Emmeline Pankhurst, née Goulden (Moss Side, July 15, 1858 – Hampstead, June 14, 1928), was a British activist and politician who led the United Kingdom”s suffragette movement, helping women gain the right to vote.
In 1999, the U.S. magazine Time proclaimed Pankhurst as one of the “most important people of the 20th century,” stating that she “shaped an idea of women for our time, shook society into a new pattern from which there would be no turning back.” She was widely criticized at the time for her aggressive militant tactics, and historians still disagree on the extent of their actual effectiveness and reach, but her work is recognized as crucial to the achievement of women”s suffrage in Britain.
Born in Moss Side, Ward of Manchester to politically active parents, Pankhurst was introduced at age 14 to the women”s suffrage movement. On December 18, 1879, she married Richard Pankhurst, a 25-year-old barrister who supported voting rights for women. They had five children over the next ten years. She supported his activities outside of the home by founding the Franchise Woman”s League in 1898 and succeeded in involving a large number of women in it and supporting suffrage for both married and unmarried women.
When in 1903 this first organization disbanded she tried to join the “Independent Labour Party” through her friendship with socialist Keir Hardie, but was initially refused membership by the local branch of the party because of her being a woman. While working as a Board of guardians (legal administrative guardian for the poorer classes) she was shocked by the harsh conditions she encountered in the workhouses in the Manchester area.
In 1903, five years after her husband”s death, she founded the Women”s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a women”s suffrage advocacy organization dedicated to “actions, not words.” The group self-identified as independent of – and often in opposition to – existing political parties; it soon became known for its pursuit of physical confrontation: its members shattered windows and assaulted public officials. Pankhurst, his three daughters, and other WSPU activists received repeated sentences to serve in prison where they organized a hunger strike in protest.
When the oldest of the daughters, Christabel Pankhurst, took over the executive leadership of the WSPU, the antagonism between the group and the government grew even more; eventually the group even adopted burning as a sign of protest prompting more moderate organizations to badmouth the Pankhurst family.
In 1913 a number of distinguished members of the association were expelled, including Pankhurst”s daughters Adela Pankhurst and Sylvia Pankhurst; Emmeline was so enraged by this that she gave Adela a £20 note and a letter of introduction addressed to some Australian suffragists, insisting that she emigrate. Adela respected her wishes and the break with the family was never healed again.
Sylvia moved closer to socialism.
With the advent of World War I Emmeline and Christabel immediately declared a temporary halt to militant activism by supporting Her Majesty”s Government”s stance against the “German danger.” Both began calling on women to support industrial production and encourage young men to fight, becoming prominent figures within the patriotic “white feather” movement.
In 1918, the Representation of the People Act 1918 granted the right to vote to all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30. This discrepancy was intended to ensure that men did not become minority voters as a result of the huge number of deaths that occurred during World War I.
In November 1917 Pankhurst transformed the organizational machinery of the WSPU into the “Women”s Party,” dedicated to promoting women”s equality in public life. In the following years she became concerned about what she perceived as the looming threat of Bolshevism and consequently joined the Conservative Party. She was chosen as the Conservative candidate for the London district of Stepney in 1927.
She died on June 14, 1928, just weeks before the Conservative government”s Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 expanded the right to vote to all women over the age of 21 on July 2. She was commemorated two years later with a statue placed inside Victoria Tower Gardens.
Emmeline Goulden was born on July 15, 1858 in the suburb of Moss Side in Manchester. Although her birth certificate states otherwise, she claimed that her birthday fell one day earlier, namely on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Most biographies dedicated to her, including those written by her daughters, repeat this claim.
Feeling a strong spiritual kinship with the women in the French Revolution who attacked the Bastille, she declared in 1908, “I have always felt that the fact that I was born on that day had some influence on my life.” The reason for the discrepancy remains unclear to this day.
The family where he was born had been immersed in political unrest for entire generations. Her mother, Sophia Jane Craine (1833 or 37-1910), belonged to the “Manx” ethnic group of the Isle of Man and counted among her ancestors men accused of social unrest and slander. In 1881 the island was the first country to grant women the right to vote in national elections.
His father, Robert Goulden (born 1830), came from a modest family of merchants in Manchester with his own “background” of political activity; his mother was active with the “Anti-Corn Law League” (a movement aimed at abolishing unpopular corn laws), while his father was present at the Peterloo Massacre when the cavalry charged against the crowd demanding electoral reform, causing 11 deaths. (a movement aimed at the abolition of unpopular corn laws), while his father was present at the Peterloo Massacre when the cavalry charged against the crowd demanding electoral reform causing 11 deaths among the protesters.
Their first child died at age 2; the Gouldens gave birth to 10 more children, of whom Emmeline was the oldest of the five sisters; the youngest was Eva Gertrude Goulden (born 1874). Shortly after Emmeline”s birth, the family moved to Seedley, Pendleton (Greater Manchester), on the outskirts of the Salford district, where her father had set up a small business. Goulden was active in local politics serving for several years on the town council. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of organizations such as the “Manchester Athenaeum” and the “Dramatic Reading Society.” For several years she owned a theater in Salford where she played the lead roles in several of William Shakespeare”s plays. Emmeline absorbed the appreciation of theatrical dramaturgy introjected by her father and later used it in social activism as well.
The Gouldens soon opened the doors of social activism to their children; as a member of the abolitionist movement in the United States of America, Goulden welcomed U.S. abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher when he visited Manchester. Sophia Jane Goulden used the novel Uncle Tom”s Cabin – written in 1852 by Beecher”s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe – as a regular source of stories and tales at her sons” and daughters” parties. In her autobiography in 1914, My Own Story, Emmeline recalled visiting a bazaar at a young age that raised money to donate to newly freed slaves in the Confederate States of America.
Emmeline began reading books at an early age, according to one source as early as age three. She read the Odyssey in its entirety at the age of nine and enjoyed the works of John Bunyan, particularly his history entitled The Christian”s Pilgrimage of 1678. Another of his favorite books was Thomas Carlyle”s three-volume treatise “The French Revolution: A History”; he later said of that work, “it remained all my life a source of inspiration.”
