Emmeline Pankhurst: The British Suffragette Who Fought For Women’s Equal Voting Rights
Emmeline Pankhurst was a British political activist. She is best remembered for marshalling the UK suffragette movement and helping women win the right to vote. She was widely criticised for her militant tactics, but her work is now recognised as a crucial element in achieving women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. In 1999, Time named her as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating that “she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.”
Childhood and Youth
Emmeline Pankhurst (née Emmeline Goulden) was born on July 14, 1858, in Manchester, England. She was the eldest among 10 siblings. Her parents were both quite active politically, and were diligent supporters of female suffrage. Emmeline began to read books when she was very young: in her autobiography, she wrote, “I do not remember a time when I could not read.” But despite her avid consumption of books, she was not given the educational advantages enjoyed by her brothers. Although born to fairly progressive parents, the Gouldens still believed that their daughters’ only aim should be to find a suitable husband and settle down.
The Representation of the People Act was finally passed in 1918, and women who met a property requirement and were 30 years of age were given the right to vote.
It is said that Pankhurst attended her first women’s suffrage meeting with her mother when she was only 14. In fact, she later wrote how that one meeting was a pivotal moment of her life. She claimed that she left the meeting “a conscious and confirmed suffragist.” After returning from Paris with a higher degree, she met Richard Pankhurst in 1878, whom she married a year later.
Over the next decade, Pankhurst gave birth to five children. But despite her household responsibilities, she remained involved in politics. She campaigned for her husband during his unsuccessful runs for Parliament and hosted many political gatherings at her home. With support and encouragement from her husband, she finally founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was a militant organisation that gained much notoriety for its activities and whose members were the first to be christened ‘suffragettes’.
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.” — Emmeline Pankhurst
British politicians, press and public were astonished by the demonstrations, window-smashing, arson and hunger strikes of these suffragettes. Like many from her party, Pankhurst was also arrested on numerous occasions over the next few years. She went on hunger strikes herself, ones that resulted in violent force-feeding by the government. Pankhurst’s two daughters Christabel and Sylvia became active members of WSPU as well.
World War One and Women’s Right To Vote
WSPU’s period of militancy was ended abruptly due to the outbreak of the war in 1914. The government released all WSPU prisoners, and Pankhurst encouraged women to join the war effort and fill factory jobs so that men could fight on the front. In fact, it’s said that it was the contributions made by women during wartime which helped convince the British government to grant them limited voting rights. The Representation of the People Act was finally passed in 1918, and women who met a property requirement and were 30 years of age (the voting age for men was 21) were given the right to vote. Later that same year, another bill gave women the right to be elected to Parliament.
Pankhurst still did not give up her fight for establishing equal voting rights for men and women. In 1926, she was chosen as a Conservative candidate for an east London constituency. But her health failed before she could be elected. Although in the end, her efforts reaped rewards. The 40-year campaign achieved complete success in the year of her death in 1928 when British women obtained full equality in the voting franchise. Emmeline Pankhurst lived her life according to the slogan she selected for WSPU— “deeds, not words”. It was only because of her persistence that women in the UK could take a step ahead in the fight for equality. And today, on the day of her birth anniversary, it becomes all the way more important that we remember and pay our respects to this legendary figure.
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV.