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Emmeline Pankhurst

Authored by Sean Waite
Published on 15th July, 2022 3 min read

Emmeline Pankhurst

A picture of Emmeline Pankhurst in an old car whilst people crowd around the car.

Emmeline Pankhurst (née Goulden), the British suffragette known for her uncompromising militancy in pursuit of women’s right to vote, was born on this day in 1858. (15/07)

Born in Manchester’s Moss Side, Pankhurst’s family was one steeped in ardent political activism. Her grandmother had been present at the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and her grandfather had been involved in the Anti-Corn Law League during the 1840s. Emmeline married in 1878 to Richard Pankhurst, a proponent of women’s suffrage, and from whom she took the name she is more widely known by today.

After unsuccessful stints with the Women’s Franchise League and Independent Labour Party her political activism took a radical shift at the turn of the century. In 1903, Pankhurst was a founding member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a group which espoused direct action in an attempt to gain universal enfranchisement for women. Upon being arrested for trying to deliver a petition to the Prime Minister, she realised the potential of imprisonment for building publicity and propaganda. As such, in 1909 she assaulted a police officer for the express purpose of being sent to prison.

Given the perceived indifference of the male-dominated political class towards women’s right to vote, the tactics of the WSPU intensified after 1908, as they embraced breaking windows, arson attacks and hunger strikes in prison. A key flashpoint was ‘Black Friday’ of 1910, in which suffragette protesters were beaten and groped by policy officers. Further disturbing scenes of systemic male violence and control over women’s bodies came in the form of forced feeding in response to prison hunger strikes.

One of best remembered incidents of direct action on behalf of the WSPU was the disputed incident of Emily Davinson’s death at the Epsom Derby in 1913. She raced onto the track carrying suffragette flags and was hit by a horse. She died from her injuries and over 50,000 people attended her funeral.

With the arrival of the First World War Pankhurst suspended her militant activities in order to support the British government against Germany. This marked the start of her drift from radicalism, as she became horrified by Bolshevism in Russia and increasingly cosied up to the British establishment. She would later defend the British Empire and joined the Conservative Party in 1926.

In 1918 women’s suffrage took a major step forward, as the Representation of the People Act conditionally granted women over 30 with the right to vote. The ‘Equal Franchise’ Act of 1928, which gave all women over 21 the right to vote, passed through the House of Commons just two weeks after she died at the age of 69.

Pankhurst is remembered for her vehement and unwavering commitment to the universal enfranchisement of women. The suffragette’s forceful and militant campaign broke down the societal stereotypes of women as passive entities relegated to the domestic sphere. Today it stands as a powerful example of the use of disruptive direct action to achieve political outcomes. Through this struggle Pankhurst has become immortalised in British feminist and liberal history.

Authored by Sean Waite

Sean Waite

Sean Waite is a Political Science graduate of Birmingham and Aarhus University.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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