Who was Emmeline Pankhurst?

Emmeline Pankhurst was born in England in 1858. She is famously known as political activist and suffragette who greatly fought for women’s right to vote in early twentieth century. She is also credited with the formation of Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Despite several imprisonments, she continued to fight for the cause of women, achieving complete success when in 1928, soon after her death, women were finally granted voting rights.

Early Years of Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline, the eldest of ten children, was born to Sophie and Robert Goulden in Manchester, England on 15 July, 1858. Having born in a politically active family, she developed a great interest in politics at an early age. Her interest deepened when at the age of 14, she was taken to the first women’s suffrage meeting by her mother. Emmeline Pankhurst

 Being the eldest among her siblings, Goulden was always assigned with the task of taking care of her siblings, which caused maturity to arrive a lot earlier in her life. She learned to read and write at a very young age and happily took the responsibility of reading newspaper to her father at breakfast. As soon as she realized, Goulden began to loathe the fact that in her family, preference was laid upon educating sons and very little importance was given to the education of daughters. Even the school she was sent to, focused on teaching girls the skills that made them fine housewives, that to her was not acceptable. She soon asked her parents to send her to progressive women’s school in Paris where apart from learning sewing, she was able to study science subjects as well which greatly helped her to groom her personality.

Family life and early political participation of Emmeline Pankhurst

After completing her studies in Paris, at around 18, Goulden returned to Manchester. There she began to engage in constant quarrels with her mother, telling her that even though she fights for equality between men and women, she did not seem to implement that idea at home. In an attempt to change people’s unjust attitude toward women, she began to participate in woman suffrage movement. There she met with Richard Pankhurst, a leading barrister of his time and the author of the married women’s property acts of 1870 and 1882, which permitted women to keep their properties with them even after their marriage. What Goulden praised most about Richard was his dedication towards liberal causes, especially women’s suffrage movement and his efforts towards abolition of monarchy. The two fell in love soon and tied knot in December 1879 and despite the age gap of 24 years, the marriage proved to be successful. Although he was a leading lawyer, Richard never found his work interesting and realized that he should focus more in politics and social works. This became the reason why the couple suffered financially through the rest of their lives. From their marriage, they had five children: three daughters namely Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, who are later going to support their mother’s cause by participating in politics and two sons named Frank and Harry. Emmeline gave full attention to her first child and assigned nanny for other four so that she could continue with her political career. Emmeline Pankhurst

 Soon after her marriage, in 1880, Emmeline commenced her political career by joining Manchester women’s suffrage committee. In 1883, she campaigned unsuccessfully on her husband’s behalf as he stood as an independent candidate to fight against monarchy and support home rule for Ireland. After two years, Richard contested in General Elections of 1885 at the invitation of the Liberal Party and Radical Association where she again campaigned and failed. Emmeline Pankhurst

In 1886, the family moved to London. There, in order to attain financial independence and to allow her husband to serve his energies in politics, Emmeline opened shop in hampstead Road, selling home furnishings. The shop; however, did not run successfully, mainly because of its location where such items were not in high demand. The family due to the loss was forced to move to the rented house at 8 Russel square in 1888. The same year, the family faced the loss of frank, who died out of Diphtheria. However, her involvement in politics continued as she had joined Women’s Liberal Association and women’s franchise league (WFL), which was formed with main purpose to support vote for women.

The Pankhursts, due to financial conditions, were unable to settle in London and therefore moved back to Manchester in 1892. There they joined the newly formed Independent Labour Party and made themselves busy helping poor and needy people of Manchester. In 1894, Emmeline was elected as poor law guardian whose main task was to supervise the workhouses. Emmeline was shocked at the miserable conditions of the people living in those places, especially the young girls and single mothers. For next five years, she made her utmost efforts to improve their conditions.

 A Tragic Loss

The sudden death of her husband in 1898 left Emmeline devastated. Soon after his death, she realized that Richard left a lot of dept unpaid. She refused to take help from people of her workplace and instead took her position as registrar where she registered births, deaths and marriages. During this time, she heard stories of oppression and sexual abuse from a lot of women. This combined with her experience from workplace, forced her to consider position of women in her society, which made her conclude the fact that the best way to raise women’s position in a society was to make them a part of decision making process by granting them the right to vote.  

Formation of WSPU

In October 1903, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union with its sole aim to fight for women’s right to vote. The organization allowed only women to become its members and ran by motto, “deeds not words.”

In early years of its campaign, WSPU adopted a rather cordial approach by doing protest on streets and parks, hoping that they would achieve their cause soon. However, during general elections of 1905, when it became apparent that the Liberal Party was going to form government, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenny, an active member of WSPU, presented their question: will liberal party give votes to women? The question was not replied and when it was repeated, the two were forced outside the hall upon which they protested. Having refused to pay fines, they suffered an imprisonment of a week. This arrest received a huge coverage from newspaper as well as from media unlike many previous events and brought new members to the group. As a result, Pankhurst decided that from now on, WSPU is going to adopt a combative approach in its struggle.

In coming years, the members of WSPU continued to hold protests. In 1910 and 1911, when the bill on women’s suffragist failed to be discussed in parliament, the WSPU intensified their protests. In 1912, Pankhurst along with many other women was sentenced to nine month imprisonment for throwing stones and smashing windows at the prime minister house. In order to show her protest against this, Pankhurst, along with other women went on hunger strikes. To break their power, an attempt was made to force-feed them by using tubes. The news when reached to public helped them gain more attention from people and caused Pankhurst to be released earlier. The government could not let all this happen and therefore passed Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act in 1913. According to this act, the prisoners would be discharged only to be rearrested once they recover their health. This act brought troubles for Pankhurst as she got arrested 12 times more along with many other women. This act later became to known as “Cat and Mouse Act.”  In the same year, Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel took the command of the WSPU and intensified military tactics by increasing the use of bombs and arsons. In the same year, one of the members of the union, Emily Davidson threw herself in front of the King’s horse to seek public attention. She soon died of severe injury. This move; however, was not supported by many members of the organization including many prominent leaders as well as Emmeline’s own daughters Sylvia and Adela who argued that such steps tend to damage the prime cause of the movement. The difference remained unresolved, causing them to withdraw from the WSPU.

Outbreak of World War I

All the tension and confusion between the WSPU and the government dissolved as soon as the world war I broke out. Pankhurst announced that it was the duty of them to support their government in war effort. Plus, what was the grand idea of fighting for voting right if they haven’t got the country to vote in? Therefore, a truce was declared between the government and the WSPU in return to which all the suffragettes of WSPU were released. Soon the women began to take hold of jobs of factories, as postman and as drivers which were previously held by men so as to allow them to participate in war. By 1916, people’s view regarding women as useless and weak began to change and government was convinced of their importance as equal members of society. On 6 February 1918, government granted limiting voting rights to women by granting women above 30 and fulfilling certain property requirements the right to vote. Another law was passed which allowed women to elect in parliment.

Death and Legacy of Emmeline Pankhurst

In 1925, Emmeline joined the Conservative Party which came as a shock for many of her friends and contrasted with her previous political experiences. She also ran for a seat in parliament but withdrew due to her ill health. She died on 14 June 1928 in London at the age of 69. Barely a month after her death, parliament passed a law which gave women the same voting rights as men, that is they could now vote at the age of 12. This was what she had dreamed of achieving her whole life; equality between men and women, especially in decision making process. Although many did not support her idea of her military tactics, she being a passionate reformer continued to fight for women ultimately achieving for them the right to vote. Due to her tireless efforts, she became to known as one of the most influential women of twentieth century.

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