Emmeline Pankhurst

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Emmeline Pankhurst, (1858-1928), British suffrage leader, who led the movement to win the vote for women in Britain.

Her early life

Born Emmeline Goulden in Manchester, she studied (1873-77) at the Ecole Normale in Paris. In 1879 she married Richard Marsden Pankhurst, a barrister, who worked with her to promote equality for women. They had two daughters; Christabel (1880-1958) and Sylvia (1882-1960); both of whom supported their mother in her beliefs.

Her political life

In 1889 she was one of the founders of the Women's Franchise League. Five years later the league succeeded in promoting passage of a law granting women the right to vote in local elections.
In 1903 she founded the Women's Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.) in Manchester. The group came to prominence when Mrs. Pankhurst moved its headquarters to London.

The Suffragette Movement

By 1905 the media had lost interest in the struggle for women's rights. Newspapers rarely reported meetings and usually refused to publish articles and letters written by supporters of women's suffrage. In 1905 the W.S.P.U. decided to use different methods to obtain the publicity they thought would be needed in order to obtain the vote. The W.S.P.U. held public meetings and led protest marches to the House of Commons.
On 13th October 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney attended a meeting in London to hear Sir Edward Grey, a minister in the British government. When Grey was talking, the two women constantly shouted out, "Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?" When the women refused to stop shouting, the police were called to evict them from the meeting. Ms. Pankhurst and Ms. Kenney refused to leave and during the struggle, a policeman claimed they kicked and spat at him. The two women were arrested and charged with assault.
Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were found guilty of assault and fined five shillings each. When the women refused to pay the fine they were sent to prison.
The case shocked the nation.

For the first time in Britain women had used violence in an attempt to win the vote. Members of the W.S.P.U. now became known as suffragettes.

On the 13th October, 1908 the W.S.P.U. held a large demonstration in London and then tried to enter the House of Commons. There were violent clashes with the police and 24 women were arrested, including Emmeline Pankhurst, who was sentenced to three months in prison.


In July, 1909, Marion Dunlop, an imprisoned suffragette, refused to eat. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, it was decided to release her. Soon afterwards other imprisoned suffragettes adopted the same strategy. Unwilling to release all of the imprisoned suffragettes, the prison authorities force-fed the women on hunger strike. In one eighteen month period, Emmeline Pankhurst, who was now in her fifties, went on hunger-strike no less than ten times.
A quote by Christabel Pankhurst:

"Eighty-one women were still in prison, some for terms of six months. Mother and Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence went on hunger-strike. The Government retaliated by forcible feeding. This was actually carried out in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence. The doctors and wardresses came to Mother's cell armed with forcible-feeding apparatus. Forewarned by the cries of Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence, Mother received them with all her majestic indignation. They fell back and left her.
Neither then nor at any time in her long and dreadful conflict with the government was she forcibly fed".
A quote by Annie Kenney:

"In 1909, Mrs. Wallace Dunlop went to prison and defied the long sentences that were being given by adopting the hunger-strike. "Release or Death" was her motto. From that day, July 5th, 1909, the hunger-strike was the greatest weapon we possessed against the Government. Before long all Suffragette prisoners were on hunger-strike, so the threat to pass long sentences on us had failed. Sentences grew shorter".


In July, 1913, attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who were opposed to women having the vote. These attempts failed, but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes. This was followed by cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire.
Objections to these actions by members of the W.S.P.U. led to their expulsion from the Union or they resigned.

The W.S.P.U. members increased their campaign to destroy public and private property. The women responsible were often caught and once in prison they went on hunger-strike. Determined to avoid these women becoming martyrs, the government introduced the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act. Suffragettes were now allowed to go on hunger strike but as soon as they became ill, they were released. Once the women had recovered, the police re-arrested them and returned them to prison where they completed their sentences. This successful means of dealing with hunger strikes became known as the Cat and Mouse Act.

By the summer of 1914 over 1,000 suffragettes had been imprisoned for destroying public property. All the leading members of the W.S.P.U. were either in prison, in very poor health or living in exile. The number of active members of the organisation in a position to commit acts of violence was very small.

One suffragette's sacrifice

A few days after leaving prison, Emily Davison, Mary Leigh and Constance Lytton were caught throwing stones at a car taking David Lloyd George to a meeting in Newcastle. The stones were wrapped in Emily's favourite words:
"Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God."

The women were found guilty and sentenced to one month's hard labour at Strangeways Jail. They went on hunger strike but the prison authorities decided to force-feed them. In an attempt to avoid force-feeding, Emily used prison furniture to barricade the door of her prison cell. A prison officer climbed a ladder and after forcing the nozzle of a hosepipe through a window, filled up the cell with water. Emily was willing to die, but before the cell had been completely filled with water the door was broken down.

James Keir Hardie, the leader of the Labour Party, complained about the treatment of Emily Davison in the House of Commons. The general public appeared to agree that she had been badly treated. Emily decided to take legal action against Strangeways for the hosepipe incident. On 19th January 1910, Judge Parry pronounced in Emily's favour, awarding damages of forty shillings.

The scale of her militant acts increased and in December, 1911 she was arrested for setting fire to pillar-boxes. Sentenced to six months, during her spell in prison she went on two hunger strikes. Emily Davison was now convinced that women would not win the vote until the suffragette movement had a martyr.

To draw attention to the suffragette campaign, she jumped down an iron staircase, landing on wire-netting, 30 feet below. This prevented her death but she suffered severe spinal injuries.

Once she had recovered her health, Emily Davison began making plans to commit an act that would give the movement maximum publicity. In June, 1913, at the most important horse race of the year, the "Derby", Emily ran out onto the course and attempted to grab the bridle of Anmer, a horse owned by King George V. The horse hit Emily; the impact fractured her skull and she died without regaining consciousness.

Although many suffragettes endangered their lives by hunger strikes, Emily Davison was the only one who deliberately risked death. However, her actions did not have the desired impact on the general public. They appeared to be more concerned with the health of the horse and jockey and Davison was condemned as a mentally ill fanatic.

A break for war

The beginnings of World War I in 1914 prompted Mrs. Pankhurst and the W.S.P.U. to cease their campaign and devote themselves to war work.

On 4th August,1914, England declared war on Germany. The leadership of the W.S.P.U. began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the W.S.P.U. agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the W.S.P.U. organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as:
  • We Demand the Right to Serve

  • For Men Must Fight and Women Must work

  • Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws
  • .

    At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

    In October 1915, The W.S.P.U. changed its newspaper's name from "The Suffragette" to "Britannia". Emmeline Pankhurst's patriotic view of the war was reflected in the paper's new slogan:
    "For King, for Country, for Freedom".

    Her legacy

    Mrs. Pankhurst died in London on June 14th, 1928, a few weeks after British women were granted full voting rights. Her legacy is that each and every female in the country once attaining the age of 18 years, has the entitlement to vote in political elections. A sad fact is that not many care to exercise this right, through ignorance or apathy. Emmeline Pankhurst and others like her helped ensure that women of today are treated as equals with men in the eyes of the law. To have the ability to vote in a democratic society should never be taken for granted.

    Emily Davison gave her life to a cause she believed in, a true martyr.

    FOOTNOTE: Australian women had had the right to vote since 1893.

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