Emmeline Pankhurst, the most prominent suffragette in British history

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst is generally dubbed the most prominent suffragette in the history of Britain

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst is generally described as one of the most pivotal political and social activists in Britain’s history. Although her militant strategies have attracted their fair share of disapproving remarks over the years, this British women’s rights activist will always be remembered as the woman who contributed immensely to women’s suffrage in Britain.

But who really was Emmeline Pankhurst, and how did she become one of the most prominent suffragettes of all time?

Read on to discover more about her life, militant activities, campaigns, and her decades’ long advocacy of women’s voting right in Britain and across the Atlantic.

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How Emmeline Pankhurst got involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage

Born in a small district of Manchester in England, Emmeline Pankhurst, who was born Emmeline Goulden, grew up in a family of prominent and very vocal political activists. Her parents were Robert Goulden and Sophia Jane Goulden. It’s said that many of her maternal ancestors were steep deep in quite a number of political unrest on the Isle of Man. As a matter of fact, many of their works contributed in women securing the vote on the Isle of Man in 1881.

Sophia Goulden

Emmeline Pankhurst grew up in a large family that comprised 9 siblings. She had four younger sisters. Image: Sophia Goulden – Emmeline Pankhurst’s mother

Her father, Robert Goulden, had close ties with many American abolitionists, famous among them was Henry Ward Beecher, who was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American abolitionist best known for her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. That particular anti-slavery novel featured heavily in the Goulden’s household, as her mother would read the book to her and her siblings as a bedtime story.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was not the only book that inspired the future suffragette; “The French Revolution: A History” (by Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle) also played a big role in shaping her early thoughts on social activism.

Life, major works and achievements of Emeline Pankhurst, leader of the WSPU

Emmeline Pankhurst was born into a family of radical politics. One of ten siblings, the Manchester, England native from an early age, was urged to engage in political activities.

Growing up, she was also exposed to a number of publications and journals about women’s rights, including the Women’s Suffrage Journal. As a matter, Emmeline drew a tremendous amount of inspiration from the works of suffragist Lydia Becker (1827-1890), who was the editor of the journal. Known for her making Manchester the hub of the suffragist movement, Becker would go on to work with Emmeline’s future husband, Richard Pankhurst.

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Did you know…?

  • After listening to a very inspiring speech about women’s voting right delivered by suffragist Lydia Becker, Emmeline Pankhurst, who was then in her early teens, knew that she had one career path to follow: Suffragist.
  • In her early teens, she developed the habit of raising money for freed men and women in the United States. It therefore came as no surprise that Emmeline ended up being a passionate about social reforms and activism.
  • Her younger sister, Mary Jane Clarke, died a few days after her release from prison in 1910. Jane, who was also a suffragist, had been one of the many suffragists who were force-fed in prison. Many saw her as the first martyr of the suffragette’s movement.

Marriage and children

Richard Pankhurst

Emmeline tied the knot with Richard Pankhurst, a barrister and social activist who was about 24 years older than her.

She tied the knot with Staffordshire, England-born barrister Richard Pankhurst (1834-1898), who was about 24 years older than Emmeline. In addition to campaigning for women’s rights, Richard was known for many causes, including advocating for free speech, republicanism, and even independence for India. A staunch supporter of republicanism, Richard Pankhurst once described the Upper House as “a public abattoir” that tramples upon the liberties of the people.

She and her husband worked to set up a number of organizations, including the Independent Labour Party and the Women’s Franchise League.

Her twenty-year marriage produced five children: Christabel, Sylvia, Francis Henry, Adela, and Henry Francis.

The Pankhurst home often served as a meeting place for many social activists and political theorists, including English socialist Annie Besant (1847-1933) and French anarchist Louise Michel (1830-1905).

Emmeline Pankhurst's daughters

All three daughters of Emmeline Pankhurst got involved in the suffrage movement; perhaps the most notable one was Christabel, whom many described as the favorite in the family. Image (left to right): Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela

Groups set up by Emmeline Pankhurst to fight for women’s suffrage

In mid-1889, Pankhurst and her husband set up the Women’s Franchise League (WFL). This came in the wake of the divisions that emerged within the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS). Pankhurst and Richard believed that there was the need to inject new ideas into the whole women’s suffrage movement.

The WFL was able to attract some very prominent social activists and women’s rights advocates, including Josephine Butler, Harriet McIlquham, and Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch. The latter was the daughter of the famous American women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Some of the ideas that the WFL championed were considered somewhat radical at the time. For example, pushed for equal rights for women in all spheres, including inheritance and property laws.

