Emmeline Pankhurst is remembered as one of Britain’s most accomplished political activists and Women’s Rights campaigners. For 25 years she fought for women to have the vote through demonstrations and militant agitation.
Her tactics have been questioned by both her contemporaries and historians, but her actions undeniably helped pave the way for women’s suffrage in Britain.
How did Pankhurst’s early life shape her political views? How did she go about achieving her lifelong aim: votes for women?
Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Manchester in 1858 to parents who were both keen social reformers and activists. Contrary to her birth certificate, Pankhurst claimed that she was born on 14 July 1858 (Bastille Day). She said that being born on the anniversary of the French Revolution had an influence over her life.
Pankhurst’s grandfather had been present at the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, a demonstration in favour of parliamentary reform. Her father was a passionate anti-slavery campaigner who served on Salford Town Council.
Her mother was actually from the Isle of Man, one of the first places in the world to give women the vote in 1881. She was an avid supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Pankhurst’s upbringing in such a radical household helped inform her as an activist.
From a young age Pankhurst was encouraged to participate in politics. At the age of only fourteen she accompanied her mother to hear suffragist Lydia Becker give a speech. Becker solidified Emmeline’s political beliefs and encouraged her to join the fight for women’s suffrage.
Family and activism
In 1879 Emmeline married a barrister and political activist, Richard Pankhurst, and soon bore him five children. Her husband agreed that Emmeline should not be a ‘household machine’, so hired a butler to help around the home.
Following her husband’s death in 1888, Emmeline established the Women’s Franchise League. The WFL aimed to help women achieve the vote, as well as equal treatment in divorce and inheritance.
It was disbanded owing to internal disagreements, but the League was an important step in establishing Pankhurst as a leader of the women’s suffrage movement. It proved to be the beginning of her radical political activities.
Dissatisfied with the progress being made towards female suffrage, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Its famous motto, ‘Deeds not Words’, would come to be a fitting slogan for the group’s actions in the years to come.
The WSPU organised protests and published an official newspaper, the aptly titled ‘Votes for Women’. The union was successful in mobilising women around the country who sought an equal say in elections. On 26 June 1908, 500,000 demonstrators rallied in Hyde Park to achieve this end.
As the years drew on and women’s suffrage seemed no closer, the WSPU increased its militant tactics. Their demonstrations grew larger and altercations with the police turned more violent. In response to police brutality in 1912, Pankhurst organised a window smashing campaign across the commercial districts of London.
Force-feeding and escalating tactics
Many women, including all three of Pankhurst’s daughters, were imprisoned for their participation in WSPU protests. Hunger strikes became a common tool of resistance in prison, and jailers responded with violent force-feedings. Drawings of women being force-fed in prison were circulated in the press and highlighted the plight of suffragettes to the public.
The WSPU’s tactics continued to escalate, and soon included arson, letter-bombs and vandalism. Mary Leigh, a WSPU member, threw a hatchet at Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. In 1913 Emily Davidson died when she was trampled by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, whilst attempting to place a banner on the animal.
More moderate groups, such as Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, condemned the militant actions of the WSPU in 1912. Fawcett said that they were the ‘chief obstacles in the way of success of the suffrage movement in the House of Commons’.
The WSPU and the First World War
Unlike other women’s rights organisations, the WSPU were uncompromising in their sole aim of achieving votes for women. Pankhurst refused to allow democratic votes within the group itself. She argued that this meant the WSPU was not ‘hampered by a complexity of rules’.
The WSPU halted their activities during the First World War and supported the British war effort. They considered the Germans to be a threat to all humanity. A truce with the British government was announced, and the WSPU prisoners were released. Christabel, Emmeline’s daughter, encouraged women to become involved in agriculture and industry.
Emmeline herself travelled Britain giving speeches in favour of the war effort. She visited the United States and Russia to advocate opposition against Germany.
Success and legacy
In February 1918 the WSPU finally achieved success. The Representation of the People Act gave women over the age of 30 the vote, providing they met certain property criteria.
It wasn’t until 1928, the year in which Pankhurst passed away, that women were granted electoral equality with men. The Equal Franchise Act finally achieved what Pankhurst and so many others had relentlessly fought for.
Pankhurst’s methods have drawn both praise and criticism. Some believe the WSPU’s violence discredited the women’s suffrage movement and distracted the public from its aims. Others emphasise how her work drew the public’s attention to the injustices faced by women across Britain. After all, in the words of Emmeline Pankhurst herself, to make change:
you must make more noise than anybody else, you must make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else.