A Brief Biography of Emmeline Pankhurst

By Tim Lambert

Emmeline Pankhurst was a Suffragette. She was born Emmeline Goulden in Manchester, England on 15 July 1858. She was one of 10 children in a middle-class family. In 1878 Emmeline married Richard Pankhurst, a man who believed strongly that women should be allowed to vote. The couple had 4 children, 3 girls, and a boy. Sadly, Richard died in 1898.

The Pankhursts helped to found the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. They campaigned for women to be given the right to vote in local elections (a right they gained in 1894). The Pankhursts also joined a new political party, The Independent Labour Party (forerunner of the Labour Party).

In 1897 local groups of women who demanded the vote in national elections joined to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The organisation was moderate and its members were called Suffragists. For many years Emmeline Pankhurst was a member but she gradually became disillusioned.

In 1903 Pankhurst and her daughters founded the Women’s Social and Political Union or WSPU. From 1906 its members were called Suffragettes.

However, the WSPU did not want all women to be allowed to vote. Until 1918 men had to meet a property qualification to vote. Only about 60% of men could. The WSPU wanted women to be able to vote on the same basis as men. That would mean women would have to meet the same qualification as men to be allowed to vote. The Labour Party refused to support the WSPU because they wanted universal suffrage. Pankhurst left the Labour Party in 1907.

Eventually, the Suffragettes turned to violence to get their aims. Suffragettes committed crimes like vandalism and arson. They also planted bombs.

Pankhurst was arrested several times. The first time was in February 1908 when she was arrested for obstructing a policeman.

On 3 April 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst was sentenced to 3 years in prison for ‘inciting to malicious damage to property’. She incited others to plant a bomb, which caused £55,000 worth of damage but, luckily did not kill anyone).

In practice, Pankhurst only served a short part of her sentence. When Suffragettes went on hunger strike the government passed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ (officially the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act) which allowed them to release prisoners until they had, to a certain extent regained their health, then arrest them again. Pankhurst was released and then re-arrested several times.

Meanwhile, in January 1914 Emmeline’s daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled from the WSPU because she supported the labour movement and Irish Home Rule (a campaign to give Ireland autonomy).

When the First World War started in 1914 the Suffragettes ended their campaign of arson and bombing and the government released all Suffragette prisoners from prison.

Pankhurst strongly supported the British war effort. Pankhurst also participated in the white feather campaign. (Young men who were not in uniform were shamed into joining the army when women gave them white feathers, a symbol of cowardice.)

In 1918 all men over 21 in Britain were given the right to vote. So were women over 30, if they met a property qualification.

Meanwhile in 1917 Emmeline and her daughter Christabel a political party called The Women’s Party. It was fiercely patriotic and anti-pacifist. It was also strongly opposed to the Labour Party. But as its name suggests the party also advocated equal pay for equal work and equal opportunities for women in the workplace. But the party soon fizzled out.

Eventually, Pankhurst joined the Conservative Party. In 1926 she stood as a Conservative candidate in an election for Whitechapel and St George’s. However, she was not elected. Pankhurst also strongly supported the British Empire. In 1916 and in 1920 she addressed the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (an organisation originally formed in Canada to support the British Empire). Pankhurst was also strongly anti-Communist.

In May 1928 Parliament voted to allow all women over 21 the right to vote the same as men. Emmeline Pankhurst lived just long enough to see it. She died on 14 June 1928. In 1930 a statue of her was unveiled close to the Houses of Parliament. In 2018 a statue of Pankhurst was erected in Manchester.