Monday, November 9, 2015

A Feisty Feminist Confronts Ellis Island Officials

by Vincent Parrillo

Emmeline Pankhurst
[Author’s note: In the recently released film Suffragette, which is the story of this movement in England, Meryl Streep has a supporting role as Emmeline Pankhurst. Her story also has an American chapter as given in my new historical novel, Defenders of Freedom. Here is an excerpt; the year is 1913.]

With her graying hair drawn softly back from her elegant face, and a gentle smile upon her thin lips, Emmeline Pankhurst’s image was that of an attractive, pleasant woman. Wearing a long sealskin coat over an olive broadcloth suit and a blue cloth hat with a black plume, this widowed mother of four radiated an endearing charm to one and all.

And yet, this diminutive, 55- feminine figure was perhaps the most hated woman of her time in England, and her notoriety had preceded her ocean voyage to the United States aboard the liner Provence. Though she was only coming for a visit, as earlier in 1909 and 1911, this time her notoriety was such that Ellis Island authorities had taken special steps to deal with her.

Born into a family that constantly championed women’s rights, both her father and mother had been extremely active in the suffragist movement and Emmeline not only followed in their footsteps, but emerged as one of the movement’s fiery leaders. Through passionate speeches in private homes, in assembly halls, and in front of the Parliament building, she urged her followers to take disruptive and destructive actions until women received the same legal and political privileges as men.

Mrs. Pankhurst performed no violent deeds herself, but other English women acted upon her words. For the past eight years, she had kept London in continual tumult. Physical battles with police, arson, vandalism, and rioting were common…. Arrested frequently on various charges—including conspiracy, incitement to riot, and obstructing the police in the performance of their duty—Emmeline had been imprisoned eight times. Subjected to the brutal prison treatment that was then accorded to convicted criminals, she went on a hunger and thirst strike until granted the status of a political prisoner.

Another time she went on a hunger strike when her fellow imprisoned women agitators did not receive the same political status and prison transfer as she, instead suffering the same harshness of incarceration experienced by imprisoned felons. When her imprisoned female followers also went on a hunger strike, prison officials fed them forcibly with tubes. Because of a heart condition, Mrs. Pankhurst was spared this ordeal. However, her health broke down from lack of food and drink.

To counter the hunger strikes, Parliament had passed the “Cat and Mouse Act.” This permitted the release of the female hunger strikers until they regained their health, at which point they would be arrested again to continue serving their prison sentences. Released from prison after serving only a few days of her three-year prison term, Emmeline set sail for America for a lecture tour to raise funds for her cause.

Publicity about her planned lecture tour sparked hundreds of angry letters and telegrams to Ellis Island officials. Other letters of protest reached city newspapers, their publication intensifying further the emotional reaction of American males against the frail Englishwoman, attempting to recover from her latest hunger strike, while peacefully sailing towards the Statue of Liberty and the land of freedom.

Even some women resented her arrival. In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, a naturalized citizen, formerly of England, wrote that admitting Emmeline Pankhurst to the United States “would be an insult to all Englishwomen residing in this country.” Though some American suffragette groups enthusiastically welcomed Emmeline’s imminent arrival and planned a huge meeting at Madison Square Garden, other suffragette groups either resented her lecture tour, either because it was raising funds only for the English movement or they feared her presence would be a detriment to the American suffrage cause.

Acting Ellis Island Commissioner Byron Uhl asked his superiors in Washington for a ruling as to whether Mrs. Pankhurst’s conviction and delayed imprisonment constituted moral turpitude. In reply to a request from the Secretary of State for data about her alleged crimes, the English Consul General, John L. Griffiths, provided a candid report of her offenses and criminal record. As to whether these offenses involved moral turpitude, Mr. Griffiths replied, “That opinion necessarily depends upon whether the persons expressing the opinion believe or do not believe in militant suffragism.”

Ultimately, the Commissioner General in Washington sent his special instructions to Ellis Island. She was to be treated as all other alien applicants. Without regard to newspaper accounts or letters from the public, officials were to implement the law as it applied. Questioned by an immigration inspector on board ship with other first-class cabin passengers, she admitted to a conviction in England for conspiracy with a three years’ sentence, of which she served three months. With that, she was detained and taken to Ellis Island to appear before the Board of Special Inquiry, which would determine her eligibility to enter the United States.

Soon thereafter, and over the objections of her attorneys Frank O’Neil and Herbert Reeves, she was escorted alone into the hearing room and saw three men seated behind a table that rested against a wooden railing that was a few inches higher. In a seventy-minute session, the three board members proceeded to ask her a great many questions, all of which she answered simply, without any sign of irritation, remaining calm and collected throughout....

After completing their questioning, the board officials met in private to reach a decision. In short order they asked Mrs. Pankhurst to return to the room…[and] denied [her] entry into the United States on the grounds of moral turpitude [and ordered her to] be held in custody on Ellis Island until [her] deportation.

Acting Commissioner Uhl arranged for her to stay in the comfortable rooms next to his office.... The next day, Emmeline confidently prepared her speech for Madison Square Garden, and later read the deluge of telegrams sent by supporters. . . . Meanwhile, her lawyers Reeves and O’Neil argued her case before Anthony Caminetti, the Commissioner General of Immigration, in his office on the seventh floor of the Department of Labor building. Also at the hearing were six reporters. Caminetti had invited them to avoid any criticism of a secret, star-chamber hearing as newspapers had leveled against the Ellis Island Board of Special Inquiry procedures in this case.

In early afternoon, Caminetti continued the order of detention until a formal hearing the next morning on whether or not the charge of moral turpitude was warranted. Almost immediately, President Wilson—swamped with an avalanche of telegrams protesting the Ellis Island board’s action—stepped in personally, asking the Secretary of Labor and Commissioner General to meet with him at the White House.

