Women in Edwardian society were very much regarded as second-class citizens. They had fewer rights than men, were expected to abide by different social rules, and did not have the vote, so were unable to influence or change laws that discriminated against them. However, their position as inferior citizens was beginning to be challenged and female suffrage was being pushed to the top of the social agenda.
Emmeline Pankhurst, whose speech ‘Freedom or Death’ is a core text in this lesson, was the leader of the UK suffragette movement that campaigned for women to have the right to vote in elections. Pankhurst, who was born in Manchester in 1858, was interested in politics from an early age and became a suffragist at the age of 14, after having attended a talk where the suffragist Lydia Becker spoke. Her husband, Richard Pankhurst, who she met when she was 20, also believed in women’s suffrage and authored the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which sought to secure married women’s rights to their property and income. Pankhurst formed the Women’s Franchise League in 1889 with her husband, which campaigned for women’s right to vote in local elections. Then in 1903, several years after the death of her husband, Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which was accused of adopting more militant tactics. The WSPU led demonstrations and campaigns of civil disobedience, which saw women smashing windows, committing acts of arson, and engaging in hunger strikes after being arrested. Pankhurst herself was arrested on numerous occasions and subsequently went on hunger strike. She was a powerful speaker and leader, and played a seminal role in securing the vote for women. She died in 1928 not long after the Equal Franchise Act, which granted women equal voting rights to men.