Posted in essay, history, Politics

Women of History: Emmeline Pankhurst

Today’s Woman of history topic is one that was requested, and I actually was not aware of till it was mentioned.  I found out quite a bit from my minor looking into her life. Emmeline Pankhurst was an early 19th century political activist in Great Britain. In particular she is known for her strong militant ways of promoting her cause and for helping bring along the vote for women in the UK as well as improve various other social problems she discovered through out her life.

Emmeline was born Emmeline Goulden on July 15, 1858 (according to her birth certificate, she always claimed the 14th) in a Manchester suburb. She was born into a family familiar with political activism for several generations. Her parents were active in their community and passed that down to their children. This included their interest in woman’s suffrage.

Her education was not as involved as her brothers, as at the time it was felt it was better she learn to be an attractive prospect as a wife rather than be educated on the scale of her brothers. However, she was an avid reader, and her time at Ecole Nomale de Neuilly helped her expand her influences and knowledge base.

In 1879, she married fellow activist Richard Pankhurst.

In the late 1880s, Pankhurst was involved in the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.  In 1888, the organization split into two over a decision to accept those with political party affiliations.  Those who believed it was alright formed a new society called The Parliament Street Society, which Pankhurst joined until she felt the organization was not doing enough for every woman’s rights.

She then helped form yet another organization called the Woman’s Franchise League in 1899. The organization also fought for equal rights in regards to inheritance and divorce.  However, many felt it was bit too radical and the organization failed to last a year.

She later joined the Independent Labour Party, which tended to be more along her line of thinking.  She had hopes that the party would eventually change social wrongs.  Through assisting this party, she distributed food to the poor through the Committee for the relief of the Unemployed.  This eventually led to her being elected to the position of Poor Law Guardian in 1985 in Chorlton-on-Medlock.  She was then presented with the conditions of the workhouses in the greater Manchester area, and was appalled.

She used her position to reform the workhouses as much as she could.

However, her political life put stress on her home life, as their financial status declined after Richard lost a parliamentary run and was followed by Emmeline being given a fine for meeting in a location that the local government did not permit political meetings and the legal fees that came with refusing said fine.  Richard’s health also declined, and he passed away in 1898.

She retired from her position on the Board of Guardians, and got a paid position in the Registrar of Births in Deaths in Chorlton.  It was here she began to be exposed to the conditions of women in the area.  It added to her determination that women needed to right to vote so they could start changing their situation.

Her children, like the family had for generations, became politically active.  Her daughter Christabel in particular joined the suffrage movement, and younger daughters Sylvia and Adela were also active in their own ways, though at times it was not the same as their mother’s.

However, Emmeline was not happy with the rate things were going.  She left the ILP in 1903 to help form the Women’s Social and Political Union.  The main mission of this organization was the focus on direct action to win the right to vote.  They started off with non-violent forms.  Speeches, newsletters, petitions.  They would hold protests outside the parliament building during votes.

She and her three daughters were all arrested at one point or another for actions they took as activists.  Emmeline served six weeks for trying to enter parliament  She was arrested seven times before she saw her work make progress.  The organization was physically attacked as a group at least once.  But she and her compatriots did not give up.

In 1918, the Represntation of the People Act (1918 – Also known as the Fourth Reform Act) gave women the vote for the first time in the UK.  However, there were criteria for the women to vote.  They had to be 30, which was the most simple requirement.  They also had to either be a member of the Government Register, be married to a member, own property or being a graduate in one of the UK’s universities.

Towards the end of her life, she tried to run for parliament, but her run ended with scandal which exacerbated her declining health.  She spent her last days at a nursing home, and died on June 14, 1928.  A month later on July 2, Parliment would pass the Representation of the People Act (1928 – Also known as the Equal Franchise Act) which would give equal voting rights ot women over the age of 21 with the same criteria that the male voters had.

Two of her daughters would go on to write her biography, although they wrote different accounts of the woman she was behind the political figure.  (If you are interested in Christabel’s biography, make sure to check the author, as there is a recent author with the same name who writes religious self-help books.)  Her impact on the future of the woman’s vote is debatable only in how much of an impact. Her three daughters all were active in politics with Sylvia and Christabel active in the UK and Adela bringing the family activism to Australia when she immigrated in 1914 And social reform activism did not end with her daughters, as her great-granddaughter still fights for women’s rights among other things.

She’s mentioned in the song ‘Sister Suffragette’ sung by Glynis Johns in Mary Poppins:

I suggest looking more into Mrs. Pankhurst’s story, because this essay is hardly enough to really get into her life’s work or any quality of research.  There are several books out there on her life, and various films and movies that depict her as well as many articles you can find with a google search.  I plan on getting her autobiography to read upon later.  It should be interesting to hear her own thoughts on her actions, positive or negative.

Further reading:

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst  (Link is to publishing house which has an excerpt if you are interested)

*NOte’;  If you have a Kindle, this book is currently free.

The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement by Sylvia Pankhurst

VQR: A Conservative Revolutionary

Wiki: Emmeline Pankhurst

ABC Australia:  Emmeline Pankhurst Wasn’t Perfect, but She Was Heroic

Conservative Women UK

Wiki: The Equal Franchise Act


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A thirty-something Graphic Designer and writer who likes to blog about books, movies and History.

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