Despite her avid consumption of books, however, Emmeline was not afforded the educational advantages that her male siblings enjoyed. Parents felt that girls had the greatest need to learn the art of “making the home attractive” along with the other skills desired by potential husbands. The Gouldens deliberated carefully about future plans for their children”s education, but they expected their daughters to soon marry wealthy young men who would relieve them of gainful employment.
Although they supported women”s suffrage and the general advancement of women within civil society, the Gouldens believed their daughters to be completely incapable of achieving the same goals as their male peers. One evening, as her father entered her bedroom, a feverish and sleepless Emmeline heard him stop and say, “too bad I wasn”t born a boy.”
It was through her parents” interest in women”s suffrage that Emmeline was first introduced to the subject. Her mother regularly received and read the Women”s Suffrage Journal and Emmeline became a devoted admirer of editor Lydia Becker. At the age of 14, she came home early from school so that she could accompany her mother to a public meeting on women”s voting rights and, upon learning of Becker”s presence, insisted that she be allowed to attend. Emmeline was literally captivated by Becker”s speech and later wrote, “I left that meeting as a conscious and inveterate suffragette.”
A year later she went to Paris to attend the École normale supérieure in Neuilly-sur-Seine; the institute offered students classes in chemistry and accounting in addition to traditional feminine arts such as embroidery. Her roommate was Noémie, daughter of Marquis Henri Rochefort, imprisoned in New Caledonia for his support of the Paris Commune; the girls shared their respective parents” accounts of political exploitation and maintained a strong friendship that lasted many years.
Emmeline remained so impassioned by the experience of school and friendship with Noémie that after graduating (1877) she returned to the school board with her younger sister Mary as her personal tutor. Noémie married a Swiss painter and quickly found a suitable French husband for her dear English friend; when Robert Goulden refused to offer a dowry for his daughter, the man quickly withdrew his offer of marriage and Emmeline returned to Manchester depressed and unhappy.
In the fall of 1878, at the age of 20, Emmeline Goulden first met and began a courtship with Richard Pankhurst, a barrister who had been advocating for years for women”s suffrage and other causes, including free speech and educational reform. Richard was 44 years old when they met and had until then chosen to remain an academic in order to better serve his clients. Their affection for each other was powerful but the couple”s happiness was undermined by the death of his mother the following year. Sophia Jane Goulden tried to reprimand her daughter for throwing herself too quickly into Richard”s arms, urging her – to no avail – to show greater indifference.
Emmeline suggested to Richard that he avoid the legal formalities of marriage by entering into a “free union” (a cohabitation), but he objected on the grounds that she would be excluded from political life as an unmarried woman. He noted that his colleague Elizabeth Wolstenholme had faced social condemnation before formalizing her marriage to Ben Elmy. Emmeline seemed to agree and so they were married at St. Luke”s Church in Pendleton on December 18, 1879.
During the 1880s living at Goulden Cottage in Seedley with her parents, Emmeline Pankhurst cared for her husband and children, while still managing to devote time to political activities. Although she gave birth to five children in ten years, both she and Richard always believed that they were not “domestic machines”. In fact, a wet nurse was hired as Pankhurst began to become involved in the activities of the Women”s Suffrage Society.
Firstborn Christabel Pankhurst was born on September 22, 1880, less than a year later than the date of the marriage. They were then born Estelle Silvia Pankhurst on May 5, 1882 and Francis Henry, nicknamed Frank, in 1884. Soon after, Richard left the Liberal Party, beginning to express more radical and socialist views and going so far as to support a court case against wealthy businessmen. These actions only aroused the ire of Robert Goulden and the mood at home became tense. In 1885, the Pankhursts decided to move to Chorlton-on-Medlock where Adela Pankhurst was born on June 19, 1885. Then, the following year they moved to London where Richard ran unsuccessfully in the election for the Parliament of the United Kingdom; here, he opened a small textile store called “Emerson and Company”.
In 1888 Francis contracted diphtheria and died on September 11 at the age of four. Overcome with grief Pankhurst had two portraits of the child commissioned, but unable to look at them she hid them inside a bedroom closet. The family came to the conclusion that a subsurface drainage defect in the back of the house had caused their son”s illness; Pankhurst blamed the poor conditions in the neighborhood and the family moved again to a wealthier middle class district of Russell Square. Soon she was pregnant again and declared that the child was a “returned Frank”: on July 7, 1889, she gave birth to Henry Francis, named in honor of her late brother.
Pankhurst made the Russell Square home a hub by attracting activists of all kinds. She took pleasure in decorating the house to her taste, especially with furniture from the Asian continent and having all family members wear sought-after clothing. Her daughter Sylvia wrote, “beauty and appropriateness in dress and family appointments always seemed to her an indispensable element in being able to do good public work.”
The Pankhursts hosted several personalities including American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Indian Congressman Dadabhai Naoroji, socialism activists Herbert Burrows and Annie Besant (the founder of the Mystic Order of the Rosicrucian Temple), and French anarchist Louise Michel.
In 1888, the first nationwide coalition of groups supporting women”s right to vote, the National Society for Women”s Suffrage (NSWS), split after a majority of members decided to accept organizations affiliated with political parties as well. In response to this decision, some of the group”s leaders, including Lydia Becker and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, broke away from the association to form a new organization committed to the “old ways” and which they named the “Great College Street Society” as its headquarters. Instead, Pankhurst aligned himself with the “new ordinances” group known as the Parliament Street Society (PSS) in Whitehall.
Some members of the SDP favored a piecemeal approach to getting out the vote. Because it was often assumed that married women did not need the vote since their husbands “voted for them,” some PSS members believed that voting for single women and widows was the first step on the path to full voting rights. When the reluctance within the SDP to promote voting for married women as well became clear, Pankhurst and her husband helped organize a new group dedicated to voting rights for all women, married and single.
