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What is Our Duty?

April 1915 — Sun Hall, Liverpool UK


I think that throughout our agitation for the franchise for political emancipation, on platforms and other places — even in prisons we have talked about rights and fought for right; at the same time we have always coupled with the claim for rights clear statements as to duty. We have never lost sight of the fact that to possess rights puts upon human beings grave responsibilities and serious duties . We have fought for rights because, in order to perform your duty and fulfill your responsibilities property, in time of peace, you must have certain citizen rights. When the state is in danger, when the very liberties in your possession are imperiled, is above all the time to think of duty. And so, when the war broke out, some of us who, convalescing after our fights, decided that one of the duties of the Women’s Social and Political Union in war time was t talk to men about their duty to the nation — the duty of fighting to preserve the independence of our country, to preserve what our forefathers had won for us, and to protect the nation from foreign invasion.

Women’s right to tell men to fight.

There are people who say, “What right have women to talk to men about fighting for their country, since women are not, according the custom of civilisation, called upon to fight?” That used to be said to us in times of peace,. 

Certainly women have the right to say to men, “Are you going to fight to defend your country and redeem your promise to women?”

Men have said to women, not only that they fight to defend their country, but that they protect women from all the dangers and difficulties of life, and they are proud to be in the position to do it. Whey, then, we say to those men, “You are indeed now put to the test. The men of Belgium, the men of France, the men of Serbia, however willing they were to protect women from the things that are most horrible — and more horrible to women than death — have not been able to do it.”

Our honor as a nation at stake.

It is only by an accident, or a series of accidents for which no man here has the right to take credit that British women on British soil are not now enduring the horrors endured by the women of France, the women of Belgium, and the women of Serbia. The least that men can do is that every manor fitting age should prepare himself to redeem his word to women, and to make ready to do his best, to save the mothers, the wives, and the daughters of Great Britain from outrage too horrible even to think of.

We have the right to say to the men, “Fight for your country, defend the shores of this land of ours. Fight for your homes, for the women and for the children.” We have the right if that was the only reason, but in these days, when women are taking larger views of their duty to the State, we go further than that: we claim the right to hold recruiting meetings and ask men to fight for bigger reasons than are advanced ordinarily. We say to men, “In this war there are issues at stake bigger even than the safety of your homes and your own country. Your honour as a nation is at stake.

Our duties in this war.

We have our duties in this war. First of all, this duty begins at home — this duty to our home, because I always feel that if we are not ready to do our duty to those nearest to use we are not fit to do our duty far away. And so the first duty is to ourselves and to our homes. Then there is the duty to protect those who, having made a gallant fight for self-defence — and by that I mean the country of Belgium — what we owe to Belgium we can never repay, because now the whole German plan of campaign is perfectly plain to all those who are not prejudiced, and who’re not affected by pan-Germanism; and, unfortunately, in their methods of warfare — and their methods of warfare are many — they not only fight physically, but they fight mental and morally as well, and in this country and in France, and in every country in Europe, long before the war broke out; in face, ever since the year 1870, they have been preparing by subtle means to take possession of Europe, and I believe their ambitions are not limited by that, they want to rule the whole world. The whole thing is clear to an unprejudiced observer.

First France — then Britain.

It is very difficult for your attacking bully to imagine that a small State — I mean small numerically, and weak physically — will ever have the courage to stand up and resist the bully when he prepares to attack. The Germans did no expect Belgium to keep them at bay while the other countries involved prepared, but there is absolutely no doubt that the plan was to present through Belgium, to take possession of Paris, and then, having humiliated and crippled France, to cross the Channel and defeat us. There is no doubt that was the plan; it is perfectly clear. And that being so, we owe — civilisation owes — to Belgium a debt which it can never repay.

France and her ideals.

Then we have our duty to our Ally, France. How much democracy owes to France! France is the Mother of European Democracy. There s no doubt about her claim to that. If there had bene nothing else worth fighting for in this war, in my opinion that alone would have been worth fighting for, to preserve that spirit and that democracy which France has go en to the world, and which would perish if France were destroyed. The people of France are a people who never have been, and I believe never will be, irrupt din the sense of thinking that material things are of more value than spiritual things. The people of France have always been ready to sacrifice themselves for ideas. They have been read to sacrifice life, they have been ready to sacrifice one, they have been ready to sacrifice everything for an ideal.

You know the old saying, that men should work and women should weep? That is not true, for it is for all of us to work and for all of us to weep when there is occasion to do so. Therefore, it is because of the French nation you have splendid qualities combined in both sexes, because the history of the French nation is so magnificent because the French nation has contributed so much to civilisation, and so much in Art, beauty, and in great qualities, it is our duty to stand by France, and to prevent her being crushed by the over-sexed, that is to say over-masculine, country of Germany.

The duty of Women.

It is our duty as women to do what we can to help our country in this war, because if the unthinkable thing happened, and Germany were t win, the women’s movement, as we know it in Europe, would be put back fifty years at least; there is no doubt about it. Whether it ever could rise again is to my mind extremely doubtful. The ideal of women in Germany is the lowest in Europe. Infantile mortality is very high, immorality is widespread, and, in consequence, general disease is rampant. Notice too the miserable and niggardly pittance that is being paid to the wives and families of German soldiers, while nothing whatever is being paid to unmarried wives and their children. True security for women and children is for women to have control over their own destiny. And so it is a duty, a supreme duty, of women, first of all as human beings and as lovers of their country, to co-operate with men in this terrible crisis in which we find ourselves.

