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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Deeds, not words

What do you do when the democratic decision making process in your country is broken? You can move to a different country - or you can try to fix it. If you choose the latter, states might use their means to protect the status quo and criminalize you. But every state - however despotic - relies its people. A campaign of civil disobedience speaks truth to power, and revokes the consent to be governed through an unjust system.

At the beginning of the last century, the democratic process in most countries excluded women - half the population. At the last meeting of my Toastmaster club, I revisited the campaign of civil disobedience that changed this situation in Britain:

Today, I would like to take you back in time by about 100 years. It's the year 1905, and we are in London at a meeting of the Liberal Party. Winston Churchill is here, and Edward Grey, the Foreign Minister, is giving a speech when he is interrupted by a group of women heckling from the stands: "Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?" Again and again they shout: "Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?" Finally, the police overpowers the women and charges them with assault. When they refuse to pay the fine, they are sent to prison. We have just witnessed the first act of civil disobedience by the British suffragette movement.

One of the women was Christabel Pankhurst, the eldest daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the most powerful figures in the struggle for women's votes. Emmeline's husband Richard had been an active advocate of women's rights. He had written the first bill for women's votes - but failed to secure its approval. After his death, Emmeline had taken on the cause on her own. She was convinced that women would never get the vote through a parliamentary process they had no say in. They would have to make more noise than anybody else, fill the papers more than anybody else. In short: They needed deeds, not words.

'Deeds, not words' was the motto of the Women's Political and Social Union - or suffragettes, as they were known. They were beautiful in their action: Proud and full of grace, in their victorian dresses all white and green and purple, holding their banners, claiming: "Give votes to women". They did not stop with banners: What use was it to respect laws of an unjust government that you can't even vote out of office? Was not the broken pane of glass the most powerful argument in modern politics?

The government reacted with its own means to the disobedience of these women, and threw them into prison - hoping that this would silence them. How wrong they were! The women started to hungerstrike, and the public interest was with them: How were they doing? What would happen next? They were forcefed. Was it torture?

The more the government reacted with repression, the more public interest grew. And the more public interest there was, the more the movement grew. And the more the government refused to listen, the more militant the movement became. Emmeline Pankhurst and other leaders went constantly in and out of prison. Suffragettes set buildings on fire. One woman died when she threw herself in front of the king's horse at the Epsom derby. Still, the liberal government did not move. They would not give votes to women.

In 1914, war broke out, and the situation changed. The government realized that it needed the support of women at home while the men were fighting abroad. The women realized that if they wanted a vote, they also needed a country to vote in. Emmeline Pankhurst called a halt to all militant activities and mobilized in support of the war. This was a time for deeds, not words.

When the war came to an end, the liberal government finally gave votes to women - if they were over 30 and owned property. But it wasn't until 1928 that women gained the same electoral rights than men. Today, 80 years later, women's suffrage is nearly universal. It was deeds, not words, that brought this about.

The Guardian has published one of Ms Pankhurst speeches together with an analysis by Germaine Greer. An excellent introduction into the thinking of the suffragette movement.

Image via Wikipedia: "Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom", used under a Creative Commons license.

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