The inaugural meeting of the “Women”s Franchise League” (WFL) was held on July 25, 1889 at the Pankhurst home in Russell Square. William Lloyd Garrison spoke, warning the audience that the abolitionism movement in the United States of America was being hampered. Early WFL members included Josephine Butler, leader of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, Richard”s friend Elizabeth Wolstenholme, and Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch, daughter of U.S. suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The WFL was soon considered a radical organization because in addition to women”s suffrage it supported equal rights for women with respect to divorce and inheritance (social equality). The organization also supported trade unionism and created alliances with existing socialist organizations. The more conservative group that emerged from the division of the NSWS called the WFL the “far left” wing of the movement.
The WFL reacted by ridiculing the “Spinster Suffrage party” and insisted on the need for a broader assault on social inequality. The radicalism of the group forced some of its members to abandon it; both Blatch and Wolstenholme soon resigned from the WFL. The group split only a year after its inception.
In the meantime, Richard”s store was not doing well, experiencing serious difficulties with business. With the family finances dwindling, Richard found himself having to travel regularly to the North West where most of his customers were based. In 1893 the Pankhursts closed up store and returned to Manchester. They stayed for a few months in the seaside town of Southport (Merseyside) and then moved briefly to the village of Disley. Finally, they settled then in a house opposite “Victoria Park” in Manchester. The girls were enrolled in the “Manchester Girls” High School”, where they were, however, sidelined by most of the students and excluded from a regular curriculum.
Pankhurst began working with several political organizations distinguishing himself for the first time as an activist in his own right and gaining respect within the community. One biographer describes this period as one of “emerging from Richard”s shadow.” In addition to her work on behalf of women”s suffrage she became an active participant in the Women”s Liberal Federation (WLF), an auxiliary of the Liberal Party. Emmeline soon found herself disenchanted with the moderate positions of the group but above all because of her unwillingness to support the Irish Home Rule movement and the aristocratic leadership of Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery.
In 1888 Pankhurst met and fell in love with Keir Hardie, a socialist from Scotland. Keir was elected to parliament in 1891 and two years later helped create the “Independent Labor Party” (ILP). Encouraged by the range of issues the ILP was committed to addressing, Pankhurst resigned from the WLF and applied to join the ILP. However, the local branch refused her admission because she was a woman, but she eventually managed to join the party nationally. Christabel later wrote of her mother”s enthusiasm for the party and its organizing efforts, “in this movement she hoped to find at last the means of righting every political and social wrong.”
One of her earliest activities with the ILP saw Pankhurst engaged in distributing food to people in poverty through the work of the “Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed.” In December 1894 she was elected as “Legal Guardian” at the Workhouse in Chorlton-on-Medlock. Below are the words that saw her shocked by the living conditions she witnessed firsthand at the Manchester Workhouse:
Pankhurst rallied to change things and was a leading voice in reforms at the Board of Guardians. His main opponent was a passionate man named Mainwaring known for his rudeness. Acknowledging to himself the bad temper that would hurt Pankhurst”s chances of persuading allies, he used to carry a note with him that read, “Keep calm!”
After helping her busy husband with another failed parliamentary campaign, Emmeline faced legal trouble in 1886 when she and two other men violated a court-issued order against ILP meetings at Boggart Hole Clough. With Richard volunteering his free time as legal counsel, they refused to pay the fines and the two men were sentenced to spend a month in jail. Pankhurst was never made to serve her sentence, perhaps out of fear of the effect imprisonment would have on a woman so respected in the community. When asked by an ILP reporter if she would be willing to spend time in prison, Pankhurst replied, “Oh, yes, indeed, it wouldn”t be so bad, and besides it would be valuable experience.” ILP meetings were later allowed, but the episode dealt a severe blow to Richard”s health and caused a significant loss of income for the family.
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During the fight conducted at Boggart Hole Clough Richard Pankhurst began to experience severe abdominal pain; he later contracted a stomach ulcer and his health deteriorated rapidly during 1897. The family moved briefly to Mobberley, hoping that the clean air of the town would help Richard”s health. When he recovered shortly thereafter, the family returned to Manchester, but by the summer of 1898 Richard suffered a sudden relapse. Meanwhile, Pankhurst took her eldest daughter Christabel with her to Corsier, Switzerland, to visit her old friend Noémie. Once in Switzerland, a telegram arrived from Richard with the words: “I don”t feel very well, come home, my love”. Leaving Christabel with Noémie, Emmeline immediately returned to England. On July 5, while traveling by train from London to Manchester, she noticed a newspaper announcing the death of Richard Pankhurst.
The loss of her husband left Pankhurst with new responsibilities and a substantial amount of debt. She moved with her family to a smaller house at 62 Nelson Street, resigned from the “Board of Guardians,” and received a stipend for registering births and deaths in Chorlton. This work allowed her to learn more about the conditions of women in the region. Her autobiography states, “they told me their stories, stories both terrible and moving in their patience, explaining the pathos of poverty.”
Her observations on the differences between men and women, for example in relation to the condition of illegitimacy, only reinforced the conviction that women needed the right to vote first to see their condition improve. In 1900 she was elected to the “Manchester School Board” and saw unequal treatment and limited opportunities for women. Around the same time she decided to reopen the store with the hope of accumulating additional income for the family.
The individual identities of the Pankhurst children began to emerge shortly after their father”s death. By this time everyone had been involved in the fight for women”s suffrage; Christabel enjoyed a privileged status among the daughters, as Sylvia noted in 1931, “She was our mother”s favorite, we all knew it, and for that I never resented the fact.” Christabel did not share her mother”s fervor for political engagement, at least until she befriended suffragette activists Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth. Soon, she became involved in the pro-suffrage movements and joined her mother at events and rallies called by her.
Sylvia took lessons from a respected local artist and soon received a scholarship to the art school at Manchester Metropolitan University. She went on to study art history first in Florence and then in Venice. The younger children, Adela and Harry, had more difficulty finding a suitable course of study. Adela attended a local boarding school where, however, she was cut off from her friends also because of the contraction of lice. Even Harry had difficulties at school and also suffered from measles and vision problems.
