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Deeds not words’: Emmeline Pankhurst and the vote for women


Women born in the nineteenth century had little chance of escaping the role that was considered their destiny - to marry young, stay home and raise a family. Campaigners like Millicent Fawcett and Elizabeth Garret Anderson carried out a personal and largely peaceful struggle to improve chances of an education and open professions like medicine to women. In the early part of the century ‘the suffragists’ were unsuccessful in their immediate objective, although they still exist in the form of one of the British main research and lobbying groups working on behalf of women, the Fawcett Society. In 1889, an English woman Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women's Franchise League, which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections. In October 1903, she helped found the more militant Women's Social and Political Union, an organisation which gained much notoriety for its activities and whose members were called ‘suffragettes’. In a society where Emmeline Pankhurst and ‘the suffragettes’ challenged the separation between the private and the public sphere, between the deep identification of women with social rather than the political sphere, issues of self-representation became crucial. She travelled constantly, giving speeches throughout Britain and the United States, and one of the most famous speeches, Freedom or Death, was delivered in Connecticut in 1913. The aim of this paper is to analyse this speech in light of the historical, socio-cultural and political background of that time. In particular, the analysis of discoursal and lexico-grammatical features will demonstrate that not only Pankhurst wanted to be understood by the hearers, but also to persuade and lead them to take action accordingly. To a certain extent, Pankhurst’s audience was already written into the speech as it was delivered.