Emmeline Pankhurst (15 July 1858 – 14 June 1928) was a leading British suffragette, who played a militant role in helping to gain women the right to vote.
“Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.”
– Emmeline Pankhurst, from Freedom or Death (1913)
Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Moss Side, Manchester in 1858. Her family had a tradition of radical politics, and she stepped into the same mould – becoming a passionate campaigner for women’s right to vote.
In 1878, she married Richard Pankhurst, a leading barrister who was 24 years older than her. Richard Pankhurst was also a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement.
In 1894, she was elected a poor law guardian, and she spent time visiting workhouses in Manchester becoming aware of the shocking levels of poverty many faced.
“I thought I had been a suffragist before I became a Poor Law Guardian, but now I began to think about the vote in women’s hands not only as a right but as a desperate necessity.”
With her husband they had five children; but his death in 1898, was a great shock to Emmeline. After Richard’s death, Emmeline threw herself into the women’s suffrage movement forming the Women’s Franchise League in 1898.
In 1903 she formed the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was through the political action of the WSPU that the term women’s suffragette movement was created. She led a passionate group of women who were willing to take part in drastic action such as tying themselves to railings, smashing windows and launching demonstrations. Pankhurst defended the militant tactics on the grounds that:
“The condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do.”
Her tactics contrasted with those of the NUWSS and Millicent Fawcett. The government and establishment were shocked at the tactics of the women, and many were arrested. When they went on hunger strike, they were force-fed or released only to be rearrested – something known as ‘cat and mouse’. In 1912, Emily Pankhurst was convicted of breaking windows and sent to Holloway Prison. In prison, she went on hunger strike in protest about the appalling conditions that prisoners were kept in. She described her time in prison as: “like a human being in the process of being turned into a wild beast.”
In 1913, Emmeline’s daughter Christabel took leadership of the WPSU, and their tactics became increasingly militant. However, this polarised opinion within the WPSU and many members left – arguing the violence was counter-productive and damaging to the cause. Two of Emmeline’s other daughters, Adela and Sylvia left the movement creating a rift in the family, which never healed. Due to the increased militancy of the British suffrage movement, public opinion was increasingly polarised. Militant suffragettes were often described as fanatics. In 1913, Emily Davison was killed after throwing herself under the King’s horse.
However, at the outbreak of war in 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst used her campaigning tactics to support the war effort – and announced a temporary truce in the women’s suffrage campaign. She considered the menace of German aggression to be the greater threat. As she said at the time:
“What is the use of fighting for a vote if we have not got a country to vote in?”
The government and the suffragettes declared a truce and political prisoners were released.
Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd
During the war effort, women were drafted into factories and took on many jobs which were previously the preserve of men, such as bus drivers and postmen. The radical social change of the First World War helped to diminish the opposition to women getting the vote; and in 1918, women over the age of 30 were given the vote.
In 1926, Pankhurst surprised many by joining the Conservative party, and two years later running for Parliament as a Conservative candidate. This was in stark contrast to her earlier political experiences and sympathy with the poor. But, after the Russian revolution, she was increasingly concerned by Communism and became more conservative in her political views.
In 1928, women were granted equal voting rights with men (at 21). However, in 1928, Emmeline fell ill and died on 14 June 1928.
Legacy of Emmeline Pankhurst
There is a dispute over the extent to which the militant campaigns, led and inspired by Emmeline Pankhurst, helped or hindered the women’s suffrage movement. Some argue, violence made the establishment more reluctant to agree to their demands; others say it helped raise the profile of the movement and was a factor in helping women gain the vote in 1918. Whatever the merits of her action, she epitomised the passionate belief that women deserved equal rights and helped to give this campaign a higher profile. She lived through an age of rapidly changing opinions about the role of women in society, and she ultimately saw women given the vote.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography Emmeline Pankhurst”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 11th June 2013. Updated 8 February 2018.
Famous English people – Famous English men and women. From Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I to Henry VIII and Winston Churchill. Includes the great poets – William Shakespeare, William Blake and William Wordsworth.
Women’s Rights Activists – Women who championed the cause of women’s rights. Including Mary Wollstonecraft, Emily Pankhurst, Susan B.Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Women who changed the world – Famous women who changed the world, including Sappho, Marie Curie, Queen Victoria, and Catherine the Great.
Emmeline Pankhurst – My Own Story
Emmeline Pankhurst – My Own Story at Amazon
Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography
Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography at Amazon
Quotes of Emily Pankhurst
“We found that all the fine phrases about freedom and liberty were entirely for male consumption, and that they did not in any way apply to women. When it was said taxation without representation is tyranny, when it was “Taxation of men without representation is tyranny,” everybody quite calmly accepted the fact that women had to pay taxes and even were sent to prison if they failed to pay them – quite right. We found that “Government of the people, by the people and for the people,” which is also a time-honoured Liberal principle, was again only for male consumption; half of the people were entirely ignored; it was the duty of women to pay their taxes and obey the laws and look as pleasant as they could under the circumstances. In fact, every principle of liberty enunciated in any civilised country on earth, with very few exceptions, was intended entirely for men, and when women tried to force the putting into practice of these principles, for women, then they discovered they had come into a very, very unpleasant situation indeed.”
“Well, they little know what women are. Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible. ”
“Now then, let me say something about what has brought it about because you must realise that only the very strongest of motives would lead women to do what we have done. Life is sweet to all of us. Every human being loves life and loves to enjoy the good things and the happiness that life gives: and yet we have a state of things in England that has made not two or three women but thousands of women quite prepared to face these terrible situations that I have been trying without any kind of passion or exaggeration to lay before you.”
Freedom or death (1913) by Emmeline Pankhurst
- Millicent Fawcett