Emmeline Pankhurst: A Woman in Profile | Adam Wehden

Emmeline Pankhurst: who was this woman? Why is her legacy etched indelibly in British democracy?

“We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.” Pankhurst

She is regarded by many as one of the most influential women of the 20th century, whose 40-year campaign for justice culminated in a historic victory for equality and women’s rights.

Much revered and highly celebrated British heroine – Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Manchester, England on 15th July 1858 and was the eldest daughter in a family of ten children, although she spent the great majority of her life claiming to have been born on July 14th – Bastille Day because it meant she could attach herself to transformative female campaigners, who brought seismic change.

“I have always thought that the fact that I was born on that day had some kind of influence over my life,” Pankhurst

She was the leader of the suffragette movement, which campaigned vociferously on and off the streets for women to have equal voting rights in elections.

You could say that activism was in Pankhurst’s genes considering what her parents stood for.

Her father, Robert was a champion of women’s rights and befriended American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, whose sister Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the acclaimed Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while her mother, Sophia descended from a family tree of activism. But perhaps, her grandfather, who was heavily involved in rallying for political causes, most notably against Corn Laws and the massacre of Peterloo sparked a desire to fight for what was just more than any other relative.

Photo by David Basanta on Flickr.

Moving on to her educational background, undoubtedly Emmeline was a precocious child, she could read at age 3, but frustratingly attended a school locally that predominantly taught social skills that would give her necessary attributes to become a good wife until her passing in 1973. Pankhurst thought it was bitterly unfair that she wasn’t educated to the same level as her brothers, and pleaded with her parents to enrol her at a finishing school in Paris, France – Ecole Normale Superieure, which at the time was renowned for producing excellent results. Eventually, they obliged, and she was sent to that school.

Fortunately for her, its director held a firm belief that women were worthy of equal opportunities in relation to education as men, which meant incorporating traditionally academic subjects such as Physics and Chemistry in the curriculum. Further to that, women were even taught how to bookkeep.

“Ability is sexless.” Christabel Pankhurst

Following education (she completed her studies aged 19) Emmeline went back to Manchester on her father’s request to retake her position at the family home as a perfectly mannered young lady. Based on the findings from her biographer “Emmeline returned to England looking regal, elegant and graceful. She even learned how to wear her clothes and hair like a Parisian. She looked more mature than the girls of her age today and she was romantic and had a remarkably melodious voice. She said that she would only give herself (rather snobbishly one might say) to a man who was important.”

Shortly after returning to Manchester, Emmeline met the man, who would ultimately become the love of her life. Richard Pankhurst was a lawyer and a fierce proponent of women’s suffrage. He made significant progress in equality by drafting the amendment to the Municipal Franchise Act.

The amendment enabled unmarried women to vote in local elections. Further to that, he had also been a member of The Married Women’s Committee and was responsible for drafting the women’s quality bill, which incidentally was brought into law in 1970.

Pankhurst gave birth to five children between 1880 and 1889: daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela, and sons Frank and Harry.

Emmeline’s embarkment on political activism started through campaigning for Richard in many failed bids to become a Member of Parliament, while regularly hosting convocations at their London home.

She began actively supporting the women’s Franchise league in 1889. Its campaigns targeted enfranchising all women of all marital statuses and her husband urged her enthusiastically to continue standing up for what she believed in up and until his death in 1898 (he died of a perforated ulcer).

Movingly, her husband’s passing affected Emmeline enormously. She was beside herself with devastation and could only focus on grieving for her dead partner for quite some time, although her commitment to fighting for equality never wavered nor did it diminish. In 1903, she established the militaristic women’s social and political union (WSPU).

“I incite this meeting into rebellion.” – Pankhurst

The organisation was strictly ladies-only and channelled all its energy on one goal binding the women as one – women’s rights. Its slogan, Pankhurst herself invented :“Deeds, not words, has to be our permanent motto.” Befittingly, their actions mirrored that sentiment.

It earned infamy for its exploits and its members were labelled, “suffragettes.” Emmeline’s daughters (Christabel and Sylvia) both played key roles throughout the ongoing fight for equality. By 1908, the organisation had a proverbial army of lieutenants: in the summer (June later that year) half a million activists arrived at a rally in Hyde Park to stand shoulder to shoulder with Emmeline Pankhurst and her vision of equality.

“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.” – Pankhurst

British politicians, tabloids and the general public watched on from afar utterly aghast at the courageous women’s determination to bring change. Demonstrating on the streets, committing arson, smashing windows and hunger-strikes of the suffragettes.

“If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war,” wrote Christabel in 1913, “Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men. It is not the only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!”

Due to the illegality of their conduct throughout those years, many of the suffragettes were arrested on numerous occasions.

Pankhurst herself was released and re-arrested a dozen times at various points during the year and was in prison for around a month.

Photo by milo bostock on Flickr.

Sadly, one woman died for the cause. Emily Davison decided to take extreme action because of the government’s refusal to recognise women as equals electorally. She launched herself in physical defiance at the Derby under the King’s horse, consequently losing her life in 1913.

Their admirable efforts finally bore fruition as in 1918 the Representation Act gave clear and definitive voting rights for women over the age of 30. Emmeline died on 14 June 1928 as a heroine dedicating the best part of her adult life campaigning for electoral justice. Women were granted increased voting rights and were able to vote at age 21 (same as men) soon after.

Pankhurst’s impact still reverberates around the world today and deservedly so, a statue of her was unveiled in Manchester on 14/12/18. Pankhurst’s name and image, as well as those 58 other female suffrage supporters including her daughters, are inscribed at the bottom of a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square in London.

She was also a published writer – Freedom or Death (speech delivered in Hartford, Connecticut on 13/11/13, later published), My Own Story (1914). Finally, her time spent lecturing overseas also helped to encourage women’s suffrage movements in North America.


Photo by Glenn Moore on Flickr.

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