bitterness which I know every one of them felt in their hearts. We have tried to be womanly, we have tried to use feminine influence, and we have seen that it is of no use. Men who have been impatient have invariably got reforms for their impatience. And they have not our excuse for being impatient.
You had before you in this court yesterday a man who has a vote, a man who had been addressing other men with votes, and he advised action which we would never dream of advising. But I want to say here and now, as a woman who has worked in the way you advised, that I wonder whether this womanly way is not a weakness that has been taken advantage of. I believe that Mr. Will Thorne was right when he said that no action would have been taken against him, if his name had not been mentioned in this court, because it is a very remarkable thing that the authorities are only proceeding against him when goaded to it by the observations which women made here.
Now, while I share in the feeling of indignation which has been expressed to you by my daughter, I have lived longer in the world than she has. Perhaps I can look round the whole question better than she can, but I want to say here, deliberately, to you, that we are here to-day because we are driven here. We have taken this action, because as women—and I want you to understand it is as women we have taken this action—it is because we realize that the condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty even to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do so.
I do not want to say anything which may seem disrespectful to you, or in any way give you offence, but I do want to say that I wish, sir, that you could put yourself into the place of women for a moment before you decide upon this case. My daughter referred to the way in which women are huddled into and out of these police-courts without a fair trial. I want you to realize that it is a point of honour that if you decide—as I hope you will not decide—to bind us over, that we shall not sign any undertaking, as the Member of Parliament did who was before you yesterday. Perhaps his reason for signing that undertaking may have been that the Prime Minister had given some assurance to the people he claimed to represent that something should be done for them. We have no such assurance. Mr. Birrell told the women who questioned him the other day that he could not say that anything would be done to give an assurance to the women that their claims should be conceded. So, sir, if you decide against us to-day, to prison we must go, because we feel that we should be going back to the hopeless condition this movement was in three years ago if we consented to be bound over to keep the peace which we have never broken, and so, sir, if you decide to bind us over, whether it is for three or six months, we shall submit to the treatment, the degrading treatment, that we have submitted to before.
Although the Government admitted that we are political offenders, and therefore, ought to be treated as political offenders are invariably treated, we shall be treated as pickpockets and drunkards; we shall be searched. I want you, if you can, as a man, to realize what it means to women like us. We are driven to do this, we are determined to go on with this agitation, because we feel in honour bound. Just as it was the duty of your forefathers, it is our duty to make this world a better place for women than it is to-day.
I was in the hospital at Halloway, and when I was there I heard from one of the beds near me the moans of a woman who was in the pangs of child-birth. I should like you to realize how women feel at helpless little infants breathing their first breath in the atmosphere of a prison. We believe that if we get the vote we will find some more humane way of dealing with women than that. It turned out that that woman was a remand prisoner. She was not guilty, because she was finally acquitted.
We believe that if we get the vote in will mean better conditions for our unfortunate sisters. We know what the condition of the woman worker is. Her condition is very bad. Many women pass through this Court who I believe would not come before you if they were able to live morally and honestly. The average earnings of the women who earn their living in this country are only 7s. 7d. a week. There are women who have been driven to live an immoral life because they cannot earn enough to live decently.
We believe your work would be lightened if we got the vote. Some of us have worked, as I have told you, for many years to help our own sex, and we have been driven to the conclusion that only through legislation can any improvement be effected, and that that legislation can never be effected until we have the same power as men have to bring pressure to bear upon our representatives and upon Governments to give us the necessary legislation.
Now, sir, I do want to say this, that we have not wished to waste your time in any way; we have wished to make you realize that there is another side of the case than that put before you by the prosecution. We want you to use your power—I do not know what value there is in the legal claims that have been put before you as to your power to decide this case—but we want you, sir, if you will, to send us to trial in some place more suitable for the trial of political offenders than an ordinary police court. I do not know what you will do; I do not know what your powers are; but I do think, speaking as a woman to a man, I do say deliberately to you—I think your experience has been a large one—I come here not as an ordinary law-breaker. I should never be here if I had the same kind of laws that the very meanest and commonest of men have—the same power that the wife-beater has, the same power that the drunkard has. I should never be here if I had that power, and I speak for all the women who have come before you and the other magistrates.
This is the only way we can get that power which every citizen should have of deciding how the taxes she contributes to should be spent, and how the laws she has to obey should be made, and until we get that power we shall be here—we are here to-day, and we shall come here over and over again. You must realize how futile it is to settle this question by binding us over to keep the peace. You have tried it; it has failed. Others have tried to do it, and have failed. If you had power to send us to prison, not for six months, but for six years, for sixteen years, or for the whole of our lives, the Government must not think that they can stop this agitation. It will go on.
I want to draw your attention to the self-restraint which was shown by our followers on the night of the 13th. They were very indignant, but our words have always been, “be patient, exercise self-restraint, show our so-called superiors that the criticism of women being hysterical is not true; use no violence, offer yourselves to the violence of others.” We are going to win. Our women have taken that advice; if we are in prison they will continue to take that advice.
Well, sir, that is all I have to say to you. We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become lawmakers.
Source: Pankhurst, Emmeline, “The Prisoners at Bow Street — Mrs. Pankhurst’s Speech,” in Speeches and Trials of the Militant Suffragettes: The Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1918. Ed. Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), 1999, pp. 78-83.