Speech at Limehouse
June 20, 1913 — Limehouse Town Hall, London, UK
Our Resolution calls upon the Government to give Votes to working women this year and demands the immediate repeal of the infamous Cat and Mouse Act.
This Act is rightly called the Cat and Mouse Act, because by its means the Government is acting toward the Suffragette prisons exactly as the cat does the mouse. This Cat and Mouse treatment is worse than a man hanging, because it will steadily undermine the vitality of the prisoners until death ensues, and a lingering death is worse than a speedy one.
Do you believe that the Suffragettes who are fighting for a great causes, should be put to death for what they have done? If you do, would you not rather that they should be killed swiftly and painfully than by slow torture?
When I was a little girl my father, who was a well known radical used to say how splendid a thing it was to be English, because to be English was to have in one’s veins the blood of fighters for freedom and self government. But indeed we are all nowadays supposed to be proud of our forefathers who fought for votes for men. Mr. Lloyd George, Mr. Asquith and the others who run our Government consider themselves successors of those old reformers, and the Liberal Cabinet Ministers and their Irish Allies drink toasts to the men who fought for Home Rule and the Irish Land Acts. And yet they refuse self government to women and they oppose the Suffragettes. In the beginning the watchword of the Liberal party was “resistance to oppression and that has been the watchword of the reformers in all ages and it is the watchword of the Suffragettes to-day.
People who praise men for fighting for their rights often tell women that they could obtain the vote if they would work for it in a different way. Do they know that women have been organising peaceful petitions and meetings for the vote since 1865? Do they know that hundreds of women suffrage meetings are being held in London alone every week? Have they heard of our monster meetings, the biggest ever held for any question, in Hyde Park and the provincial towns, and of the great processions of women demanding votes that again and again have marched through our city streets? We have had great processions here in the East End also, and as you know, hundreds of thousands assembled at our meetings in Victoria Park. What more can we do?
Women have done much to shew they care for the vote. Two thousand of our women have been to prison, hundreds have done the hunger strike and have endured forcible feeding. Remember that a thousand women had been to prison for trying to present petitions and such things, before ever a stone was thrown. When I was in America and told the people there how our women have toiled for the vote, how they have suffered in prison, and in doing the hunger strike have gone again and again to the brink of death, how they have been ill-treated by the stewards at Cabinet Ministers meetings, and by the police in Parliament Square, the Americans said: “Why don’t you go out and shoot?” As you know we have not done that. We tried petitions and public meetings, we tried facing violence and imprisonment, for what even our opponents would only call merely technical offences, though we maintain that they were not offences at all. When these things failed to get us the vote, we tried window smashing, a custom time honoured in its use by men.
Do you think that window smashing was wrong? if it could get us the vote. Are you going to weight the value of the windows in the balance against the lives of women who are fighting for the vote, and against the happiness of those women who ought to have the vote and who cannot get decent wages and housing conditions, who lack even the barest necessaries for their little children? We tried what window smashing could do for us, and when window smashing proved too weak we had to do other things. We decided to attach property more strongly. We decided to burn out the pillar boxes. Well are you going to weigh letters against human lives?
When we found that the destruction of letters was still not enough, we went on to a more serious damage. If there had not been people prepared to do for freedom in the old days what we are doing now. You men would not have the rights you have to-day. It was through actions such as ours, but accompanied by greater violence, that men won the right of petition, the right of free speech and free assembly and a free press as far as they have them, the right of Trade Union combination, and the franchise itself. Remember it is the franchise that safeguards for men all these other rights.
Unfortunately men have not learned how to use the vote well, or we should not have our present awful social conditions. The average wage of our women would not e seven shillings, it would not be tolerated that in such districts as the Brady Street area of Bethnal Green, 60 per cent of the houses should be certifiable as unfit for human habitation the high rate of our infant mortality would not be, as it is, disgracing the community, women and girls would not be working in the poisonous lead dust of the potteries for seen or eight shillings a week, women would not be driven to the streets to earn their bread, the white slave traffic would not flourish in our midst.
