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Give Us 'Freedom Or Death'

Suffragist's 1913 Speech In Hartford Still Resonates

April 27, 2007
By WILLIAM WEIR, Courant Staff Writer

A piece of Hartford history that has largely faded from memory around these parts is being celebrated in England.

Today, the London-based newspaper Guardian Unlimited will feature a speech given by English suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst at the Parsons Theater in Hartford in 1913.

It's part of a two-week series titled "Great Speeches of the 20th Century," in which the newspaper is printing one landmark speech each day. The 14-speech series began Saturday with Winston Churchill's "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech, given to the House of Commons in 1940. Others in the series include Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural address ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself") and John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural ("Ask not what your country can do for you"). Nikita Khrushchev, Virginia Woolf and Nelson Mandela also appear on the list.

Pankhurst's speech is commonly referred to as "Freedom or Death" for its final line:

" ... we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death."

Considered a militant in the suffrage movement, Pankhurst was often in jail and/or on hunger strike. She died in 1928, just months before women in England won the right to vote.

When she appeared in Hartford, Pankhurst was well known; The Courant mentioned her 30 times in 1913. At around the same time, she appealed on behalf of a Waterbury woman sentenced to death for murder. The woman's sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

But few would have predicted the historical significance of her speech at the time. The event was advanced in The Courant with a few articles, and two covered the speech itself. One of the articles offered a straightforward account and appeared on Page 12. The second, headlined "The Pankhurst Argument," appeared the following day on Page 8 and was written by someone decidedly unimpressed.

"Mrs. Pankhurst argued the suffrage cause of women at Parsons Theater Thursday evening, but with not great result," it begins. The article went on to contrast Pankhurst's confrontational ways with that of Katharine Martha Houghton (Katharine Hepburn's' mother), who introduced her.

The Courant said the theater was only one-third full. Houghton, who was urged by city leaders to distance herself from the event, estimated the crowd at 200 strong.

State historian Walt Woodward compared the speech's reception to newspaper coverage of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which was given scant notice.

"It seems that the same thing happened to Pankhurst in Hartford, and today it's considered one of the great speeches of the 20th century."

Woodward admits he needed to read up on the event himself. Having done so, he plans to research it more.

Even in England, editors at the Guardian say the speech isn't as well known as many others on their list, although Pankhurst still looms large in England's history.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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