Also her husband’s involvement in the WFL made the group lean towards socialist groups. These and many others were just some of the reasons why the WFL came under some bit of criticisms from other suffragists groups. There were also some members of the WFL, including Blatch, who exited the WFL for those reasons.

Suffering from both internal and external criticisms, the WFL disintegrated in 1903, a few years after the death of Richard Pinkhurst.

In 1890, she collaborated with a socialist MP by the name of Keir Hardie to set up the Independent Labour Party (ILP). She had earlier being a member of the Women’s Liberal Federation (WLF), an affiliate group of the Liberal Party. She departed the group because she had grown tired of the moderate stance taken by the group.

By establishing the ILP, she hoped to push for slightly more radical ideas, including the support of Irish Home Rule. Although, she was denied entry into the local branch of the ILP, she continued to support the activities of the ILP at the national level. She even served in the position of Poor Law Guardian, a position that saw her help in the provision of food to the needy in the society, especially those that resided in the workhouses in Manchester.

Emmeline Pankhurst

She founded two women’s suffrage organizations. The first one was the Women’s Franchise League, which aimed at securing the right for women to vote people into local offices and to have equal privileges as men in matters of inheritance and divorce.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Pankhursts had grown very frustrated with what they saw as the ineffective nature of the peaceful, lobbying that suffragists of the era were using. According to Pankhurst that approach did not yield any tangible result other than speeches and failed promises from lawmakers.

The last three decades of the 19th century had seen the defeat of three major amendments to bills that would have given some women the rights to vote.

She became to really doubt whether politicians in the Houses of Parliament truly prioritized the issue of women’s voting right. She started to believe that political organizations were incapable of delivering any result for women. This explains why she exited the ILP.

Pankhurst set out to adopt a more radical approach in her advocacy. No longer was she going to remain passive and use legal and constitutional means to bring to an end to the disenfranchisement of women.

Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst

Her oldest daughter, Christabel, served as the national coordinator of the WSPU. Image (left to right): Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst

On October 10, 1903, Pankhurst and a number of women’s rights activists established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an advocacy group that was every bit as radical as a terrorist organization. “Deeds, not words”, which was the motto of the WSPU, perfectly captures the change in her approach as well the level of determination that Pankhurst aimed to operate with. She was no longer a suffragist; instead she was a suffragette, an activist that was determined to use any means possible to win voting rights for women.

The WSPU intensified its speeches, public meetings and spread the message of the advocacy using its newsletter – Votes for Women. With every passing protest organized by WSPU, attempts were made to make their actions louder and bolder, and even disruptive. Pankhurst encouraged the members of the WSPU to be relentless in their struggle. They simply never backed down even after authorities dispersed their protests; instead, they just regrouped somewhere else and intensified their disruptive acts.

As a result of their militant acts, the Pankhursts – including all three of her daughters Adela, Sylvia and Christabel – were arrested on numerous occasions. For example, Christabel found herself behind bars after a scuffle broke out at a Liberal Party meeting, where she spat at a police officer. In 1908, Pankhurst and her some members of the WSPU tried to bulldoze their way into Parliament to present a protest resolution to lawmakers. For her aggressive and unyielding approach, she was arrested and ended up spending about six weeks in prison.

Rather than budge under, Pankhurst saw those arrests as sign that their message was getting out to the public. She deliberately carried out many disruptive acts in order to raise awareness about the unjust political system that prevailed at the time. Not once did she see her actions or that of the WSPU as breaking the law. Instead, she perceived her militant efforts as necessary requirements for change she wanted to see in the society.

WSPU

WSPU leaders – Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst of the WSPU, c. 1908

As the militant acts of the WSPU intensified, Pankhurst came tag the Liberal Party as an enemy of women’s suffrage. She blamed the party for not giving enough support to the cause at Westminster. In a way, the criticisms that the WSPU levelled against the Liberal Party affected their fortunes a lot at the polls. Members of the WSPU, including Pankhurst, suffered many verbal and physical abuses from some supporters of the Liberal Party.

Pankhurst insisted that party politics was the biggest threat to their movement’s objectives. This explains why their criticisms weren’t only limited to the Liberal Party. The WSPU criticized Labour for not making women’s suffrage a priority.

It was a known fact that Pankhurst ran the WSPU like a well-oiled military organization. Describing the WSPU as “a suffrage army in the field”, she opposed any attempts to democratize the organization as she believed that such moves would dampen the efficacy of the group.