Obviously men need women to help them with their voting. Things are desperate enough. We mean to have the right to try and mend things. We are determined that nothing on earth shall stop us from getting that right, we shall do whatever the situation needs. There was a mansion burned down to-day. I am glad to hear it. If you do not like our methods, what others do you suggest?
It is not any use asking us to try to convert the Government. We have tired that until we are tired. We have tried pleading, we have tried begging. When the people in power have shut their eyes and will not see, when they do not care a straw for what is right, but have simply made up their mind that they will not give way, there is nothing whatever to be done but fight.
To those who say that we suffragists should be punished, I ask “What would you do with Sire Edward Carson?” We women have decided that we will destroy property, but we will not, if we can help it, injure human beings. Carson and the other Ulster people have said “Shoot the British Soldiers.” They have said “Fight to kill.” They have not said “d not kill, do not injure human beings,” as we have done; yet they go free and we are punished for our words.
Why is this? can it be that Sire Edward Cardon and his friends merely give advice and then stay safely at home, whilst poor people, whose hard toil will probably be no whit the lighter whether Redmond wis Home Rule or Carson retains Protection, fight and injure each other in the streets? I am glad to say that our women’s leaders have more courage. They not only give advice to their followers, but they take a hand in carrying it out. Mrs. Pankhurst, like Sire Edward Carson, has given advice, but she is one who is herself prepared to suffer the result. Therefore it seems o me a very strange thing, when we have people in this country who are giving their whole lives and energies to getting better conditions for others, the Government should be allowed to treat them worse than it could if they were murderers — why even in the cases of the most brutal murders, time after time, when for some cause the gallows have failed to act at the appointed hour, the National Conscience has refused to make a human being taste the bitterness of death again, and the condemned murderer has been set free; yet women suffragists, under the Cat and Mouse Act, are to be brought to the gates of death every second wee, every second wee, every second week, until they die. Is not a slow death of this kind immeasurably worse than hanging?
Is this thing to on on? Why do we allow it? The Government could not continue it for a day if we were all determined that it should not. This struggle is very much bigger than a party question. Does it not seem strange that over £200,000 worth of property should have been destroyed, that 2,000 women should have gone to prison, that the hunger strikers should be reduced to the point of death, and yet the Government of the country should pretend to be too busy discussing things that are not going to make a ha’porth of difference to any of us, to take any notice?
It was said that until a woman could be found to lay down her life for it, this Cause would never be won. Emily Wilding Davison has given her life for it — she threw herself into the midst of the race-horses and was battered to death — just think what it means; is it not strange that when a woman has done that in order to call attention to the unrest amongst women, and the great desire amongst women to share in the Government of the country — is it no strange that there should not have been one man in Parliament who would have thought it necessary to bring the question up, in order that Parliament might discuss it? Why should not the Government, why should not Parliament bring this struggle for votes for women to an end.
They refuse to do so because they do not care for anything but force. If there were an army of people coming with sticks and stones from the East End of London to Westminster to demand it, we should have the vote in double quick time.
It is the argument of sticks and stones from the East End that is going to get us the Vote and I for one am not going to rest until that army has been formed.
We ought to put the Government into prison as they have imprisoned our women. We ought to be in Downing Street very soon to shew them what we mean in a forcible way. If we are determined to end this thing, we can do it, if we go, not as a mere handful, but in our thousands, if we go down there and make ourselves terrible, we can bring the Government to their knees. The Government do not mind when a few hundred women come to them unarmed, to hand in a petition, for they can easily send out thousands of police to illtreat them and knock them down; but they will feel very differently when we come in a great mass with sticks and stones to back up our demand.
On June 27th we are going to have a meeting in Trafalgar Square, but we shall be ready for decisive action later on. Our motto is Deeds not Words. We are weary of inaction. We would far rather be slowly done to death by the Cat and Mouse Act, or be killed suddenly in a riot, than to allow this state of affairs to go on. We can end it all very soon if we make up our minds to stand firmly together and strike hard.
Source: “Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’s Limehouse Speech,” East London Federation of the W.S.P.U (London: E.H. Williams).