Women should be trained.

If all were trained to contribute something to the community, both in time of peace and in time of war, how much better it would be.

What bitterness there was in the hearts of many women when they saw work and business point on as usual, married on by men who ought to be in the fighting line. There were thousands upon thousands of women willing, even if they were not trained, to do that work and release men, and we have urged the authorities  to take into account the great reserve force of the nation, the women who are or might be quite capable to step into the shoes of the men when they were called up to fight.

The Board of Trade issued its appeal to women just before Easter to register their names as willing to do national service in any capacity during the course of the war. I want to tell you to-night that I am very proud of the women of the country. When the first recruiting appeals were made to men, the hardings were covered with placards and appeals, and they were making efforts by recruiting bands, in places of pleasure — everywhere in the columns of the newspapers there were recruiting appeals to men. Then the time came when the Board of Trade wished to know to what extent it could depend upon the services of the women of the country, and what was done in the case of women? There were no posters for us; there were no recruiting meetings for us; there were no appeals form great names for us; no attractive pictures, “Your King and Country want you” — nothing of that kind. And yet, in spite of that, in one week 34,000 women sen tin their names as volunteers for a national service.

The talk of Peace.

And now, something about this talk of peace and the terms of peace. Well, I consider it very sinister and very dangerous. Very dangerous indeed, because nothing heartens the Kaiser and his adviser so much as weakness in any of the Allied nations. It is no use expecting Germany to understand that the people who are talking about peace are aimed by a genuine love for peace. I go further as regards peace movements. I think that in this country, and in America, and in all the neutral countries, there are a great many very well-meaning people who are genuine lovers of peace. What woman does not dread the effects of war? Germans are encouraging the all for peace. The Kaiser knows he is going to be beaten, and he wants to get out of it on as easy terms as possible, and so it is worth while for German Americans to run a peace movement in America. They want America, which is a great neutral country, to intervene to try to force peace, and to let the Germans down easily without having to pay for all that they have done in Belgium and in France. Similar tactics are being pursued in this country.

Playing the German game.

Only those who have been in close touch with people who know what goes on and what has gone on, since the year 1870, after the Franco-German War, can realise how insidious this German influence is and so I say to you who love peace (and who does not love peace?) if you take part in any of these peace movements, you are playing the German game and helping Germany. They talk of peace, but consider the position of our Allies. The Germans in possession of the North of France, devastating the country, even to-day driving thousands of innocent, helpless people at the point of the bayonet, outraging women, and burning homes! And people in this country — an allied nation — allowing themselves to talk about terms of peace.

It is for Germany to talk of peace, not for us. It is for us to show a strong and determined front, because if we do anything else we are misunderstood, and advantage is taken of the situation. Since some women have responded to an invitation to take part in a Peace Conference at The Hague, I feel bound to say that they do not represent the mass of English women. The mass of English women are wholehearted in our support of our own Government in this matter, and in the support of our Allies — and we are prepared to face all the necessary sacrifices to bring this war to a successful issue from our point of view, because we know, because we feel, that this terrible business, forced upon us, has to be properly finished to save us from the danger of another war perhaps in ten years’ time.

To talk of Peace a weakness.

We have clear consciences on this matter. We did not want this war. France did not want this war. Belgium did not want this war. I do not believe that Russia wanted this war. It has been forced upon us, and since Germany took up the sword, the sword must be held in the hands of the Allies until Germany has had enough of war and does not want any more of it. For us to talk about peace now for us to weaken our side now, is to make the condition of those men who are laying down their lives for us in Franc more terrible than it already is. We have to support them, and to stand loyally by them, and to make our sacrifices and show our patriotism to them.

The nation’s duty on the drink question.

And, speaking of sacrifices, let us consider this drink question. What is our duty in that matter? Well, I think our duty is this, that, if the Government of this country seriously think it is necessary fro our success in this war to stop drink altogether until the war is ended, it is our duty loyally to support and accept that decision.

At any rate, in time of war, we should be ready to say, “Let us sacrifice a personal pleasure in order to get a great national good.” Would not that be a something to lift up a nation and make it a wonderful and a great nation?

The Allies fighting for things undying.

I believe that in this war we are fighting for things undying and great; we are fighting for liberty; we are fighting for honor; we are fighting to preserve the great inheritance won for us by our forefathers, and it is worth while to fight for those things and it is worth while to die for them — to di a glorious death in defence of all that makes life worth having is better than to live unending years of inglorious life. And so, out of this great trial that has come upon us, I believe a wonderful transformation will come to the people of this country and we shall emerge from it stronger and better and nobler and more worthy of our great tradition than ever we should perhaps have been without it.



Source: Pankhurst, Emmeline, “What is Our Duty?” The Suffragette, April 23, 1915.


Also: Pankhurst, Emmeline, “What Is Our Duty?” 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. 359-364.