By 1903 Pankhurst was convinced that years of speeches and promises about women”s suffrage by parliamentarians had led nowhere. Although the Suffrage Bills introduced in 1870, 1886, and 1897 respectively partially confirmed the promises at least at the local level, each side felt somewhat defeated. Emmeline doubted that the political parties with their many agenda items would ever give due priority to the issue of extending suffrage.
He also broke with the ILP when the party refused to focus on voting for women. It therefore seemed necessary to abandon the tactics of existing advocacy groups in favor of more militant action. So on October 10, 1903, Pankhurst, along with other female colleagues, founded the Women”s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organization open only to women and focused on direct action to gain the right to vote. “Demonstrative action,” she later wrote, “not words, was to be our permanent motto.”
The group”s initial militancy took on forms of nonviolence. In addition to making speeches and collecting petition signatures, the WSPU organized demonstrations and had a magazine published called “Votes for Women.” The group also convened a series of “women”s parliaments” that coincided with official government sessions.
When a bill for women”s suffrage was dropped for filibuster on May 12, 1905, Pankhurst and other WSPU members staged a protest outside the U.K. Parliament building. Police forced them to immediately remove themselves from where they had gathered to demand approval of the bill. Although the bill was never reintroduced, Pankhurst regarded it as a successful demonstration of the militant force to capture public opinion. Pankhurst declared in 1906, “We are at last recognized as a political party, we are now in the midst of politics and are a weapon of it.”
His three daughters became active members of the WSPU. Christabel Pankhurst was arrested after spitting at a policeman during a Liberal Party meeting in October 1905; Adela Pankhurst and Sylvia Pankhurst were arrested a year later during an organized protest just outside Parliament.
Emmeline herself was first arrested in February 1908 when she attempted to break into Parliament to present a resolution of protest to Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. She was charged with obstructing the work of public office and sentenced to six weeks in prison. She later spoke of the conditions of her imprisonment including lack of money, scant food, and the “civil torture of solitary confinement in absolute silence” to which she and other activists were forced.
Pankhurst saw imprisonment as an opportunity to publicize the urgency of women”s suffrage; in June 1909 she hit a policeman twice in the face to secure her arrest. Pankhurst was arrested as many as seven times before women”s suffrage was passed. During her deposition on October 21, 1908, she declared before the court, “we are not here because we are lawbreakers, we are here to become legislators.”
WSPU”s exclusive focus on women”s voting became another hallmark of its militancy. While other organizations agreed to work with individual political parties, WSPU insisted on separating itself from the political parties in government and, in many cases, even the opposition, which did not favor women”s suffrage.
The group staged protests against all candidates belonging to the government party since it refused to pass women”s suffrage during its legislation. This brought the group into a state of permanent conflict with the Liberal Party leadership. One of the first targets of the WSPU was future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose political opponent attributed Churchill”s defeat to “those women who are sometimes so derisive.”
WSPU members were sometimes blamed and mocked for their spoiling of elections for liberal candidates. On January 18, 1908, Pankhurst and her associate Nellie Martel were attacked by a mob of male Liberal supporters who blamed the WSPU for leading them to defeat in a recent election against the Conservative candidate. The men threw dirt, rotten eggs and rocks mixed in the snow; some of the women were beaten and Pankhurst injured an ankle.
Similar tensions were later created with the Labour Party. Until party leaders would grant women the vote, the WSPU engaged in militant activism. Pankhurst and other members of the union saw that the official policies of the real political parties distracted from the primary goal of women”s suffrage and criticized similar organizations for prioritizing party loyalty and not the vote for women.
As the WSPU had gained recognition and notoriety for its actions, Pankhurst resisted efforts to democratize the organization itself. In 1907, a small group of members led by Teresa Billington-Greig called for greater involvement of lower-ranking suffragettes at the Union”s annual meetings. In response, Pankhurst announced at a meeting that the decision-making elements of the organization”s constitution were null and void and cancelled the annual meetings. He also insisted that a small committee chosen by the members present be authorized to coordinate all activities of the association.
Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel were chosen (along with Mabel Tuke and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence) as executive members of the new committee. Frustrated several members, including Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard, left the association to form their own and entirely new organization, the Women”s Freedom League. In her 1914 autobiography, Pankhurst rejected criticism of the WSPU”s leadership structure in its entirety:
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On June 21, 1908, half a million women activists gathered in Hyde Park to demand the vote for women; Herbert Henry Asquith and the major parliamentary leaders responded with ill-concealed indifference. Disdainful of this intransigence and the presence of plainclothes police members, some of the WSPU members increased the seriousness of their actions; shortly after the demonstration was over, twelve women gathered in Parliament Square trying to deliver speeches in favor of women”s suffrage.
Police officers arrested several female speakers, pushing them toward a crowd of opponents who had gathered nearby. Frustrated, two WSPU members – Edith New and Mary Leigh – made their way to 10 Downing Street and threw stones through the windows of the UK Prime Minister”s house. They later insisted that their act was independent of WSPU orders, but Pankhurst did not fail to express his approval of the action.
When a magistrate sentenced New and Leigh to two months” imprisonment, Pankhurst reminded the court of how various male political agitators throughout British history had broken windows to gain legal and civil rights.
In 1909 the hunger strike was added to WSPU”s repertoire of resistance. On June 24, Marion Dunlop was arrested for scrawling an excerpt from the Bill of Rights posted on a wall in the House of Commons. Outraged at the poor conditions in the prison, Dunlop began a hunger strike. When that proved to be effective (Dunlop was released), fourteen women imprisoned for breaking windows also began fasting.
WSPU members soon became known across the country for holding prolonged hunger strikes to protest their incarceration. Prison authorities often force-fed the women, using tubes inserted through their noses or mouths. The painful techniques (which, in the case of the mouth, required the use of steel hooks to have the mouth held open) received condemnation from both suffragettes and medical professionals.
