Inspiring Thursday: Emmeline Pankhurst

“We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers. I would rather be a rebel than a slave! “

Emmeline Pankhurst was a leading British suffragette, who played a militant role in fighting to gain women the right to vote. Her 40-year campaign achieved complete success in the year of her death, 1928, when British women obtained full equality in the voting rights. Her daughter Christabel Harriette Pankhurst also was prominent in the woman suffrage movement.

Emmeline was born in Manchester, on July 14, 1858. The eldest daughter of ten children, she grew up in a radical liberal family. Emmeline’s grandfather had taken part in the campaigns against Corn Laws and Slavery and was killed in the Peterloo Massacre. Her parents were Robert and Sophia Goulden, both abolitionists and supporters of female suffrage. She was 14 when her mother took her to her first women´s suffrage meeting. “Returning from school one day, I met my mother just setting out for the meeting, and I begged her to let me go along”.

Emmeline was educated in Manchester in her early years and was later sent to France to study abroad. In 1879, she married Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer and strong supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, author of the first woman suffrage bill and of the Married Women´s Property acts.

In 1889, encouraged by her husband, Emmeline founded the Women’s Franchise League, which secured for married women the right to vote in local elections. In 1894, she was elected a poor law guardian, and she spent time visiting workhouses in Manchester becoming aware of the shocking levels of poverty many faced. “I thought I had been a suffragist before I became a Poor Law Guardian, but now I began to think about the vote in women’s hands not only as a right but as a desperate necessity”.

“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”.

Emmeline’s major belief was that women are equal to men. Therefore, women have as much a right to vote and participate in government as men do. In 1903, she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (the WSPU), which was a women-only group that put all its focus on women’s voting rights. Their slogan was “Deeds Not Words.” It was through the political action of the WSPU that the term women’s suffragette movement was created. The Daily Mail dubbed Emmeline´s group “suffragettes”, as opposed to “suffragists”, who also wanted women to able to vote in the United Kingdom, but who followed less confrontational channels.

At first, the women’s suffrage movement held rallies and buttonholed politicians, but from July 1912 the WSPU turned to extreme militancy. Women began to march on the streets, smash windows, destroy property, and established the policy of hunger strikes when arrested. Emmeline believed that simply asking for progress was not enough, and that serious actions needed to be taken to achieve the awareness of the government. The union attracted wide attention on October 13, 1905, when two of its members, her daughter Christabel and Annie Kennedy went to a meeting to demand if the Liberal party would support women’s suffrage. After a confrontation with the police, both women were arrested. The attention and interest that followed this arrest encouraged Emmeline to have the WSPU follow a more combative path than other suffrage groups.

Together with her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, she led a passionate group of women who were willing to take part in drastic action. She helped to create the beginning of a movement to use force in order to gain attention. By becoming militant, they received more and more attention for their aggressive protestation. Emmeline showed women that they did not have to be silent, that they could make a scene and be “unladylike” for the cause of their freedom. Emmeline was arrested in 1912 and sentenced to nine months in prison, for throwing stones at the prime minister’s residence. While in prison, she embarked on a hunger strike that resulted in her early release as officers failed to force-feed her.

Throughout these protests, suffragettes were arrested and began to engage in hunger strikes while in prison. Even when the government tried to force-feed them, they still continued to be on hunger strike. Though this resulted in violent force-feedings, the hunger strikes also led to early release for many suffragettes. This made the government release some prisoners early. The government did not give up on dealing with WSPU members. In 1913, Parliament enacted the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act, by which hunger-striking prisoners could be freed for a time and then reincarcerated upon regaining their health to some extent. This act became known as the “Cat and Mouse Act”. Emmeline was released and rearrested 12 times within a year, serving a total of about 30 days. In 1913, WSPU decided to escalate their tactics. Their militant actions now included vandalising public art, window-breaking and arson. In 1913, an incendiary device went off in a house that was being built for the exchequer and Emmeline was blamed for inciting the crime. She received a three-year prison sentence. While in prison, she was at it again with her hunger strikes and was released soon. However, because of the Cat and Mouse Act, she would be re-arrested and released many times. She described in her autobiography the trauma caused by force-feeding during the strike: “Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as the doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office.”

One of the most defining moments of women´s suffrage movement came in 1913, when WSPU member Emily Davison died after throwing herself under the king’s horse at the Derby as a protest at the government’s continued failure to grant women the right to vote. Emmeline defended the militant tactics on the grounds that: “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”. In her speech in Hartford, Connecticut, she spoke about the importance of making sure that you´re heard when fighting for an important cause. “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”.

“I want to say to you who think women cannot succeed, we have brought the government of England to this position, that it has to face this alternative: either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote”

When World War I began in 1914, Emmeline called for a halt to their demonstrations and militancy. WSPU had to first make sure that they had a country to vote in after the war. She considered the menace of German aggression to be the greatest threat. As she said at the time “What is the use of fighting for a vote if we have not got a country to vote in?”. As a result, all WSPU prisoners were released. She supported the government’s efforts in winning the war by encouraging women to join the war effort and take many jobs which were previously the preserve of men, such as bus drivers and postmen, so that men could fight on the front.

During the war, Pankhurst, who previously had made three tours of the United States to lecture on woman suffrage, visited the United States, Canada, and Russia to encourage the industrial mobilization of women. She lived in the United States, Canada, and Bermuda for several years after the war. The radical social change of the First World War helped to diminish the opposition to women getting the vote. As a result of women’s contributions during wartime, the British government was convinced of women’s importance in society. Women were granted limited voting rights as a result: women who were above 30 years old and had met the property requirement were allowed to vote. However, Emmeline and her suffragettes were not satisfied. Although she still desired universal women’s suffrage, her way of doing politics had changed after the war. She was chosen Conservative candidate for an east London constituency, but could not win because she could not campaign well due to ill health.

The movement continued to object until in 1928, the year of Emmeline’s death, all women in Britain, 21 years and older, could vote. Finally, the Representation of the People Act of 1928 established voting equality for men and women. Unfortunately, Emmeline did not witness the full realization of her dreams because she died on 14th of June 1928, shortly after the Parliament passed the bill.

Emmeline had reached her goal. Against a government full of men, she fought and inspired others to fight alongside her. The movement that Emmeline Pankhurst helped to start was only the beginning. Through her efforts and the efforts of her fellow suffragettes, women of the world knew that they could protest and protest aggressively. They learned that they were not bound to the situation they were born in. In some ways, Emmeline made women realize that they were half of the population, and that their actions could impact the world just as much as those of men did. Emmeline inspired the generations of female activists following her to be strong and relentless until justice was granted. She risked so much in order to insure that the progress she was making towards women’s rights would never be reversed. She gave the women of Britain a voice that would never be taken away again.

“We women see so clearly the fact that the only way to deal with this thing is to raise the status of women; first the political status, then the industrial and the social status of women. You must make women count as much as men; you must have an equal standard of morals; and the only way to enforce that is through giving women political power so that you can get that equal moral standard registered in the laws of the country. It is the only way. I don’t know whether men sufficiently realise it, but we women do realise it: we more and more realise it, and so women have nerved themselves to speak out on this question…Ten years ago it would have been impossible for any woman or any man to speak openly upon that question on any platform, because women had been taught that they must keep their eyes closed to all these things; women had been taught that they must ignore the fact even that a large section of their sex were living lives of degradation and outlawry. If they knew of it at all, they were told in vague terms that it was in order to make the lives of the rest of the women safe; they were told it was a necessary evil; they were told it was something that the good woman does not understand and must not know anything about. All that is now at an end. Women are refusing to have their lives made safe at the expense of their sisters. The women are determined. A good deal of the opposition to woman suffrage is coming from the very worst element in the population, who realise that once you get woman suffrage, a great many places that are tolerated today will have to disappear. It is perhaps a hard saying for many men that there will have to be self-control and an equal standard of morals, but the best men now, the scientists of every country, are supporting the woman’s point of view”.



By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern