Who was Emmeline Pankhurst?
A founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Pankhurst was an instrumental figure in and leader of the woman’s suffrage movement in Great Britain. Her political activism spanned decades, and the violent and controversial tactics she endorsed and used in effort to garner support for the women’s voting rights movement gained her both fame and notoriety throughout the country.
Find out more about this important suffragette and the lasting mark she made on British society—and the world.
Background and Personal History
Emmeline Goulden was born in Manchester on July 14, 1858. Her family was a politically radical one, and she would soon follow suit.
In 1879, she married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister who was 24 years her senior. Like Emmeline, he was an ardent supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, having authored the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which entitled married women to the earnings and property they had held prior to marriage. The couple had five children.
Emmeline founded the Women’s Franchise League, which sought to enable married women to vote in local elections, in 1889. She was elected a poor law guardian in 1894 and visited workhouses, which gave her insight into the poverty in Manchester.
In 1898, Richard died, which came as a shock to Emmeline.
The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)
Along with other suffragists (later termed “suffragettes”), Emmeline founded the WSPU in 1903 and led the organization for many years. Unlike Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which advocated peaceful protest in the name of women’s voting rights, the WSPU was no stranger to violent demonstration. Emmeline encouraged tactics including window smashing, arson, verbal shouting and disruptions, and other extreme measures. She justified the violent demonstrations by opining, “The condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do.”
Members of the WSPU would also tie themselves to public railings and go on hunger strikes when they were arrested, which occurred frequently. This would often result in violent and controversial force-feedings. Fearing that the suffragettes would die and become martyrs to the cause as a result of the hunger strikes and noting the public outcry and backlash to the forced feedings, the government passed what was known as the “Cat and Mouse Act.” They would allow the hunger strikes to continue until the prisoners were very weak and then release them before re-arresting them.
World War I
With the outbreak of the war, Emmeline called for an end to the WSPU’s violent campaign. Instead, she and other suffragettes focused on supporting Britain and the war effort. With this truce, the suffragette prisoners were released.
Emmeline was a great believer in the war effort and organized demonstrations in support of the country. She was a strong advocate of women assuming jobs that had been held by men while men were fighting in the war.
The Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, nine months before World War I ended, granting women over 30 the right to vote. It also granted voting rights to men over 21.
Propelled by her concern about Communism, In 1926, Emmeline joined the Conservative Party. This seemed to contrast her earlier more liberal political views. She ran for Parliament as a Conservative Candidate in 1928 but died on June 14 of the same year. This was also the year the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed, granting women equal righting votes with men; women over 21 could now vote in elections.
Pankhurst played a fundamental role in organizing suffragists and gaining momentum for the voting rights cause. Though controversial, the tactics she advocated and used made their mark on British society and brought the women’s suffrage movement to the forefront of the national consciousness.
Pankhurst was not solely responsible for the passage of the Representation of the People Act, but she likely did impact it with her efforts. Again, her precise influence on the women’s suffrage movement is debated; some argue that her violent campaigns may have hindered the movement.
Some people believe Pankhurst was instrumental in propelling the women’s suffrage movement forward, while others argue that her violent tactics infuriated the opposition, making the government less willing to grant women the right to vote. This is why there is some controversy over Pankhurst’s legacy.
Still, there is no denying her influence. Today, there are statues of Pankhurst memorializing the suffragette. One was unveiled in 1930 and stands at the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens. Another was unveiled in 2018, 100 years after the first Representation of the People Act, and stands in St. Peter’s Square in Manchester.
Pankhurst was also named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century in 1999.
Quotes and Speech Excerpts
“Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.”
(From “Freedom or Death” )
“You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.”
(From “Freedom or Death” )
“Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs.”
(From My Own Story)
“Those men and women are fortunate who are born at a time when a great struggle for human freedom is in progress.”
(From My Own Story)