Emmeline Pankhurst and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage | History Hit

Emmeline Pankhurst and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage

Celeste Neill

10 Apr 2023
Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913
Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Emmeline Pankhurst, a prominent British political activist and Women’s Rights campaigner, is known for her unwavering dedication to the cause of women’s suffrage. Over a span of 25 years, she tirelessly fought for women to have the right to vote through various methods, including demonstrations and militant agitation. Her determination and passion for gender equality left a lasting impact on British history.

In her pursuit of women’s suffrage, Pankhurst employed controversial tactics that were both praised and criticised. Her approach of direct action, including acts of civil disobedience, was seen as radical by some and earned her both admirers and detractors. However, her unwavering commitment to the cause and her ability to mobilise women across the country played a pivotal role in raising awareness and garnering support for women’s suffrage.

How did Pankhurst’s early life shape her lifelong ambition to gain voting rights for women?

Early life

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.

Portrait of suffragist Lydia Becker. Image credit: Susan Isabel Dacre (1844-1933), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Dan talks to Dr Naomi Paxton, historian of Actresses' Franchise League and Associate Fellow at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, about the coming of suffrage.
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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.

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’.

Pankhurst (wearing prison clothes) described her first incarceration as: ‘like a human being in the process of being turned into a wild beast.’. Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The WSPU and World War One

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 World War One 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.

Pankhurst is arrested by police outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to George V in May 1914. Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t until 1928, the year in which Pankhurst passed away, that women were granted electoral equality with men through the Equal Franchise Act. This historic achievement marked a significant milestone in the women’s suffrage movement and was a culmination of the relentless efforts of Pankhurst and numerous other activists who fought tirelessly for gender equality.

Regardless of differing opinions on her methods, there is no denying the significant impact Pankhurst made in advancing the cause of women’s suffrage in Britain. Her unwavering determination, leadership, and advocacy efforts helped to raise awareness about gender inequality and laid the foundation for future progress in achieving electoral equality for women. Her legacy as a pioneering figure in the fight for women’s rights continues to be recognised today.

Celeste Neill