These tactics caused some tension between the WSPU and more moderate organizations, which were involved in the National Union of Women”s Suffrage Societies-NUWSS. The group”s leader, Millicent Fawcett, initially praised WSPU members for their courage and dedication to the cause. However, in 1912, she declared that hunger strikes were mere publicity tools and that militant women activists were “the chief obstacles to the success of the suffrage movement in the House of Commons.”
NUWSS refused to join a march by women”s suffrage groups after unsuccessfully demanding that WSPU stop supporting the destroyers of private property. Fawcett”s sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, resigned from WSPU for similar reasons.
Press coverage of the events was mixed; many journalists noted that crowds of women responded positively to Pankhurst”s speeches, while others roundly condemned her radical approach to the issue. The Daily News urged them to maintain a more moderate approach, while other outlets condemned the window-breaking promoted by WSPU members. In 1906, journalist Charles Hands first referred to militant women using the term “suffragettes” (instead of the standard “suffragists”. Pankhurst and her allies took the term back as their own and used it to differentiate themselves from more moderate groups.
The last half of the first decade of the century was a time of pain, loneliness, and constant work for Pankhurst. In 1907 she sold her home in Manchester and began an itinerant lifestyle, moving from place to place as she spoke and marched for women”s suffrage. She resided with friends and in hotels, carrying her few belongings inside suitcases. Although she always remained energized to continue the struggle – and found joy in energizing others – her constant wandering also meant separation from her children, especially Christabel Pankhurst, who had by then become the national coordinator of the WSPU.
In 1909, while Pankhurst was planning a speaking tour of the United States of America, her son Harry became paralyzed as a result of an inflammation of the spinal cord. She hesitated to leave the country while the boy fell sick in bed, but she needed money to pay for his medical treatment and the tour promised to be lucrative. Upon her return, after a veritable triumph with the audience, she found herself sitting by Harry”s bedside just as he died on January 5, 1910.
Five days later she had her son buried, before speaking in front of 5,000 people in Manchester. The Liberal Party supporters who had arrived to defeat her remained in perfect silence as she faced the crowd alone.
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Conciliation, force-feeding, damage to public and private buildings and arson
After the Liberals were defeated in the January 1910 election, ILP member and journalist Henry Brailsford helped organize a “Conciliation Committee for Women”s Suffrage,” which brought together 54 MPs from various political stripes. The reconciliation group seemed to be a narrowly defined but still significant possibility for getting the vote for women. So WSPU agreed to suspend its support for broken windows and hunger strikes during the negotiations.
When it became clear that the bill would not pass this time either, Pankhurst declared, “if the bill, despite our best efforts, is killed by the government, then … I have to say that there is a possibility of an end to the truce.”
When it was defeated Pankhurst led a protest march of 300 women to Parliament Square on November 18. They were met by an aggressive police response, led by Secretary of State Winston Churchill: officers violently struck the marching women, tore down their coats of arms and flags, and dragged them away. Although Pankhurst had been allowed to enter Parliament, Prime Minister Asquith refused to meet with her. The incident later became known as Black Friday.
As “Conciliation Bills” were later introduced, WSPU leaders advocated for the discontinuation of militant tactics. In March 1912, the second “Conciliation Bill” was in jeopardy and Pankhurst joined a new group of activists who went around the city breaking windows. The crime of extensive damage to private property led police to search the WSPU offices. Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were tried at the Old Bailey and convicted of conspiracy and inciting damage to buildings.
Christabel Pankhurst, who was the main coordinator of the organisation in 1912, was also sought by the police, but she managed to escape to Paris, from where she directed the WSPU”s strategy in exile. Inside Holloway Prison Emmeline carried out her first hunger strike to improve conditions for other suffragettes in the cells next door and was quickly followed by Pethick-Lawrence and other WSPU members.
He described in his autobiography the trauma caused by force-feeding during the strike period, “Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Nauseous scenes of violence took place there almost every hour of the day, as doctors went from cell to cell in order to perform their ghastly office.”
When prison officials attempted to enter his cell, Pankhurst raised a clay jug above his head and announced, “If any of you attempt even to take one step inside this cell, I will defend myself.”
Pankhurst was spared further attempts at feeding after this incident, but she continued to violate the law and, when imprisoned again, implemented a hunger strike in protest. Over the next two years she was arrested numerous times, but was often released only after a few days due to her illness.
Later, Herbert Henry Asquith”s government passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, which made similar furloughs permissible for other suffragettes who faced illnesses as a result of hunger strikes. Prison officials recognized the potential public relations disaster that would erupt if the WSPU”s most popular leader had to be force-fed or even if she were allowed to suffer seriously in prison.
However, police officers arrested her during open negotiations with the government and while she was marching at the head of the two suffragettes. She tried to evade police harassment by wearing disguises, and eventually the WSPU established a team of female bodyguards skilled in Jūjutsu to physically protect her from police attacks. She and others of her escorts turned on the officers, resulting in violent confrontations as officers attempted to arrest Pankhurst.
In 1912, WSPU members adopted arson as another violent tactic undertaken to try to gain the right to vote. After Prime Minister Asquith had visited the Theatre Royal in Dublin, suffragette activists Gladys Evans, Mary Leigh, Lizzie Baker, and Mabel Capper on Oxford Road in Manchester attempted to cause an explosion with gunpowder and gasoline, which caused minimal damage. During that same evening Leigh threw an ice axe at the car carrying Irish nationalist John Redmond, the mayor and Prime Minister Asquith.
Over the next two years the women set fire to a recreational building located inside Regent”s Park, an orchid greenhouse in Kew Gardens, a mailbox, and a railroad car. Although Pankhurst asserted that these women were never directly commanded by her or Christabel, both nevertheless claimed before witnesses that they were supporting the incendiary suffragettes. There were other entirely similar incidents throughout the country.
A member of the WSPU, for example, introduced a small axe into the Prime Minister”s car with the phrase: “Votes for Women” engraved on it, while other suffragettes used acid to burn the same slogan written on cardboard in golf courses used by MPs. In 1914 Mary Richardson scarred Diego Velázquez”s painting entitled Venus Rokeby in protest of Pankhurst”s imprisonment.
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Defections and resignations
The explicit approval given by the WSPU to the destruction of property also led to the departure of several important members. The first was Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband, the Labour Party baron Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. They had long been an integral part of the group”s leadership, but found themselves in increasing conflict with Christabel Pankhurst over the wisdom and foresight of such violent tactics. After returning from a vacation in Canada the two discovered that Pankhurst had expelled them from the WSPU.
The couple found the decision appalling, but to avoid a schism within the movement they continued to praise Pankhurst and the organization in public. Around the same time Emmeline”s youngest daughter, Adela Pankhurst, left the association. She disapproved of WSPU”s support of property destruction and felt that a greater emphasis on socialism was needed. Adela”s relationship with her family, particularly with Christabel, began to become increasingly strained.
The deepest rift within the Pankhurst family came in November 1913, however, when Sylvia made a speech at a meeting of socialists and trade unionists in support of Irish Labour promoter James Larkin. He had already been working with the Workers” Socialist Federation in its sub-group “East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS)”, a local branch of the WSPU that had close relations with socialists and the labor movement.
This close connection to labor groups and Sylvia”s appearance on stage with Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, with whom she also faced the crowd, convinced Christabel that her sister was organizing a group that could openly challenge the WSPU within the women”s suffrage movement. The controversy soon became public and members of a number of groups, including the WSPU, ILP, and ELFS prepared for a showdown.
In January Sylvia was summoned to Paris, where Emmeline and Christabel were waiting for her. Their mother had just returned from another round of conferences in the United States of America and Sylvia had just been released from prison. All three women were exhausted and stressed, which added greatly to the already charged tension. In her 1931 book entitled The Suffrage Movement Sylvia describes Christabel as an unreasonable person who attacked her for making a solemn speech that rejected her, putting her feet up to maintain the official WSPU line:
With the full approval of her mother Christabel ordered the group led by Sylvia to disassociate themselves from the WSPU. Pankhurst tried to persuade the ELFS to remove the word “suffragettes” from its name, as it was inextricably linked to the WSPU. When Sylvia refused her mother became inflamed with furious anger expressed in a letter:
Adela, unemployed and uncertain about her near future, began to be concerned about her mother”s health; instead, she decided that she should move to Australia and paid out of her own pocket for the transfer. They never saw each other again.
When the First World War began in August 1914 Emmeline and Christabel considered that the threat posed by the German Empire was a real danger to all mankind and that the British government needed the support of all citizens. They therefore persuaded the WSPU to cease all militant activities until the conflict was over.
It was no longer the time for dissent or public agitation; Christabel later wrote: “this was national militancy: how the suffragettes could never be pacifists at any price.” A truce with the government was established, all WSPU prisoners were released, and Christabel was then able to return to London. Emmeline and Christabel, through a motion, empowered the WSPU to engage in the war effort.
In her first speech after returning to Britain, Christabel warned her audience of the “German Danger”; she urged the assembled women to follow the example of their French sisters who, while the men were fighting at the front, “are able to keep the country going, to run the grape harvest, to keep the industries going.” Emmeline invited all men to volunteer to be sent to the front lines and took part in the White Feather distribution campaign to shame men who did not wear a uniform.
Pankhurst believed that the danger posed during World War I by what she called the “German Peril” far outweighed the need for women”s suffrage. “When the time comes, we will take up that fight again,” she said, “but for now we must do all we can to fight and win against a common enemy.”
Sylvia and Adela, meanwhile, did not share the same enthusiasm their mother felt for the war. As committed pacifists they rejected the decision made by the WSPU to support the government. Sylvia”s socialist perspective soon convinced her that the war was just another example of a capitalist oligarchy exploiting the poor by selling out to the workers. Adela found herself speaking out against the war in Australia and made public her opposition to general conscription. In a short letter Emmeline told Sylvia: “I am ashamed to have come to know what side you and Adela are on”.
He had a similar intolerance and impatience with internal dissent in the WSPU; when longtime member Mary Leigh allowed herself to express a doubt of hers at a meeting held in October 1915, Pankhurst replied, “the woman in the hat is a German and must leave this room immediately…. I denounce you as pro-German and wish to forget that such a person ever existed.”
Some WSPU members were outraged by this sudden devotion to the government, the perception that the leadership had abandoned efforts to get women the vote altogether, and questions about how funds raised on behalf of suffrage were instead being managed to fund the organization”s new pro-war political efforts. Two groups split from the WSPU: the Suffragettes of the Women”s Social and Political Union (SWSPU) and the Independent Women”s Social and Political Union (IWSPU), each dedicated to maintaining pressure in the direction of women”s voting rights.
Pankhurst put the same energy and determination that she had previously applied to women”s suffrage into the patriotic defense of the war effort; she found herself organizing rallies and meetings, was in constant rallies, and promoted the government which sought to bring women into the workforce while the men were fighting abroad. Another issue that greatly interested her at that time was the situation of the so-called “war children”, i.e. children born to unmarried mothers (see single-parent families) and whose fathers were engaged in the Western Front.
Pankhurst had an “adoption home” established in Campden Hill designed to employ the Montessori method of child rearing. Some women, however, criticized Pankhurst for offering relief to parents of children born out of wedlock, but she indignantly declared that the welfare of the children, whose suffering she had seen firsthand in her capacity as legal guardian many years earlier, was her only concern. However, due to lack of funds, the home soon had to be sold to Princess Alice of Albany.
Pankhurst was able to adopt four children, whom she renamed Kathleen King, Flora Mary Gordon, Joan Pembridge, and Elizabeth Tudor. They all lived together in London where, for the first time in many years, he had a permanent home near Holland Park. When asked how, at the age of 57 and with no fixed income to speak of, he could ever have taken on the burden of raising four more children, Pankhurst replied, “My dear man, I wonder why he didn”t adopt forty.
