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Emmeline Pankhurst

Leader of the Movement to Win the Right to Vote for Women in Great Britain

By Patricia Daniels, Contributing Writer

A picture of women's rights activist, Emmeline Pankhurst.

British feminist and leader of the suffrage movement, Emmeline Pankhurst. (1910)

(Photo by Edward Gooch/Getty Images)

Who Was Emmeline Pankhurst?

British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst championed the cause of women's voting rights in Great Britain in the early 20th century, founding the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Her militant tactics earned her several imprisonments and stirred up controversy among various suffragist groups. Widely credited with bringing women's issues to the forefront — thus helping them win the vote — Pankhurst is considered one of the most influential women of the twentieth century.

Dates: July 15,* 1858 – June 14, 1928

Also Known As: Emmeline Goulden

Famous Quote: "We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers."

Raised With a Conscience

Emmeline, the eldest girl in a family of ten children, was born to Robert and Sophie Goulden on July 15, 1858 in Manchester, England. Robert Goulden ran a successful calico-printing business; his profits enabled his family to live in a large house on the outskirts of Manchester. Emmeline developed a social conscience at an early age, thanks to her parents, both ardent supporters of the antislavery movement and women's rights. At age 14, Emmeline attended her first suffrage meeting with her mother and came away inspired by the speeches she had heard.

A bright child who was able to read at the age of three, Emmeline was somewhat shy and feared speaking in public. Yet she was not timid about making her feelings known to her parents. Emmeline felt resentful that her parents placed a lot of importance upon the education of her brothers, but gave little consideration to educating their daughters. Girls attended a local boarding school that primarily taught social skills that would enable them to become good wives. Emmeline convinced her parents to send her to a progressive women's school in Paris. When she returned five years later at the age of 20, she had become fluent in French and had learned not only sewing and embroidery, but chemistry and bookkeeping as well.

Marriage and Family

Soon after returning from France, Emmeline met Richard Pankhurst, a radical Manchester attorney more than twice her age. She admired Pankhurst's commitment to liberal causes, notably the women's suffrage movement. A political extremist, Pankhurst also supported home rule for the Irish and the radical notion of abolishing the monarchy. They married in 1879 when Emmeline was 21 and Pankhurst in his mid-40s.

In contrast to the relative wealth of Emmeline's childhood, she and her husband struggled financially. Richard Pankhurst, who might have made a good living working as a lawyer, despised his work and preferred to dabble in politics and social causes. When the couple approached Robert Goulden about financial assistance, he refused; an indignant Emmeline never spoke to her father again.

Emmeline Pankhurst gave birth to five children between 1880 and 1889: daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela and sons Frank and Harry. Having taken care of her firstborn (and alleged favorite) Christobel, Pankhurst spent little time with her subsequent children when they were young, instead leaving them in the care of nannies. The children did benefit, however, from growing up in a household filled with interesting visitors and lively discussions, including with well-known socialists of the day.

Emmeline Pankhurst Gets Involved

Emmeline Pankhurst became active in the local women's suffrage movement, joining the Manchester Women's Suffrage Committee soon after her marriage. She later worked to promote the Married Women's Property Bill, which was drafted in 1882 by her husband. In 1883, Richard Pankhurst ran unsuccessfully as an Independent for a seat in Parliament. Disappointed by his loss, Richard Pankhurst was nonetheless encouraged by an invitation from the Liberal Party to run again in 1885 — this time in London.

The Pankhursts moved to London, where Richard lost his bid to secure a seat in Parliament. Determined to earn money for her family — and to free her husband to pursue his political ambitions — Emmeline opened a shop selling fancy home furnishings in the Hempstead section of London. Ultimately, the business failed because it was located in a poor part of London, where there was little demand for such items. Pankhurst closed the shop in 1888. Later that year, the family suffered the loss of four-year-old Frank, who died of diphtheria.

The Pankhursts, along with friends and fellow activists, formed the Women's Franchise League (WFL) in 1889. Although the League's main purpose was to gain the vote for women, Richard Pankhurst tried to take on too many other causes, alienating the League's members. The WFL disbanded in 1893.

Having failed to achieve their political goals in London and troubled by money woes, the Pankhursts returned to Manchester in 1892. Joining the newly-formed Labor Party in 1894, the Pankhursts worked with the Party to help feed the multitudes of poor and unemployed people in Manchester.

Emmeline Pankhurst was named to the board of "poor law guardians," whose job it was to supervise the local workhouse—an institute for destitute people. Pankhurst was shocked by conditions in the workhouse, where inhabitants were fed and clothed inadequately and young children forced to scrub floors. Pankhurst helped to improve conditions immensely; within five years, she had even established a school in the workhouse.

A Tragic Loss

In 1898, Pankhurst suffered another devastating loss when her husband of 19 years died suddenly of a perforated ulcer. Widowed at only 40 years old, Pankhurst learned that her husband had left his family deeply in debt. She was forced to sell furniture to pay off debts and accepted a paying position in Manchester as registrar of births, marriages, and deaths. As registrar in a working-class district, Pankhurst encountered many women who struggled financially. Her exposure to these women — as well as her experience at the workhouse — reinforced her sense that women were victimized by unfair laws.

In Pankhurst's time, women were at the mercy of laws which favored men. If a woman died, her husband would receive a pension; a widow, however, might not receive the same benefit. Although progress had been made by the passage of the Married Women's Property Act (which granted women the right to inherit property and to keep the money they earned), those women without an income might very well find themselves living at the workhouse.

Pankhurst committed herself to securing the vote for women because she knew their needs would never be met until they gained a voice in the law-making process.