Frustrated by the leadership structure that Pankhurst established, some members of the WSPU parted ways with the group and proceeded to form the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) in 1907. All in all, almost 80 members departed the WSPU, including Teresa Billington-Greig, Margaret Nevinson, and Alice Schofield. Many of them had also grown frustrated by Pankhurst’s excessive use of violent forms of protest.

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Window-smashing, imprisonment, and hunger strikes

In 1908, a skirmish erupted at a massive rally that saw about half a million activists. Among those activists were some members of the WSPU. After police manhandled some of them, two WSPU members – Mary Leigh and Edith New – took it upon themselves to be even more disruptive. The two women marched down to Number 10 Downing Street (i.e. the official residence of the prime minister of the United Kingdom) and hurled stones at the windows of the building. The two women were charged and slapped with a two-month prison sentence. Pankhurst came out to defend her lieutenants, stating that women’s rights to vote was an absolute essential in the society.

Life, family, militant activities, and legacy of Emmeline Pankhurst.

In 1913, she delivered a speech titled “Freedom or death” in Connecticut, U.S. Many historians consider the speech as one of her most famous.

Pankhurst also approved of jailed WSPU members that went on hunger strike. She reasoned that such an action was bound to create more public sympathy for the group. As the authorities did not want any of those jailed women’s right activist to die a martyr, the prison guards were ordered to force-feed them using whatever means possible.

There some suffragists groups that detested Pankhurst’s use of hunger strikes. One of those suffragists included Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Fawcett also expressed her frustration at Pankhurst’s relentless use of violent tactics.

In 1912, she and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were charged with the crime of planning to damage property. The activists were found guilty and given the appropriate sentence. While in prison, Pankhurst embarked upon her first hunger strike. Soon, other jailed WSPU members joined. The prison authorities responded by force-feeding the women activists.

Emmeline Pankhurst in prison

Arson is added to WSPU’s repertoire

In the early 1910s, the WSPU added arson to their portfolio of violent actions. Some members of the WSPU, including Lizzie Baker and Mary Leigh, allegedly planted an explosive device in the vicinity of the Theatre Royal in Dublin. The venue was expecting a visit from Prime Minister Asquith. As if the use of the gunpowder wasn’t enough, Mary Leigh is said to have hurled an axe at government officials. Luckily, the weapon did not do much damage as it only grazed the ear of one of the officials.

In one horrific incident, WSPU suffragette Emily Wilding Davison jumped right in front of the moving convoy of the King (King George V) at the Epsom Derby. The suffragist later succumbed to the injuries she sustained. To this day, her true intentions remain unknown. Some say she only intended to hand the King a leaflet, others say she hoped to used her suicide to raise more awareness about the causes Pankhurst’s WSPU was fighting for.

Some members of the WSPU, including Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband Frederick, became very concerned about the WSPU increased usage of very, very militant tactics. Being the autocratic that she was, Pankhurst quickly expelled those members. Perhaps the biggest high-profile departure from the group was Pankhurst’s own daughter, Adela. The young suffragist had come to despise her group’s burning of property. Some say Adela left because of the frosty relationship she had with her older sister, Christabel.

Shortly after, Christabel and Pankhurst reprimanded Sylvia for not abiding by the instructions of the group. They accused her of pursuing her own ideas. When asked to dissociate herself from the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), Sylvia vehemently refused.

Force-feeding

The confrontational tactics deployed by the WSPU were aimed at getting the needed attention and reaction from the government. These led to repeated arrests of Pankhurst and many members of the WSPU. While behind bars, Pankhurst encouraged her members to go on severe hunger strikes for long periods. Eventually, they were released and re-incarcerated soon enough. Image: Force-feeding of jailed suffragettes was quite common

The Cat and Mouse Act

As the public outcry increased over prison officials force-feeding jailed women activists, the government responded by enacting the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913. Also known as The Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act, the act prescribed the early release of women who were very ill as result of the hunger strike. The authorities then rearrested them when they deemed them healthy enough to serve their sentence.

Black Friday

On November 18, 1910, Pankhurst marched more than 250 WSPU members to Britain’s lower house, the House of Commons. Aggrieved by a recently defeated bill, the suffragettes tried to force their way into the lawmakers’ chambers. The WSPU felt that then-prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party H.H. Asquith had failed on his promise to grant some level of voting rights to women.

