The campaign for women’s suffrage is one of those things, like abolition or civil rights, that makes you wonder why on earth anyone opposed it. And yet many women and men suffered, and sometimes even died, to secure something which everyone now takes for granted. This serves as a reminder that our current moral and political certainties may one day be disowned by our grandchildren.
Emmeline Pankhurst was the doyenne of the movement in England. She died on June 14, 1928 and so it seems appropriate for the Mormon Lectionary Project to mark her death this weekend.
Her speech in Hartford, Connecticut on November 13, 1913 is a remarkable thing. The rhetoric is both simple and devastating:
“Suppose the men of Hartford had a grievance, and they laid that grievance before their legislature, and the legislature obstinately refused to listen to them, or to remove their grievance, what would be the proper and the constitutional and the practical way of getting their grievance removed? Well, it is perfectly obvious at the next general election the men of Hartford would turn out that legislature and elect a new one.
“But let the men of Hartford imagine that they were not in the position of being voters at all, that they were governed without their consent being obtained, that the legislature turned an absolutely deaf ear to their demands, what would the men of Hartford do then? They couldn’t vote the legislature out. They would have to choose; they would have to make a choice of two evils: they would either have to submit indefinitely to an unjust state of affairs, or they would have to rise up and adopt some of the antiquated means by which men in the past got their grievances remedied.”
With no enfranchisement, women had no mechanism for resolving their grievances. This left them with no choice but to protest, something Pankhurst admits was an “antiquated means.” The suffragettes were disruptive and their actions were often met with brutality. Pankhurst had been able to travel to the US because she had been freed from jail but faced re-arrest on her return home. These “cat and mouse” tactics allowed the authorities to avoid having to force-feed hunger strikers in prison.
Two other things about Pankhurst stand out. First, that she was not willing to kill to advance her cause: “Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.” Second, her struggle against the government did not mean she did not consider herself loyal or patriotic. Pankhurst was a supporter of the war effort and helped persuade women to work in the munitions factories.
The readings below from Psalms and the Book of Mormon remind us of the equality of all of God’s children, the realisation of which for men and women was Pankhurst’s great cause. We can also contemplate the difficult story of Tamar in Genesis 38 who also felt compelled towards “antiquated means” to secure a proper place in society, appropriating symbols of male power along the way. The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew is particularly arresting as it hints that even Jesus carried a human instinct that was at times wedded to his cultural world. Three times he rejects her; after her fourth plea, mercy finally flows.
The Collect: Almighty God, like the Suffragettes we know that “life, strife—those two are one”; that naught can we win but “by faith and daring.” We are firm in our communal reliance on you, “Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.” We pray for the cause of women’s rights in this world, knowing that all are alike unto God. Teach us always to hunger for him who is the true and living bread, and enable us to live by every word that proceeds from out of your mouth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.