In Newshistory

As one of the most influential campaigners for women’s suffrage, you’ve no doubt heard of Emmeline Pankhurst and as her birthday is 15th July, now is the perfect time to learn more about this fascinating woman.

Early life

Emmeline Pankhurst was born Emmeline Goulden on 14th July 1858 – though she often wrote her birthday as being the 14th – Bastille Day – presumably this was because she felt a kinship with those who stormed the French prison.
She was born and raised in Manchester, where she spent most of her life and even initially led the Suffragette movement.

Emmeline was known to be interested in politics from a young age, her parents were both heavily involved in politics and began to discuss women’s rights with her from the age of around 8 years old. Her family were fairly well off and she was sent to France to attend finishing school, which further cemented her belief in women’s equality. The school’s headmistress believed that men and women should receive the same standard of education, so as well as learning about all the usual things taught at Finishing School, Emmeline also learned about sciences and maths.

On her return to Manchester, she met and married Richard Pankhurst. Richard was a lawyer who was 24 years older than the 20 year old Emmeline – he was also a firm believer in women’s suffrage and was a well respected member of the Labour Party. During their marriage, he wrote two bills for parliament; the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women to keep their earnings or property before or after marriage. At the time, a woman’s property automatically became her husbands’ once they were married. Together the pair would have five children, but both were insistent that she not become a house wife and they hired a butler to allow Emmeline to continue her political work. Their eldest child, born in 1880, less than a year after the wedding, Christabel, was followed two years later by Estelle Sylvia, who was known as Sylvia,  then Henry Francis, known as Frank, and then Adela in 1885. In 1888, Frank died while still a child after contracting diptheria. The family moved and their final child, named after his brother, was born. The children were raised in much the same way as Emmeline had been and both Christabel and Sylvia became interested in their mother’s. work.

Women’s Rights movement

Though she is the most famous of the Suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst was not the first or the only woman campaigning for women’s suffrage. She and her daughters formed the WSPU, aka the Women’s Social and Political Union, from the family home in 1903 and it was this that would go on to form the basis of the Suffragettes. However, Mary Smith, from Yorkshire had already petitioned parliament for women’s suffrage in 1832 and Lydia Becker would create the Manchester Natural Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1867. Her biggest rival Millicent Fawcett, would start her group before the Pankhurst’s too, with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies beginning in 1897. This would go on to be the Suffragists, a more peaceful version of the Suffragettes.

Arguably, the Suffragettes have become better known than the Suffragists thanks to their campaign of domestic terrorism. The Suffragists under Millicent Fawcett believed in peaceful negotiations, while the Suffragettes were led by the quote: Deeds not Words. The Suffragettes were known for their violent protests, which often included smashing windows, damaging art in galleries, planting bombs, setting fires and graffitiing important buildings. This more violent form of protest was inspired by Christabel Pankhurst being arrested for interrupting a Liberal Party meeting to demand votes for women – she was one of the first to be imprisoned for the cause, with her mother being arrested on several occasions. One such occasion was in 1910 after a protest which was met with an aggressive police response ordered by Winston Churchill, the then Home Secretary. Another incident involved Emmeline Pankhurst smashing windows, which saw her being sent to Holloway Prison and having to endure forced feeding after going on hunger strike.

Eventually, parliament would bring it the Cat and Mouse Act, where suffragettes who were on hunger strike would be released from prison and then rearrested and sent back for the rest of their sentence once they had regained their strength. Sylvia, another of her daughters would eventually relocate to France to escape the Cat and Mouse Act, but this didn’t stop Christabel or Emmeline from campaigning.

A pause for the war

In 1914, WWI broke out and both the Suffragettes and the Suffragists paused their campaigning. The Suffragettes in particular supported the war effort and women from all over the country were suddenly finding themselves in jobs previously only occupied by men while they were off fighting. During the course of the war, the prime minister was changed, with David Lloyd George becoming the leader of the country. Lloyd George was much more liberal than his colleagues and supported women’s right to vote. At the end of the war, he passed a bill that granted all women who owned property over the age of 30 to vote. While this was a step in the right direction, it didn’t go far enough and the suffragettes continued to campaign, though in more peaceful ways. Just a year after women were allowed to vote for the first time, Nancy Astor became the first female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons.

Emmeline Pankhurst continued to campaign and even stood for parliament herself, joining the Conservative Party and standing in Whitechapel, she wasn’t elected, but it did continue to keep the issue in conversation and two years later, just weeks after her death, all women, regardless of home ownership, over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Emmeline Pankhurst died at a nursing home in London just before she could see her life’s work become law.

These days, Emmeline Pankhurst is held as a feminist icon and remains one of only two women to have a statue dedicated to them in Manchester – the other being Queen Victoria.

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