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Delegation to Russia
Pankhurst visited North America in early 1916 along with former Serbian “Secretary of State” Čedomilj Mijatović, whose nation was at the center of the fighting early in the war. They moved throughout the United States of America and into Canada, raising money and urging the U.S. government to support Great Britain and its World War I allies.
After less than two years, the United States entered the war, so Pankhurst returned to it, encouraging suffragettes – who had not suspended their militancy – to support the war effort by immediately halting all voting-related activities. He also spoke of his fears of the danger of insurrection by communism, which he always considered to be a serious threat to democracy.
In June 1917, meanwhile, the February Revolution had strengthened Bolshevism, which urged an end to belligerency. Pankhurst”s autobiography was translated and widely read throughout Russia; she saw from this fact an immense opportunity to put pressure on the Russian people. She hoped to persuade them not to accept the peace terms imposed by the German Empire, which she saw as a potential defeat for Britain as well.
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Lloyd George agreed to sponsor his trip to Russia, which began in June. He declared in front of a cheering crowd, “I have come all the way to Petrograd with a prayer from the British nation to the Russian nation that you may continue the war on which the future fate of civilization and freedom depends.”
The press response remained divided between the political left and the right; the former represented her as a mere tool of capitalism, while the latter did not fail to praise her devout patriotism.
In August she met with Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerensky, the then prime minister of Russia. Although she had been active with the socialist-oriented ILP in years past, Pankhurst had begun to see left-wing politics as extremely distasteful, an attitude that intensified more and more while on Russian soil.
The meeting turned out to be very uncomfortable for both parties; she felt that she was unable to appreciate the class conflict on which Russian politics were based at that time. She concluded by telling him that English women had nothing to teach Russian women. She later declared to the New York Times that Communism represented the “greatest fraud of modern times” and that her government could “destroy the whole of Western civilization.”
When she returned from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Pankhurst was pleased to find that the right to vote for women was finally about to become a reality. The Representation of the People Act 1918 removed property restrictions on male suffrage and granted the vote to women over the age of 30 (with several restrictions).
As suffragists and suffragettes now celebrated and prepared for their upcoming electoral journey, a new split erupted over whether or not women”s political organizations should join those established by men. Many socialists and moderates supported the unity of the sexes in politics, but Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst saw staying separate as a better idea. They reconstituted the WSPU as the “Women”s Party,” still open only to women.
They said, “they can better serve the nation by keeping us away from the apparatus and political traditions of the male party, which, with universal consent, has always left so much to be desired.” The party favored legal equality in the marriage contract, equal pay for equal work performed, and equal employment opportunities for women. However, all of these issues were topics of debate for the post-war era.
While the fighting continued, the “Women”s Party” demanded no compromise on the defeat of the German empire; the removal from the government of anyone with family connections to the Germans or pacifist attitudes; and finally they demanded shorter work hours to prevent union strikes. This last proposal in the party platform was intended to discourage potential interest in Bolshevism, about which Pankhurst proved to be increasingly anxious and preocupied.
In the years after the 1918 Armistice of Compiègne, Pankhurst continued to promote her nationalist vision of British unity. She kept her focus on women”s empowerment, but her days of fighting the government officially ended: she defended the presence and importance of the British Empire at this point:
For years he traveled around England and North America, always supporting the British Empire and warning the public about the dangers inherent in Bolshevism.
Emmeline Pankhurst also became active again in the election campaign after the passage of a bill allowing women to run for the House of Commons. Many members of the “Women”s Party” urged Pankhurst to run for election, but she insisted that Christabel Pankhurst was the better choice instead. Tirelessly campaigning for her daughter, she formed a lobbying group to get support for Prime Minister David Lloyd George and at one point made an impassioned speech in the rain. Christabel lost by a very slim margin to the Labour Party candidate, the final result showing a difference of just 775 votes. One biographer called it “the most bitter disappointment of Emmeline”s life.” The Women”s Party disappeared soon after.
As a result of her many trips to North America Pankhurst became a fan of Canada, stating in an interview that “there seems to be more equality between men and women than in any other country I know.” In 1922 she applied for Canadian permission to own property (a prerequisite for “British subject with Canadian domicile” status) and rented a house in Toronto where she moved with her four adopted children.
She became active with the Canadian National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases (CNCCVD), working against the sexual double standard, which Pankhurst always considered particularly harmful to women. During a tour of Bathurst, the mayor showed her a new building that would become the “Home for Fallen Women.” Pankhurst replied, “ah, but where is your home for fallen men?” However, very soon he grew tired of the long Canadian winters and ran out of money. He returned to England in late 1925.
Back in London Emmeline was visited by Sylvia Pankhurst, who had not seen her mother in recent years. Their politics had now become very different and Sylvia was living, unmarried, with a leading anarchist in Italy. Sylvia described a moment of family affection when they met, followed by a sad distance between them. Emmeline”s adopted daughter, Mary, however, remembered the meeting differently; according to her version Emmeline put down her tea and walked silently out of the room leaving Sylvia in tears. Christabel Pankhurst, meanwhile, had converted to Adventism and devoted much of her time to the Church. The British press sometimes shed light on the various paths followed by the once virtually undivided family.
In 1926 Pankhurst joined the Conservative Party and two years later was a candidate for a seat in the United Kingdom Parliament in “Whitechapel and St. George”s.” Her transformation from a fiery ILP supporter of unmasking radicalism to an official member of the British Conservative Party surprised many people. She succinctly replied, “my war experience and my experience on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean have changed my views considerably.”
Her biographers insist that the move was somewhat more complex; she devoted herself to a program of female empowerment and fierce anti-communism. Both the Liberal and Labor Parties were outraged by her work against them in the WSPU, while the Conservative Party had a record-breaking victory after World War I and a significant majority in 1924. Pankhurst”s membership in the Conservative Party may have had as much to do with her goal of getting the vote for women as it did with ideology.