That meeting occurred before the hearing, which turned out to be brief and perfunctory. Caminetti reversed the Ellis Island board’s verdict and directed that Emmeline be permitted to enter the United States without bond.

Emmeline’s exit from the island was a triumphant one. Dozens of reporters and photographers came to record her departure from the island. Flanked by friends and other well-wishers, she accepted the enthusiastic congratulations of the press as well as of her supporters, and boarded the ferry for Manhattan.

That evening, she received a standing ovation from the 300 assembled dinner invitees at the Aldine Club as the guest of honor of the Women’s Political Union…. [L]oud and enthusiastic applause greeted Emmeline as she arose to speak.
Thank you so much. What has happened in the last two days has meant much to our cause. I would not have had it otherwise for anything.

I want you to think what it would have meant to those fighting women in England had the verdict in Washington been a different one than what it was today. Think and remember that they are fighting against frightful odds and that this means much to them. Think what it means to them to be able to realize that the government of the United States of America knows what this movement means. You may have some narrow laws, narrowly administered, but still the just hearts of the American people are sound and liberty still reigns here.

Some are asking today, what right has Mrs. Pankhurst to come to America? I have the same right as any other representative of a repressed people, and I am here in pursuance of that right, to ask the sympathy of the American people.

Benjamin Franklin went to France for such sympathy, and you know that France responded. Irish Nationalists have been coming to America for years for that sympathy, some of them convicted of the same crimes that I have been, and America has welcomed them.

And so I, too, have come to ask your sympathy and to say to you that our battle is your battle. Even at Ellis Island our mission was understood. It is the same everywhere in every civilized nation on the earth.

I am glad, indeed, to be here tonight, but all the time I am here in America, I shall be longing and yearning to get back on the firing line with my comrades in arms.
When she finished, a third, sustained standing ovation expressed the admiration of her listeners. That roar of approval was even greater when ten times that number of people came to Madison Square Garden to hear her in the first venue of her lecture tour….

She spoke first of her detention at Ellis Island, complimenting those in charge and said the work there was admirably done. She made a point of congratulating the matrons and told how one of the officials on Sunday had taken her all over the station.

“Since I was first here four years ago, the cause here has progressed by leaps and bounds. It is a certainty that women will get the vote here. Even the antis accept that. All they want to do now is to make progress as slow as possible.

“The whole system of government in England is an elaborate system of how not to do things. It takes an earthquake to get an act of Parliament out of the House of Commons.”

After the loud applause abated, a woman cried out, “Wouldn’t socialism bring political equality to women?”

“Our cause is not going to wait for socialism or any other ism.”

“What about women doing military duty? Would they be soldiers?”

“Whenever there has been a real fight for home and self- preservation, women always fought."

A woman in the gallery asked, “What lasting good was ever won by force?”

“Liberty!” she quickly replied. “Your ancestors fought for it once and we women in England fight for it now.”

As Emmeline’s image improved through her speaking engagements in virtually all the major cities in the East and Midwest, the image of Ellis Island officials declined. Newspaper editors across the country ridiculed them with accusations of sheer stupidity. They complained of prudish, pedantic officials making the American people the laughing-stock of Europe. Revise the moral turpitude clause of immigration law, they demanded, since dense immigration bureaucrats could not be trusted to interpret it with ordinary intelligence and common sense.

Her speaking tour completed, Pankhurst returned to England with $20,000 raised for her cause [nearly half a million U.S. dollars today] Remaining in the United States was the powerful influence of her words upon the women who had heard her.

[As detailed in Defenders of Freedom, Emmeline’s words and actions would have a strong impact on the actions subsequently taken by American suffragettes. Back in England, she ceased militant suffrage activism with the outbreak of World War I, urging support for the British cause. Later an opponent of Bolshevism, she died in 1928 at age 69, just weeks before the vote was extended to British women over 21. Two years later, her statue was erected in London’s Victoria Tower Gardens.]


Vincent N. Parrillo is professor of sociology at William Paterson University, where he twice received the Faculty Achievement Award for Distinguished Scholarship and Creative Expression. He is executive producer, writer, and narrator of four award-winning PBS television documentaries, including Ellis Island: Gateway to America. An internationally recognized expert on immigration and Fulbright scholar, Vince has given talks at more than 100 universities in Asia, Europe and North America, including Roehampton University. He has also published numerous articles and textbooks on immigration and diversity, is co-lyricist of Hamlet: The Rock Opera, and directed an outdoor production of The Comedy of Errors in New Jersey.



  1. Really interesting - I didn't know about this Ellis Island episode at all, so thanks for educating me :)

  2. Hi, Annie. Glad you liked the story. She's a fascinating woman. Most Americans know little of her, but suffragettes here in the U.S. were greatly inspired by her, something I tried to capture in this new book of mine.

  3. Emmeline Pankhurst was indeed a very feisty feminist (although I don't always agree with her violent tactics).


    1. I understand. As some in the U.S. would say, she talked the talk, but didn't walk the walk. That is, she supported violent actions, but claimed not to have committed any herself.

  4. Great post. People forget what women went though to gain the short ,torture. and it's incredable to think women have had it less than 100 years.

  5. Thanks, Anne. No question they went through horrific ordeals in both England and the U.S. You're right about too much of our history is forgotten, and even more perhaps, not even known. That's part of the reason some of us write books. :)

  6. The movie is a farce. It's yet another work of fiction from the Hollywood lefties -- always in search of a new mythological figure. Not only were the British suffragettes violent, their violence was often vile.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.