Emmeline Pankhurst (July 14, 1858–June 14, 1928) was one of the most famous and influential British suffrage leaders. Her contributions to the women suffrage movement is invaluable, as her 40-year campaign achieved complete success in the year of her death.
Emmeline was born to politically active parents in Manchester, England. Despite being good in academics, she did not receive the same education as her brothers. Even though her parents supported the suffrage movement and the general advancement of women in society, they believed that the most important part of a girl’s education were the skills needed to make a home for her family.
Emmeline left her home at the age of 15 to attend the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. In 1878, she married Richard Marsden Pankhurst, lawyer and author of the first Woman Suffrage Bill in Great Britain and of the Married Women’s Property Acts (1870, 1882). Over the course of the next 10 years, they had five children. They remained active in political organisations like Women’s Suffrage Society.
According to BBC, Emmeline founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. The organisation fought to let married women vote in the elections. She distinguished herself as an activist in her own right in 1893. She then became active with the Women’s Liberal Federation (WLF), an auxiliary of the Liberal Party. However, since she was unable to align with the group’s moderate positions, she resigned from the WLF and applied to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Her application was rejected at the beginning because of her gender, but eventually she joined the ILP.
In 1898, after the death of her husband Richard, Emmeline resigned from the Board of Guardians and took a paid position as Registrar of Births and Deaths in Chorlton.
After joining the ILP, Emmeline started to distribute food to the poor through the Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed. She also worked as a Poor Law Guardian, which exposed her to the harsh conditions in Manchester workhouses. She fought for the improvement of these workhouses, becoming a successful voice of reform on the Board of Guardians.
In 1898, after the death of her husband Richard, Emmeline resigned from the Board of Guardians and took a paid position as Registrar of Births and Deaths in Chorlton. During this period, she was also selected to the Manchester School Board. These jobs reinforced her political convictions regarding women’s suffrage.
According to an article published in National Park Service,by the early 20th century, Emmeline reportedly became frustrated with the British political parties’ inaction on suffrage. By this time, Emmeline’s children also started to involve actively in suffrage movements.
Emmeline founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 to take militant action. The WSPU’s motto was ‘deeds, not words. The union targeted any political party that did not work toward women’s suffrage.
According to Britannica, the WSPU first attracted wide attention on October 13, 1905, when two of its members, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, thrown out of a Liberal Party meeting for demanding a statement about votes for women, were arrested for a technical assault on the police. The two were sent to prison after they refused to pay fines. The group became infamous for smashing windows and assaulting police officers, leading to the arrests, including Emmeline and her daughters.
In prison, they went on hunger strikes and endured brutal force-feedings. Some of them interrupted cabinet meetings and heckled leaders. Some activists even set mailboxes and vacant houses on fire. British politicians, the press and the public were astonished by the demonstrations, and the methods employed by the WSPU.
From 1906, Emmeline Pankhurst directed the activities of the WSPU from London. The WSPU argued that the government formed by Liberal Party was the main obstacle to women’s suffrage, and campaigned against the party’s candidates at the election and interrupted meetings of their cabinet ministers.
In 1912, Christabel Pankhurst, the elder daughter of Emmeline, took over the WSPU. Christabel controlled the activities of the WSPU from Paris, where she had gone to avoid arrest for conspiracy. In 1913, a member of this group, Emily Davison, was killed when she threw herself under the king’s horse at Derby, as a protest against the government's continued failure to grant women the right to vote.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Emmeline and Christabel suspended suffragist movements to support Great Britain’s involvement in the war.
Because of their frequent hunger strikes in prison, the government passed ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ in 1913. According to this Act, hunger-striking prisoners were released until they regained their health to some extent and then they were rearrested. Emmeline was arrested and rearrested 12 times within a year, serving a total of 30 days in prison. Their extreme militant measures drew criticisms from moderate organisations.
Emmeline Pankhurst also influenced the American suffragist movement through speaking tours. In 1909, Harriot Stanton Blatch, a suffragist, sponsored her tour through north-east America. She returned to America in 1913 and delivered her most famous speech ‘Freedom or Death’ in Hartford, Connecticut. In her speeches, she defended the militancy of British suffragettes. She argued that it was the only option to force government to recognise women’s rights.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Emmeline and Christabel suspended suffragist movements to support Great Britain’s involvement in the war. In 1917, Emmeline dissolved the WSPU and formed the Women’s Party to promote the status of women in public life.
In 1918, voting rights were given to women over 30. The Representation of the People Act of 1928, establishing voting equality for men and women, was passed a few weeks after Emmeline’s death.
In 1999, Time named Emmeline Pankhurst as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century stating that "she shaped an idea of objects for our time" and "shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.” Her work is recognised as a crucial element in achieving women's suffrage in the United Kingdom.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of the reasons why moderate organisations criticised the actions of WSPU?
How would you describe the contributions of Emmeline Pankhurst in the woman suffragette movement?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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