Emmeline Pankhurst”s campaign to win a seat in the United Kingdom Parliament was preceded by her illness and a final scandal involving Sylvia Pankhurst. Years of travel, lectures, imprisonment and hunger strikes took their toll; fatigue and illness became a regular part of Pankhurst”s life.
Even more painful, however, was the news that broke in April 1928 that Sylvia had given birth out of wedlock. She had named her son Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst, in memory of his father, his ILP partner, and his WSPU colleague, respectively. Emmeline was further shocked to see a U.S. newspaper report which stated that “Miss Pankhurst” – a title normally reserved for Christabel Pankhurst – boasted of her son as a triumph of eugenics, as both parents were healthy and intelligent.
Also in the same article Sylvia spoke of her belief that “marriage without any legal union” was the best option for liberated women. These offenses against the social dignity that Pankhurst had always valued devastated the elderly woman; to make matters worse, many people believed that the “Miss Pankhurst” mentioned in the headlines referred to Christabel. After hearing the news, Emmeline spent an entire day crying; her campaign for parliament had ended in scandal.
As her health continued to deteriorate Emmeline Pankhurst moved to a nursing home in Hampstead, asking to be treated by the same doctor who had assisted her during her hunger strikes: his use of stomach pumping had helped her to feel better while in prison and she demanded it now.
Her nurses seemed certain that the shock caused by such treatment would seriously injure her, but Christabel felt compelled to have her mother”s request granted. Before the procedure could be performed, however, she fell into a critical condition from which no one expected her to ever recover. On Thursday, June 14, 1928, Pankhurst died, at the age of 69. She was interred in Brompton Cemetery located in Kensington and Chelsea.
News of Emmeline Pankhurst”s death was announced across the country and widely publicized in North America. Her funeral service held on June 18 was filled with her former WSPU colleagues and all those who had worked alongside her at various times. The Daily Mail described the procession as that of “a dead general in the midst of his a mourning army.”
The women wore WSPU sashes and ribbons and the organization”s flag was carried alongside the Flag of the United Kingdom. Christabel and Sylvia appeared together at the service, the latter along with her son. Adela did not participate. Press coverage reached around the world and recognized her tireless work to advance voting rights for women, though they agreed on the value of her actual contributions. The New York Herald Tribune called her “the most remarkable political and social agitator of the early part of the 20th century and the supreme protagonist of the campaign for women”s electoral eligibility.”
Shortly after the funeral one of his bodyguards during his days at WSPU, Katherine Marshall, began raising funds so that a memorial statue could be erected. In the spring of 1930 these efforts bore fruit and on March 6 the statue was unveiled at Victoria Tower Gardens. A crowd of radicals, former Sufragettes and national dignitaries gathered around it, as former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Stanley Baldwin introduced the memorial to the public. In his speech, Baldwin declared, “I say without fear of contradiction that, whichever way you look at it, Mrs. Pankhurst has obtained for herself a memorial in the temple of fame that lasts forever.”
Sylvia was the only Pankhurst daughter to attend; Christabel, traveling in North America, sent a telegram that was read aloud. When planning the ceremony Marshall intentionally excluded Sylvia, who he felt had hastened her mother”s death.
Throughout the 20th century, Emmeline Pankhurst”s contribution to the women”s suffrage movement was passionately debated and no unanimous consensus was ever reached. Her daughters Sylvia and Christabel weighed in with their own respective books, scathing and flattering, the importance of their time spent in the struggle. Sylvia”s 1931 book, The Suffrage Movement, describes her mother”s political change at the beginning of World War I as the beginning of a betrayal of her family (particularly her father) and the movement as a whole.
She set the tone by indulging much of her own history in socialism and activism by writing about the WSPU and especially solidified Emmeline Pankhurst”s reputation as an unreasonable autocrat. Christabel in Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote”, published in 1959, paints the generous and selfless mother but plagued by one flaw, that of offering herself completely to the noblest of causes. It provided a sympathetic counterpart to Sylvia”s attacks and continued the now polarized discussion; detached, objective assessment was rarely part of the scholarly work on Pankhurst.
The most recent biographies show that even historians differ on this question, namely whether Emmeline Pankhurst”s militancy helped or if anything hurt the movement; however, there is general agreement that the WSPU raised public awareness of the movement in ways that proved essential. Baldwin likened her to Martin Luther and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: individuals who were not at the top of the movements in which they participated, but who nevertheless played crucial roles in the struggles for social and political reform. In Pankhurst”s case, this reform took place both intentionally and unintentionally. By challenging the roles of wife and mother as a docile companion, Pankhurst paved the way for feminists who would decry their support of first the British Empire and then the social values of sustainability.
Emmeline Pankhurst”s importance to the United Kingdom was demonstrated again in 1929, when a portrait of her was added to the National Portrait Gallery. In 1987, one of her homes in Manchester was opened as the “Pankhurst Center,” a space to be able to gather all the women of the movement and the attached museum. In 2002 Pankhurst was ranked 27th in the BBC”s poll of the 100 most important Britons in history (see 100 Greatest Britons).
In January 2016, after a public vote, it was announced that a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst would be unveiled in Manchester by 2019; the first woman honored with a statue in the city since Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom over 100 years ago.
Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and the granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst works to this day for women”s rights. Together with her daughter, she founded “Olympic Suffragettes,” which works on numerous women”s rights issues.
Pankhurst is mentioned in the lyrics of “Sister Suffragette” sung by Ms. Banks in the live action Disney feature film entitled Mary Poppins; the film is set in Edwardian-era London, circa 1910, contemporary therefore with the Suffragette movement.
The BBC dramatized Emmeline Pankhurst”s life in the six-part series Shoulder to Shoulder in 1974, with Welsh actress Siân Phillips in the title role.
In the 2015 film Suffragette, Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep, appears in several scenes.
Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst are depicted as the fugitive leaders of the WSPU in the 2015 graphic novel trilogy titled Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst”s Amazons.