The angry protesters were met by an aggressive police force, who manhandled them. Some anti-suffrage male bystanders also participated in the attack of the women protesters. There were some women who alleged that they were sexually assaulted by the police and male bystanders. More than 100 WSPU activists were arrested including Pankhurst’s sister, Mary Jane, who was handed one month prison sentence. Two days after her release, she passed away at her brother’s home.

Following the Black Friday incident, the WSPU scaled down on using those violent forms of protests, reverting to the usual window-smashing and throwing of stones.

Mary Jane Clarke – younger sister of Emmeline Pankhurst

The WSPU suspends its campaigns in order to support the government’s efforts in World War I

In 1914, when World War I (WWI) broke out, Pankhurst announced that the WSPU was suspending their militant activities in order to focus on defeating the enemy (i.e. Germany), who they considered a far graver threat. As they wanted the country to be victorious, Pankhurst and the WSPU supported the war effort. The government in turn released all imprisoned WSPU activists.

However, there were some members of the WSPU that were displeased with Pankhurst’s support of the government during the war. Those members went on to form splinter groups – the Independent Women’s Social and Political Union (IWSPU) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (SWSPU).

In any case, Pankhurst rallied the WSPU to support efforts to keep the country’s industries and infrastructure operating as smoothly as possible. Her goal was to show the the public that women could take up and perform some jobs just as well as men. It was estimated that over two million women joined the labor force between 1914 and 1918. Pankhurst encouraged women to go beyond traditionally female roles. She did however question why women were still paid less for the jobs that men previously did.

Across the Atlantic, she called on suffragettes to suspend their advocacy and support the U.S. government’s war efforts.

During WWI, Pankhurst encouraged women to enter the labor force and show the government that women were equal to men in the workplace.

Representation of the People Act 1918

Towards the end of WWI, British politicians readied a bill that would grant women over the age of 30 the right to vote. Although, those women had to meet the property qualification. In 1918, and much to the delight of the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, the Representation of the People Act was passed. The act granted universal suffrage to all men over the age of 21. Men over the age of 19 in the armed forces were granted voting rights.

It was estimated that over 8.5 million of women met the requirement of the act. This translated to about two-thirds of the total population of women in Britain. The act was a significant win for the suffragettes.

All in all, the Representation of the People Act increased the electorate from 8 to 21 million.

With no more battle to fight, the WSPU was rebranded by Pankhurst as a political party: the Women’s Party. Once again the group was open to only women. The party prioritized causes like equal pay for equal work, reduced working hours, educational and job opportunities for women, and equal marriage laws. The party also cautioned the nation of the rising threat of Bolshevism from Russia.

After Christabel narrowly lost an election to a Labour Party candidate, the fortunes of the Women’s Party began to take a nosedive. The party ultimately died out.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s take on Emmeline Pankhurst

Retirement

After years of criticizing almost every political party, she joined the Conservative Party in 1926. She stated that her time in Canada and the United States went a long way in changing her views. Her quest to secure a seat in Parliament was thwarted by her deteriorating health.

The suffragette’s health had taken a beating due to the decades of campaigning, militant activities and touring. Her frosty relationship with two of her daughters – Sylvia and Adela – had also taken a toll on her health.

Death

Emmeline Pankhurst passed away on June 14, 1928. She was 69 years old. The prominent suffragette was laid to rest at Brompton Cemetery in London, England. She received many positive praise from journals and newspapers around the world, with some calling her the most influential advocate for electoral enfranchisement of women.

Pankhurst did not live long to see the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. Passed in July of that year, the act granted equal voting rights to men and women. All persons over the age of 21, regardless of gender, was eligible to vote. It’s been estimated that the act increased the number of women eligible to vote to about 15 million.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Pankhurst’s grave in Brompton Cemetery

How Pankhurst came to embrace and own the term “suffragette”

The term “suffragette” was coined by Charles Hands, a journalist at the Daily Mail. Hands had come to loathe the WSPU’s use of radical tactics and property destruction to get their message across. Hands would go on to describe them as “suffragette”, inserting “ette” as way to demean them. Rather than reject the term, Pankhurst and her colleagues at the WSPU embraced it.

Emmeline Pankhurst

For many decades, Emmeline Pankhurst and her colleagues fought tirelessly for women’s voting rights. Emmeline was invited to speak at many places in the US, Russia and Canada. She loved Canada best of all because she felt that was the country both genders were treated with the most equity.

Why was Emmeline Pankhurst prepared to use every means necessary to secure women’s right to vote?

