Book Review: “My Own Story” (1914) by Emmeline Pankhurst


Anti-suffrage cartoon.


Until recently, you would not have been able to find this memoir in your local bookstore – you would have had to resort to either a specialised publisher or Project Gutenberg. It still doesn’t have a cover art picture on Goodreads, that’s how little this book is read these days. However, I have eight magic words for you that kicked it right back into the public eye: “Now The Subject of a Major Motion Picture.” Thank you, Suffragette (2015). Republished under the title Suffragette: My Own Story, this autobiography chronicles the first steps of the British suffrage movement from approximately 1900 until the beginning of the First World War, when the activists decided to temporarily lay down their arms.

Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep in the movie, because of course they got Meryl Streep for this) was one of the founding members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which would turn to increasingly military tactics once they realised that it was too easy for anti-suffrage politicians to ignore them. They resorted to arson, violent protests, and vandalism, anything to make their voices heard. Its members ranged from working women to ladies of the aristocracy and the well-educated elite. The WSPU had only one goal, a single purpose: Votes For Women.

In the opening chapters, Pankhurst gives the reader a quick insight into her upbringing and her marriage, but only to illustrate where she came from and why she decided to get involved in politics. After this introduction, she sticks only to the history of the WSPU and its members. We follow Pankhurst as she carefully chronicles the bills they proposed, the meetings they interrupted, the speeches she gave, and the politicians they decided to start heckling:

One great question,’ [Winston Churchill] exclaims, ‘remains to be settled.’
‘And that is woman suffrage,’ shouts a voice from the gallery.
Mr Churchill struggles on with his speech: ‘The men have been complaining of me-’
‘The women have been complaining of you, too, Mr Churchill,’ comes back promptly from the back of the hall.
‘In the circumstances what can we do but -’
‘Give votes to women.’

Pankhurst is most outraged when she discusses the way the activists were treated in prison. She was arrested many times herself, and over and over again, she describes the dreadful living conditions, the cruelty of certain members of the prison staff, and after the suffragettes started using hunger strikes as a method to obtain an early release, the violent force feedings. The first time I came across one of these many, many passages, I actually closed my book and threw it to the other side of the couch in shock, causing my mother to look up:

“What happened?”
“Did you know that they forcibly fed these women in prison by holding them down and pushing a TUBE down their NOSE into their STOMACH?”
“Well, how do you think they do it in hospitals?”

My mother is not easily impressed.

Since this is a political memoir that does not deviate much from the matter at hand, the talk of all the failed bills can get a bit dry at times, but if you are interested in the history of the suffrage movement, I’d say this book is definitely worth a read. This kind of first-hand account of events by someone who was right in the thick of things is absolutely invaluable, and whether you agree with her politics and the WSPU’s methods or not (there is plenty to disagree with, believe me), you have to admire Pankhurst for standing up for what she believed in. She dedicated her life to the women’s vote and never gave up, no matter how bad things got.

Well done, Sister Suffragette.

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