By: Victoria Yates
Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Manchester in 1858, the daughter of Robert Goulden, a successful businessman with radical political beliefs, and Sophia Crane. Emmeline was active from an early age, taking part in rallies against Slavery and Corn laws, whilst her mother was an active women’s rights activist who took Emmeline to women’s suffrage meetings in the early 1870s. Despite the radical ideological framework in which she was raised, Emmeline’s parents still had very conventional ideas about education and at age 15 they sent their daughter to finishing school in Paris.
Shortly after her return in 1878 Emmeline met a lawyer and committed socialist Richard Pankhurst, also a strong proponent of women’s rights. It was Richard who drafted an amendment for the Municipal Franchise Act (1869), which resulted in unmarried women householders being able to vote in local elections. He had served on the Married Women’s Property committee for two years, and was the main person involved in drafting the women’s property bill that passed in 1870.
The pair were immediately drawn to each other, despite the twenty-four year age difference. They had four children within their first six years of marriage. During these years the couple continued to be very involved in women’s rights activities and helped form the Women’s Franchise League, a pressure group, in 1889. In 1895 Emmeline became a Poor Law Guardian, a post which involved regular visits to workhouses where she was deeply concerned by the misery and suffering of inmates, particularly with regards to the treatment of women, reinforcing her belief that only through women’s suffrage could change occur.
Both Emmeline and her husband were active members of the Independent Labour Party, with Richard making several unsuccessful attempts to be elected to the House of Commons. However his career came to an abrupt end in 1898 when he died of a perforated ulcer. Despite this loss, Emmeline continued to work within politics, quickly becoming disillusioned with existing women’s movements. In response she created the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the initial intention of which was to recruit working class women into the struggle for the vote.
The greatest change occurred when, on the 13th of October 1905, Christabel Pankhurst (her eldest daughter) and Annie Kenney attended a talk by Sir Edward Grey (a British minister), during which they constantly shouted out “will the liberal government give votes to women?” When they refused to stop a policeman evicted them from the meeting, later claiming the women spat on and kicked him, both were arrested and charged with assault. They refused to pay the fine and were sentenced to prison, a case that shocked the nation.
This was the first instance when women used violence in their fight to win the vote. Emmeline moved to London in 1907 to help fight the militant cause for the vote. During the next seven years she was repeatedly imprisoned. Now in her fifties, Emmeline inspired women to follow her lead in committing acts of civil disobedience. She very much suffered for her cause, enduring ten hunger strikes in one particular eighteen-month period.
After the declaration of war the WSPU entered into negotiations with the Government. This resulted in all suffragettes being released from prison in return for the agreement from the WSPU to end all militant activities to help in the war effort. After a £2,000 grant from the government the WSPU organized demonstrations calling for “the Right to Serve” and proclaiming “men must fight and women must work.” During the rally Emmeline called for trade unions to allow women to work in traditionally male dominated trades. The name of the group’s newspaper was changed in 1915 to reflect Emmeline’s patriotic view of the war, also altering the slogan to “For King, For Country, For Freedom.” The newspaper even featured articles attacking politicians they felt to not be doing enough in order to win the war.
Together with her daughter Christabel, Emmeline formed the Women’s Party whose aims included ending the war in Germany, reducing kitchen waste, measures for food rationing, and a clean sweep of the government for individuals with connections to the enemy. The party also still supported equal pay for equal work, and equal marriage and divorce laws, including the same rights over children for both parents. The pair both abandoned socialist views they had earlier held, instead calling for the abolition of trade unions.
After the war Emmeline spent several years in North America, lecturing for the National Council Combating Venereal Disease. On her return in 1925, she joined the Conservative Party and was adopted one of their East London candidates. Her campaign for government ended however with the birth of her daughter Sylvia’s child out of wedlock in 1928. An article appeared in which Sylvia boasted that marriage out of wedlock was the only path for the liberated woman and also that her child was the triumphant product of “eugenics,” being the child of two healthy and intelligent parents. The scandal deeply upset Emmeline, and prevented any further political action.
Emmeline died later in 1928, the same year that the act passed granting women the right to vote. Whilst there is controversy surrounding the suffragette movement today, with an argument that it did little to further but rather hindered the women's movement, Emmeline was the leader of an incredibly important movement that shocked the British public in a way never seen before.
Her staunch views and political awareness made her a figurehead for a very new form of woman. Despite the toll it took on her both physically and mentally, Emmeline remained true to her beliefs about women’s rights throughout her life.