She supported women’s voting rights because she believed that it could drastically reduce the sufferings women went through. In her autobiographies, she cited the Manchester houses and the time she worked at the Birth and Deaths Registry in Chorlton as having a profound impact on her decision to fight to the bitter end for women’s suffrage. She was of the view that women suffered more than men in every sphere of the society because they were disenfranchised.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Life, family, militant activities, and legacy of Emmeline Pankhurst

It must be noted that there were some women’s rights activists that opposed the militant actions of Pankhurst. For example, Fawcett and her the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) preferred using legal and constitutional means to bring an end to the disenfranchisement of women.

What’s the difference between suffragists and suffragettes?

Both suffragists and suffragettes campaigned for the right to vote, especially the women’s rights to vote; however, the difference between the two is the approach they used. Suffragists campaigned for those rights using nonviolent approach, including lobbying and public meetings. On the other hand, suffragettes were women’s rights activists that used all kinds of means, including acts that were deemed unlawful at the time, to attain their goal.

Suffragettes deployed a militant approach in their campaign for women’s right to vote, while suffragists used peaceful campaigns such as petition at the local, regional and national level.

Why did Pankhurst adopt a militant approach in the campaign for women’s votes?

There is no doubt whatsoever that the Pankhursts initially started as suffragists. However, they would later abandon that approach. The reason for doing so was because many of the suffragist groups, especially the one led by Millicent Fawcett, focused too much on lobbying through parliament. The suffragists were criticized for not doing enough to galvanize broader appeal to their cause. And many women’s rights activists had grown quite fed up of those suffragist tactics that only produced speeches and promises. This was perhaps the biggest reason why the suffragette groups increased in size and popularity.

With Emmeline Pankhurst leading one of the biggest suffragette groups in Britain, the issue of women’s votes gained huge traction in the public discourse. By the start of the 20th century, Pankhurst and her fellow colleagues at the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had begun using militant campaign and more direct actions. It would be an understatement to say that the suffragettes were frustrated by the slow-paced nature of political reforms. The WSPU’s guiding motto was ‘Deeds, not words’.

Pankhurst’s WSPU, which was open to only women, was of the view that the peaceful tactics of suffragists were gravely ineffective, least to say.

This explains why Pankhurst and the WSPU adopted radical approaches in the fight for women’s votes.

Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was a women-only organization founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903. The suffragette was known for their use of radical tactics in the fight for women’s right to vote. Some of those tactics included arson, assaulting of police officers, and window-smashing. This group was way more aggressive than the first group she established. Image: WSPU leaders Flora Drummond, Christabel Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, Emmeline Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard, with two others, 1906–1907

Emmeline Pankhurst’s date of birth

In the biographies written by her daughters, it’s said that Emmeline Pankhurst was born on July 14, which is Bastille Day – a national holiday in France which celebrates the Storming of the Bastille in 1789. The suffragette believed that her birth on July 14 had a strong influence on the path she chose in life. Pankhurst considered herself in similar light as the brave men and women who stormed the heavily fortified armoury and prison (i.e. the Bastille) on July 14 seeking the end of the French monarchy’s abuse of power.

Time magazine’s honor

In 1999 famous American news magazine Time published the 100 Persons of the Century. And on the list, among the likes of the Wright Brothers, Mohammad Ali, and Sigmund Freud, was the British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. The Manchester, England-born women’s rights activist is best known for her tireless effort in securing a seismic change in British culture: women’s voting rights. A founding member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Pankhurst, along with her daughters, deployed all means necessary, including militant actions, to attain that sacred goal.

Other interesting facts about Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst memorial

Erected in 1930, Emmeline Pankhurst statue at the Victoria Tower Gardens, near the House of Parliament, London, U.K., is a popular tourist attraction for many feminists. Image: The Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst Memorial at the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens

  • In a 2002 BBC poll, viewers selected her as number 27 on the list of 100 Greatest Britons. The top ranked personalities on the list were: Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Princess Diana, Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I, and John Lennon.
  • She holds the honor of being the first woman to earn a statue in Manchester since Queen Victoria. The statue of the suffragette was designed by British sculptor Hazel Reeves.
  • In “Suffragette”, a 2015 British historical drama film directed by British filmmaker Sarah Gavron, renowned American actress Meryl Streep stars as Emmeline Pankhurst.
  • Across the UK, 14 July is marked as Emmeline Pankhurst Day. Many feminists today are inspired by the commitment Pankhurst showed in her days. The suffragette is celebrated by many women’s rights groups such as the Women and Equalities Committee.

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