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Emmeline Pankhurst: Born this day (15/07/1858)

Authored by Rex Cleaver
Published on 15th July, 2023 8 min read

Emmeline Pankhurst: Born this day (15/07/1858)

Once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible. [1]

Emmeline Pankhurst (née Goulden) was born 165 years ago today (15/07/2023). She was a leading figure within the British suffragette movement, tirelessly campaigning for over four decades for women’s right to vote.

Born in Manchester in 1858, Pankhurst’s middle-class family had a long history of political activism. At a young age Pankhurst was introduced to the concept of women’s suffrage. After attending meetings with her mother at the age of fourteen, Pankhurst was convinced of the need to fight for women's voting rights. Years later, in her autobiography, she described how she "left the meeting a conscious and confirmed suffragist.” [2]

In 1879 Emmeline married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister and an ardent supporter of women's rights. Richard had drafted the Women's Disabilities Removal Bill, which became the first women's suffrage Bill in England. Additionally, he authored what would later become the Married Women's Property Act of 1882. This Act granted married women absolute control over their property and earnings for the first time.

Together, they shared a vision of a more equitable society, leading them to form the Women's Franchise League in 1889, which advocated for women's right to vote. While the League achieved some success in securing married women’s rights to vote in local elections in 1894, Pankhurst grew frustrated with the overall lack of progress. Although several promising Bills had been drafted from 1870 onwards, unfortunately, each had been defeated in Parliament. Pankhurst began to doubt that the issue of women’s suffrage would ever be a priority in Westminster and became convinced that a more radical approach was required.

Following Richard’s death, Pankhurst decided that the Women’s Franchise League’s affiliation with Kier Hardie and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was an error. She believed that the Party was not adequately representing women’s interests and that a new, non-partisan grouping was needed. With the assistance of her daughters, Sylvia and Christabel, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. The WSPU, open exclusively to women, had a tightly controlled membership and all policies were approved by Pankhurst. Under her leadership, members of the WSPU — "suffragettes", as they became known in the media — adopted an assertive and militant approach, employing direct action to raise awareness and to force political change. Their slogan, "Deeds, not words", encapsulated the group’s faith in the concept of taking bold actions to challenge the status quo. Pankhurst believed that peaceful protests and petitions alone were insufficient to capture the attention of policymakers and the public.

An article from The Bystander on a suffragette protest featuring Christabel Pankhurst. The misogynistic and derisive tone is typical of the media’s portrayal of the group at the time. [3] 

The group first gained attention on October 13th, 1905, when two of its members, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, were arrested in the street for assaulting a police officer after being ejected from a Liberal Party meeting for causing disruption. Refusing to pay the fines of five shillings each, they were sent to prison. This incident was the first of many confrontations between suffragettes and the authorities. Due to their use of increasingly militant tactics, the group attracted extensive media attention. Their acts of protest included window smashing, arson, assaulting police officers, and the infamous hunger strikes that generated both intense controversy and admiration throughout Britain and Ireland.

While co-ordinating the WSPU’s actions from their new base in London, Pankhurst was not afraid to engage in the confrontational tactics employed by the WSPU. Over the course of a single year she was imprisoned twelve times due to the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which allowed hunger-striking prisoners to be temporarily released until they regained their health, at which point they would be re-incarcerated. Unlike her fellow suffragettes, Pankhurst was spared the brutal force-feeding carried out by prison authorities. The governing bodies recognised that inflicting the invasive and traumatic treatment on such a high-profile leader, now in her fifties, would undoubtedly cause a public relations scandal. Nevertheless, Pankhurst’s health suffered during her periods of incarceration. Writing in her autobiography about her time in Holloway prison, Pankhurst recalled how

"Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as the doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office." [4]

The suffragettes' militant tactics garnered significant media attention and often polarised public opinion. While some criticised their disruptive methods, others were sympathetic. Pankhurst harnessed this media attention to amplify the message of women's suffrage, forcing politicians and the public to confront the issue head-on. The suffragettes' relentless activism succeeded in making women's rights a prominent topic in political discussions and catalysed a broader social awakening regarding gender equality.


This withering article — again from The Bystander —proposes various historical punishments that would be suitable for prominent figures in the suffragette movement. [5]

 

Pankhurst's influence extended beyond the United Kingdom. She embarked on international speaking tours around Canada and Russia, spreading the suffrage message and inspiring women across the globe. Pankhurst's visits to the United States, in particular, left an indelible impact on American suffrage activists. Her powerful speeches and impassioned advocacy encouraged women in the United States to intensify their own fight for voting rights, eventually leading to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Pankhurst’s militancy ended abruptly in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. Recognising the threat posed by Germany, Pankhurst persuaded the WSPU to suspend all militant suffrage activities until fighting on the European mainland had ended. It was during this time that she undertook many of her international speaking tours.

The culmination of Pankhurst's tireless efforts came with the Representation of the People Act in 1918. This granted voting rights to certain categories of women in the UK. Although the Act fell short of granting universal suffrage, it was a significant milestone in the journey towards equality.

Pankhurst passed away on 14 June 1928, just weeks before the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 was passed. This extended voting rights to all women over the age of 21, giving women electoral equality with men. The act added five million more women to the Electoral Roll and had the effect of making women the majority of the voting populace at 52.7%. [6]

Emmeline Pankhurst's legacy as a champion of women's rights and an icon of the suffrage movement endures. Her remarkable achievements have served as an inspiration for generations of activists, demonstrating the power of collective action and the ability to effect meaningful change. Following her death, a memorial statue was erected in the Victoria Tower Gardens. Standing on the corner of the Palace of Westminster, the monument serves as a testament to her impact and provides a symbol of hope and empowerment for women around the world.

If the images featured within this article are of interest to you, please take a look at our upcoming collection, The Bystander, as well as our wide collection of British illustrated periodicals. Additionally, find out more about the suffragette movement in Scotland using our collection: Scottish Women's Suffrage Movement, 1902-1933.

[1] Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death”. Speech delivered at Hartford, Connecticut, USA, 13 November, 1913. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches.

[2] Emmeline Pankhurst and Helen Pankhurst, Suffragette: My Own Story: The Origins of the Suffragettes  (London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2016), 9.

[3]  The Bystander, 14 March 1906.

[4] Ibid., 251–252

[5] The Bystander, 24 Nov. 1909.

[6] Derek Heater, Citizenship in Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 145.


Authored by Rex Cleaver

Rex Cleaver

Rex is an Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives


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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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