February: The Public Voice of Women

The United Kingdom’s Representation of the People Act received the Royal Assent on 6 February 1918. For the first time, women were given the vote and they were permitted to be elected to the House of Commons.

But not all women: only women who were householders and over the age of 30. By the same Act all men over 21 were given the vote. Women were still discriminated against. It was not until 1928 that all women over 21 got the vote. In other parts of the English-Speaking World, women got the vote earlier and in other parts, later.

Inspired by the British centenary of votes for women, the English Project is making ‘Women and the English Language’ its theme for 2018.

To begin we are recalling two of the most significant speeches made by women in the early days of women’s suffrage: with Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1913 speech to the people of Connecticut and Nancy Astor’s 1920 Speech to the House of Commons. The first is a bold piece of rhetoric which moves from the domestic to the international scene, rich in the imagery of conflict and struggle; the second, the first speech by a woman in the British Parliament, pays a debt to the struggle for democratic representation that enabled it to be made.

The London Guardian cites calls Pankhurst’s speech one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, placing alongside those of Churchill, de Gaulle, Mandela, Nehru, Kennedy. Tellingly there are few other women whose speeches are included in the Guardian lists. It is poignant that in 1913, the Guardian, then the Manchester Guardian did not provide the text of Pankhurst’s speech. It has had to be reconstructed from secondary sources.

In Pankhurst and Astor, women’s speeches we see a combative combination of persuasive devices, from the imagery of Pankhurst’s semantics of struggle: ‘I am here as a soldier who has temporarily left the field of battle in order to explain… what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women.’ to the swashbuckling references of Lady Astor’s speech to the ‘Commons: ‘When Drake and Raleigh wanted to set out on their venturesome careers, some cautious person said: “Do not do it; it has never been tried before. You stay at home, my sons, cruising around in home waters”.’

Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘Freedom or Death’:  https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches1

Nancy Astor’s Speech to the House of Commons, 24 February 1920: http://speakola.com/political/nancy-astor-alcohol-maiden-speech-1920

There is an appeal to the international perspective in both orations. Astor was not the first woman elected to the House of Commons (Irish Nationalist, Constance Markievicz, won a seat which she never took up, in the 1918 General Election) but she was the first to attend as an MP and give what is still known (irrespective of the gender of the speaker) a ‘Maiden Speech’. There is a convention that such a speech is given on an uncontroversial topic, is relatively brief and includes a tribute to the MP's predecessor in the seat, irrespective of party, and favourable remarks about the constituency. Astor won her Plymouth Sutton Parliamentary seat at a by-election after her husband, the former MP, inherited his peerage and was elevated to the House of Lords. She spoke on her views that alcohol should be further regulated – not exactly a consensus topic. Like Pankhurst, she was not afraid to take an international perspective of the women’s movement: “I am quite certain that the women of the whole world will not forget that it was the fighting men of Devon who dared to send the first woman to represent women in the Mother of Parliaments.”

Pankhurst, giving her speech in Hartford, Connecticut, seven years before, used the Boston Tea Party to draw a link with the struggle for votes in America, using the traditional language of patriarchy: ‘Your forefathers decided that they must have representation for taxation… when they felt they couldn’t wait any longer… It is about eight years since the word militant was first used to describe what we were doing… when women asked questions in political meetings and failed to get answers, they were not doing anything militant.’ Yet Pankhurst switches powerfully between this high, political register and an intense, personal one: ‘You have two babies very hungry and wanting to be fed. One baby is a patient baby, and waits indefinitely until its mother is ready to feed it. The other baby is an impatient baby and cries lustily, screams and kicks… Well, we know perfectly well which baby is attended to first. That is the whole history of politics.’

In a similar way, Astor moves confidently from an engaging humour: ‘I know very well that is was very difficult to receive the first lady MP into the House… Honourable Members, however, should not be frightened of what Plymouth sends out into the world’ and provokes her male colleagues with profound moral statements: ‘Are we really trying for a better world, or are we going to slip back to the same old world before 1914?’ Pankhurst is a sage user of humour to bate her male audience too, moving quickly from light of heart to heavy condemnation: ‘When your forefathers threw the tea into the Boston harbour, a good many women had to go without their tea. It has always seemed to me an extraordinary thing that you did not follow it up by throwing the whiskey overboard; you sacrificed the women; and there is a good deal of warfare for which men take a great deal of glorification which has involved more practical sacrifice on women than it has on any man. It has always been so.’

Astor is renown to be an advocate who, unlike many of her male colleagues of the time, was keen to use statistics and evidential arguments and we see that trend start in her Maiden Speech when she refers to wartime rates of drunkenness among women; she is confident in her claims and does not mitigate her message: ‘I am certain it [Britain] is ripe for drastic drink reforms… I know what I am talking about, and you must remember that women have a vote now and we mean to use it, and use it wisely, not for the benefit of any section of society, but for the benefit of the whole.’

Pankhurst was not afraid to use the full power of martial language but it mixed with simple domestic idiom: ‘When you have warfare things happen; people suffer; the noncombatants suffer as well as the combatants. And so it happens in civil war… you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs; you cannot have civil war without damage to something. The great thing is to see that no more damage is done than is absolutely necessary, that you do just as much as will arouse enough feeling to bring about peace…’

A powerful message from a pair of eloquent speakers to start us on exploration of women and the English language in 2018.


For March: The Language of Patriarchy and the Press. When women are written about in newspapers and represented in works of fiction are they still treated differently from men? Research into children’s fiction and the popular Press has shown some disturbing stereotypes – but have things moved on?