Emmeline Pankhurst

The English reformer Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) led the movement for women's suffrage in Great Britain, in the process developing agitational tactics still controversial and consequential.

Emmeline Pankhurst was born Emmeline Goulden in Manchester on July 4, 1858. At the age of 14 she accompanied her mother to a women's suffrage meeting. The next few years Emmeline spent in Paris attending school. After her return she married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister and an activist in radical causes, especially in women's suffrage. He died in 1898, leaving her with four children, including daughters Christabel (1880-1958) and Sylvia (1882-1960).

Pankhurst had briefly joined the Fabian Society and then had joined the Independent Labour party. She had held local offices as a Poor Law guardian, as a school board member, and as a paid registrar of births and deaths. In all these experiences she had observed the inferior position of women and their legal and social oppression by men. She concluded that only political rights for women would emancipate women and reform society at large.

In 1903 Pankhurst and Christabel formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). From its founding, the WSPU held certain policies: Its membership was exclusively female; it was independent of all political parties; it concentrated exclusively on the suffrage issue; and it distrusted all promises and demanded immediate parliamentary action. Another policy, developed in the next few years, was tactical militancy in harassing the Liberals, the political party with the greatest number of sympathizers and after 1905 the party in power, in order to force it to adopt women's suffrage as a party measure.

Pankhurst soon discovered that processions to the Houses of Parliament and hecklings and disruptions of election meetings produced police countermeasures and thus newspaper publicity favorable to her cause. The history of the movement recorded her mounting frustration with Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith's personal resistance to votes for women and his consequent delaying tactics in Parliament.

In 1908 Pankhurst declared that the suffragettes would either convert the ministry by force or see "the Government themselves destroyed." Soon the WSPU surpassed all other dissident movements, if not in rhetoric, in its violence and in its disruption of public life. The suffragettes organized campaigns of window smashing in central London, burned letters in postboxes, defaced paintings, and burned unoccupied buildings. Pankhurst called this escalation "guerrilla warfare" against property "to make England and every department of English life insecure and unsafe." She stopped short only of endangering human life.

The ministry responded with arrests and imprisonment, of Pankhurst herself for the first time in 1908. The women prisoners then began hunger strikes, which the officials met with brutal forms of forced feeding. In 1913 the "Cat and Mouse" Act allowed the release of fasting prisoners and their rearrest when they had recovered; under these terms Mrs. Pankhurst served only 30 days (of a 3-year sentence) during a calendar year.

Historians have asserted that by 1914 violence had become an end in itself for the WSPU, although Pankhurst always declared it temporary and historically and politically validated. After 1912 Christabel Pankhurst, who had taken sanctuary in Paris, directed the strategy. Yet the movement's objectives, as distinct from its tactics, had become less radical. It accepted a "Conciliation Bill, " which excluded working-class women from the vote and which opposed as impractical the introduction of genuinely universal suffrage. Finally, after Sylvia Pankhurst's expulsion from the movement, on grounds of her socialism and organizational activity among the lower classes, the ministry made her a formal promise of government support. Because of the outbreak of World War I, the pledge could not be redeemed until 1918, when most women over 30 years of age were enfranchised. Later, the Representation Act of 1928 gave women the vote on the same basis as men. Emmeline Pankhurst, who had played little part in the movement after 1914, died on June 14, 1928.

Further Reading on Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst's autobiographical account, My Own Story (1914), must be read with special caution because of its omissions and rationalizations. Two primary accounts were written by her daughter, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst: The Suffragette Movement (1931) and The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst (1935). Another primary account is in Millicent G. Fawcett, The Women's Victory and After (1914). A brilliant and lively treatment of the Pankhursts by means of social and psychological analysis is in George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935). Robert C.K. Ensor, England, 1870-1914 (1936), is a general history of the period which includes a critical account of the movement.