Getting Organized: The WSPU

In October 1903, Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The organization, whose simple motto was "Votes for Women," accepted only women as members and actively sought out those from the working class.

Mill-worker Annie Kenny became an articulate speaker for the WSPU, as did Pankhurst's three daughters. The new organization held weekly meetings at Pankhurst's home and membership grew steadily. The group adopted white, green, and purple as its official colors, symbolizing purity, hope, and dignity. Dubbed by the press "suffragettes" (meant as an insulting play on the word "suffragists"), the women proudly embraced the term and called their organization's newspaper Suffragette.

The following spring, Pankhurst attended the Labor Party's conference, bringing with her a copy of the women's suffrage bill written years earlier by her late husband. She was assured by the Labor Party that her bill would be up for discussion during its May session. When that long-anticipated day came, Pankhurst and other members of the WSPU crowded the House of Commons, expecting that their bill would come up for debate. To their great disappointment, members of Parliament (MPs) staged a "talk out," during which they intentionally prolonged their discussion on other topics, leaving no time for the women's suffrage bill. The group of angry women formed a protest outside, condemning the Tory government for its refusal to address the issue of women's voting rights.

Gaining Strength

In 1905 — a general election year — the women of WSPU found ample opportunities to make themselves heard. During a Liberal Party rally held in Manchester on October 13, 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenny repeatedly posed the question to speakers: "Will the Liberal government give votes to women?" This created an uproar, leading to the pair being forced outside, where they held a protest. Both were arrested; refusing to pay their fines, they were sent to jail for a week. These were the first of what would amount to nearly one thousand arrests of suffragists in the coming years.

This highly-publicized incident brought more attention to the cause of women's suffrage than any previous event; it also brought a surge of new members. Emboldened by its growing numbers and infuriated by the government's refusal to address the issue of women's voting rights, the WSPU developed a new tactic—heckling politicians during speeches. The days of the early suffrage societies — polite, ladylike letter-writing groups — had given way to a new kind of activism.

In February 1906, Pankhurst, her daughter Sylvia, and Annie Kenny staged a women's suffrage rally in London. Nearly 400 women took part in the rally and in the ensuing march to the House of Commons, where small groups of women were allowed in to speak to their MPs after initially being locked out. Not a single member of Parliament would agree to work for women's suffrage, but Pankhurst considered the event a success. An unprecedented number of women had come together to stand for their beliefs and had shown that they would fight for the right to vote.

Protests and Imprisonment

Emmeline Pankhurst, shy as a child, evolved into a powerful and compelling public speaker. She toured the country, giving speeches at rallies and demonstrations, while Christabel became the political organizer for the WSPU, moving its headquarters to London. Emmeline Pankhurst moved to London in 1907, where she organized the largest-ever political rally in the city's history. In 1908, an estimated 500,000 people gathered in Hyde Park for a WSPU demonstration. Later that year, Pankhurst went to the United States on a speaking tour, in need of money for medical treatment for her son Harry, who had contracted polio. Unfortunately, he died soon after her return.

Over the next seven years, Pankhurst and other suffragettes were repeatedly arrested as the WSPU employed ever more militant tactics. On March 4, 1912, hundreds of women, including Pankhurst (who broke a window at the prime minister's residence), participated in a rock-throwing, window-smashing campaign throughout commercial districts in London. Pankhurst was sentenced to nine months in prison for her part in the incident. In protest of their imprisonment, she and fellow detainees embarked upon a hunger strike. Many of the women, including Pankhurst, were held down and force-fed through rubber tubes passed through their noses into their stomachs. Prison officials were widely condemned when reports of the feedings were made public.

Weakened by the ordeal, Pankhurst was released after spending a few months in abysmal prison conditions. In response to the hunger strikes, Parliament passed what came to be known as the "Cat and Mouse Act" (officially called the Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act), which allowed women to be released so that they could regain their health, only to be re-incarcerated once they had recuperated, with no credit for time served.

The WSPU stepped up its extreme tactics, including the use of arson and bombs. In 1913, one member of the Union, Emily Davidson, attracted publicity by throwing herself in front of the king's horse in the middle of the Epsom Derby race. Gravely injured, she died days later. The more conservative members of the Union became alarmed by such developments, creating divisions within the organization and leading to the departure of several prominent members. Eventually, even Pankhurst's daughter Sylvia became disenchanted with her mother's leadership and the two became estranged.

World War I and the Women's Vote

In 1914, Britain's involvement in World War I effectively put an end to the WSPU's militancy. Pankhurst believed it was her patriotic duty to assist in the war effort and ordered that a truce be declared between the WSPU and the government. In return, all suffragette prisoners were released. Pankhurst's support of the war further alienated her from daughter Sylvia, an ardent pacifist.

Pankhurst published her autobiography, My Own Story, in 1914. (Daughter Sylvia later wrote a biography of her mother, published in 1935.)

As an unexpected by-product of the war, women had the opportunity to prove themselves by carrying out jobs previously held only by men. By 1916, attitudes towards women had changed; they were now regarded as more deserving of the vote after having served their country so admirably. On January 10, 1916, Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, which granted the vote to all women over 30.

In 1925, Pankhurst joined the Conservative Party, much to the astonishment of her former socialist friends. She ran for a seat in Parliament, but withdrew before the election because of ill health.

Emmeline Pankhurst died at the age of 69 on June 14, 1928, only weeks before the vote was extended to all women over 21 years of age on July 2, 1928.

* Pankhurst always gave her date of birth as July 14, 1858, but her birth certificate recorded the date as July 15, 1858.

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