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Leader of the British Suffragettes: Emmeline Pankhurst's Story

Girl power, long before the Spice Girls arrived. Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes effected great social and political change.

Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement in Britain (1913).

Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement in Britain (1913).

Emmeline Attends Her First Suffragette Meeting

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was born Emmeline Goulden on the 14th July 1858 in Moss Side Manchester, northern England. The 14th July marked Bastille Day in France. “I have always thought that the fact that I was born on that day had some kind of influence over my life.” Her birth certificate stated that she was born on the 15th July but this is thought to be an error of memory on her father’s part, her birth was not registered for four months after her arrival.

She was the first of ten children born to Robert and Sophia Goulden. Her family circle included radical thinkers and so she soon learned that society wasn’t perfect. Even at home, there was still work to be done. Although progressive thinkers, her parents gave priority to their sons educations and futures at the expense of the female Goulden's. The girls were given the advice to “marry young and avoid paid work.”

Emmeline once overheard her father say that it was a pity Emmeline wasn’t a boy, this stung her immensely. She was fourteen years old when she attended her first women’s suffrage meeting with her mother.

Emmeline's husband Richard Pankhurst supported women's suffrage.

Emmeline's husband Richard Pankhurst supported women's suffrage.

Richard Pankhurst and the Married Women's Property Acts

She was sent to study in Paris to refine her embroidery and book-keeping skills amongst other “female” accomplishments. Whilst there, she became engaged but her father refused to allow the marriage to proceed.

When she returned to Manchester she married the lawyer and women’s suffrage supporter Richard Marsden Pankhurst who was twenty four years her senior. Their wedding was conducted at St. Luke’s Church in Pendleton on the 18th December 1879. Richard Pankhurst went on to draft the Married Women’s Acts of 1870 and 1882 which permitted women to keep their own property and money rather than having no choice but to surrender it to their husbands which had been normal practice for centuries.

New Campaigners :Sylvia, Adela and Christabel Pankhurst

The couple had three daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela who would fight for change alongside their mother in the years leading up to the First World War. Two sons Francis (Frank) and Henry (Harry) completed the family. Frank died from diphtheria in childhood. Harry suffered from lifelong poor health, was left paralysed and he passed away when he was just twenty one.

Tragically, Richard died suddenly in 1898 and this was a huge blow to Emmeline who learned of his passing in a newspaper whilst making the train journey between London and Manchester after hurrying back from Switzerland to be with him.

Suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst.

Suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst.

Suffragettes Not Suffragists

Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1889 and in 1894 her efforts secured women the right to vote in local elections. In 1903 the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union was established by her. It was the W.S.P.U. members who earned the sobriquet of suffragettes. Prior to this suffragists had sought diplomatic, political and gradual changes to women’s rights. However, it was well known that numerous suffragist bills had long been ignored because women’s suffrage was no great priority to the exclusively male members of parliament.

The motto of the W.S.P.U. was "Deeds not Words" and to attract attention, particularly from summer 1912, the organisation used demonstrations and rallies, hunger strikes, arson including launching an incendiary device into the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s home, criminal damage and bold acts like Emily Davison’s tragic move at The Derby racecourse when she went to pin the suffragette colours to the king’s horse only to be trampled and killed.

Sylvia Pankhurst Stays, Adela Thrown Out of the W.S.P.U.

These shows of defiance against the establishment were viewed with horror by the police, press and politicians. Not everyone was supportive of women’s suffrage. Although the Pankhursts’ were championed by many, they and fellow suffragettes suffered verbal and physical abuse, had rotten eggs and objects thrown at them.

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Emmeline made three successful lecture tours in America whilst leading activities in the U.K. She ensured that her daughters knew that she was fiercely in charge of the suffragette movement. She worked closely with Christabel, who according to Sylvia was Emmeline’s favourite. Adela was banished to Australia by her mother for holding different views about their campaign. Emmeline and Adela never met again. Sylvia, too radical for her mother, was also dismissed from the W.S.P.U.

Emmeline Pankhurst in prison.

Emmeline Pankhurst in prison.

Emmeline Pankhurst in Prison 12 Times in a Year

Emmeline was arrested on several occasions and along with other suffragettes suffered the cruel indignity of being force fed, often through the nose, whilst on hunger strikes in prison. The “Cat and Mouse Act of 1913” was a government measure that ensured none of the suffragettes died whilst in prison, hence the repeated cycle of hunger strikes, force feeding, releasing suffragettes temporarily, allowing the health of the women to recover before they were rearrested. She challenged the guards on one occasion when she was due to be fed through a tube,“If any of you dare so much as to take one step inside this cell I shall defend myself.” There’s little doubt that she would have acquitted herself well.

The practice of force feeding suffragettes was brutal.

The practice of force feeding suffragettes was brutal.

The First World War and The Women's Party

With the declaration of the First World War Emmeline ordered the suffragettes to halt their activities and concentrate instead on beating the enemy. Emmeline and many suffragettes steadfastly supported the war effort but Sylvia and a small band of women chose to pursue their militancy throughout the war and dared to call themselves suffragettes which Emmeline was incandescent about. The suffragettes were hers!

She released her autobiography My Own Story in 1914 and aged fifty seven she adopted four girls and attracted criticism for coming to the aid of illegitimate children. In 1917 the W.S.P.U. was renamed The Women’s Party.

The Representation of the People Act 1918

In November 1918 the war ended and it was evident to all that women had toiled, sacrificed themselves and taken risks to bring an end to the conflict. They’d earned the right to vote. They could no longer be, as the former Viceroy of India Lord George Curzon would have wished, told to concentrate on matters that their silly and hysterical brains might understand like housekeeping and children.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 permitted women over the age of thirty to vote in elections, with some exceptions. Ten years later this age was reduced to twenty one years old in line with male voters rights.

50 Clarendon Road, Holland Park London was Emmeliine and Christabel Pankhurst's home, as commemorated by this plaque.

50 Clarendon Road, Holland Park London was Emmeliine and Christabel Pankhurst's home, as commemorated by this plaque.

Emmeline Pankhurst the Politician?

In her later life her politics moved towards conservatism and in spring 1928 she decided to stand as a Conservative Party candidate in the national elections. Unfortunately, ill health, a considerable list of misdemeanours as leader of the suffragettes and the scandalous news of Sylvia bearing an illegitimate child, Richard Pankhurst, ruined the possibility of her sitting in the Houses of Parliament.

She died a few months later on the 14th June 1928, a short time before votes for women were extended to twenty one years of age and over. She was laid to rest at Brompton Cemetery in London.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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