The name of Emmeline Pankhurst is synonymous with the British suffrage movement. In her leadership of its militant wing, she seemed born to a predestined purpose. If her daughter Christabel was the militant movement’s stage manager and mastermind, then Emmeline was its self-dramatizing epicenter, a woman of reckless courage who turned suffering for the cause into high art. She was born into radicalism, learned women’s rights from her feminist mother, and early acquired a sense of theater, which, when coupled with her austere beauty, gracious demeanor, and eloquent rhetoric, commanded attention and often received hero worship. She could also be ruthless, dictatorial, impetuous, and impatient. She was always a woman in a hurry, restless to get things done, and when things did not happen quickly enough, she turned to direct action and militancy. Enduring the agonies of repeated hunger strikes and force-feedings, she pushed her own increasingly frail body to the edge of total collapse on several occasions and no doubt shortened her life in so doing. The reward for such sacrifice was immortality as the leading figure of what became a latter-day religious crusade in which she played the role of Joan of Arc.
In a speech at Carnegie Hall in October 1909, during a fund-raising trip to the United States, Emmeline remarked: “I am what you call a hooligan” (Mackenzie 1975, 142), but her background, although radical, was far from revolutionary. She was one of ten children of a well-off middle-class calico printer in Manchester; her parents were cast in the Victorian philanthropic tradition as advocates of human progress, abolition, and women’s emancipation. As a child, Emmeline’s reading material was often abolitionist tracts and novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. She was by nature rebellious and, even in her teenage years, had a somewhat regal manner and a stylish dress sense to match that would be noted by many.
After being educated at school in Manchester, Emmeline was sent to board at the Ecole Normale, a finishing school in Paris; two years after completing her studies, she married in 1879. Her husband, Richard Pankhurst, who was forty-four years old to her twenty, was a radical barrister active in many social causes. He had been on the Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women, had supported the women defendants in the 1868 test case in Manchester on municipal suffrage, and had drafted the Married Women’s Property Bill, introduced in 1868. From 1880 to 1889, Emmeline gave birth to five children, which for some time precluded her involvement in political activities.
In 1885 the Pankhursts moved to London, but Richard’s radicalism proved a stumbling block in his ability to establish a large enough clientele as a barrister, and he suffered increasing ill health. The couple mixed in bohemian and artistic circles in London and joined the Fabian Society after William Gladstone’s Liberal Party failed to introduce women’s suffrage in its 1884 Reform Bill. They became friendly with other socialists such as Annie Besant, Keir Hardie, and William Morris. In 1889 Emmeline and Richard were founding members with Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy of the Women’s Franchise League, set up in response to the limited suffrage demands of existing groups (which favored the vote for unmarried women and widows only) and that worked to further the rights of married women. By 1893 Richard’s infirmity and the failure of Emmeline’s fancy goods shop in Tottentham Court Road forced the family to return to Manchester, where they joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and resumed their local political work, with Richard again standing unsuccessfully for election to Parliament.
Emmeline’s appointment at the end of 1894 as a Poor Law Guardian, under new legislation allowing women to be elected to such bodies (she later also served on the Manchester School Board), brought her face-to-face with the realities of poverty during her workhouse visits. Her husband’s death in 1898 made the need for her to find a source of income even more pressing. Left with considerable debts and four children (Henry had died in 1888 at the age of four) to support, she opened another shop and moved to a more modest house. She gave up her post on the Board of Guardians to take a paid job as registrar of births and deaths in the working-class district of Rusholme, in Manchester (which she held until 1907). This work brought her into further contact with poor working-class women, with Pankhurst encountering many widows living in penury, teenage girls with illegitimate babies, and women deserted by husbands. Such experiences further convinced her that women’s position in society could only be improved if they were given the vote. In 1902 Pankhurst was a founding member of the Manchester Central branch of the ILP, but she was becoming disillusioned with the male domination of labor politics. When in 1903, her daughter Sylvia was asked to paint a mural in an ILP meeting hall from which, Emmeline discovered, women would be excluded, she became furious and resigned from the ILP. For her, it was the final proof that if women wanted to achieve suffrage, they had to go it alone.
Not wishing to join Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which was affiliated with the Liberal Party, on 10 October 1903 Pankhurst cofounded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with other members of the Manchester branch of the ILP at her home in Nelson Street, with the slogan “Deeds Not Words.” In the early stages of its peaceful local campaigning, the WSPU, which was for some time a relatively small organization, drew many members from the ILP. It lobbied for support among working women, including many in the Lancashire cotton mills, and won women such as Annie Kenney and Hannah Mitchell to the cause.
The nature of WSPU campaigning changed in 1905 after Christabel Pankhurst and Kenney were arrested and imprisoned for interrupting a Liberal Party election meeting (deliberately contrived by Christabel to provoke arrest). Emmeline realized the full value of publicity to be gained for the cause from high-profile acts of civil disobedience and militancy. As the campaign cranked up and WSPU members became more vocal and confrontational, the Daily Mail coined the term suffragette to describe this new breed of feminist campaigner. The years 1906 to 1914 would mark a high point in women’s political campaigning in Britain, not repeated until the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1970s.
In 1907 Pankhurst, in continuous financial difficulty, moved from Manchester to London, having transferred the WSPU’s political base there in 1906. Over the following years, she had no permanent home, living sometimes at WSPU treasurer Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence’s flat or in cheap hotels and rented flats and scraping a living from speaking tours around the country and in the United States from 1908 to 1912. She had a memorable speaking voice and relished the combat of public debate, as one eyewitness remarked: “I never heard a political speaker … who was more completely master of his subject, or who seemed to welcome noisy interruptions with such zest” (Crawford 1999, 505). Throughout her WSPU campaigning, Emmeline marshaled and led her suffrage troops from the front, like a general. In September 1907, with the ruthless pragmatism of military campaigners, she and Christabel made the decision to abolish the WSPU constitution and take control of the movement. WSPU members were expected to accept Emmeline’s decisions without challenge for the sake of the cause; her critics would see this as dictatorial, an act whereby she cut herself off from the grass roots of the membership.
In 1908 after the Liberal government under new Prime Minister Herbert Asquith failed to carry a bill on women’s enfranchisement, Emmeline endorsed an increase in WSPU militancy. She suffered the first of many periods of imprisonment, in February 1908 beginning a sentence of six weeks in Holloway jail; a further term followed in October. Meanwhile, window smashing by WSPU members had become a potent symbol not only of WSPU defiance but of the power of popular protest, with Emmeline later averring: “The argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics” (Dangerfield 1936, 145). Ever-larger WSPU rallies, costume parades, and torchlight processions raised suffrage activism to public entertainment, reaching a high point in June when at least 250,000 people joined a mass rally in Hyde Park. Such events would also be staged in the United States by suffrage leader Alice Paul, who had spent time working with the suffrage campaign in England. At the end of 1909, Emmeline left for a fund-raising lecture tour of the United States organized by U.S. suffragists, including Harriot Stanton Blatch; a second tour came in October 1911. Nothing would deter her from her singleminded campaign, even though in 1910 she suffered the loss of her son Harry (who died of polio) and her sister Mary (who had been imprisoned for suffrage campaigning). When she was once more arrested and imprisoned in 1912, for throwing a stone at the prime minister’s home in Downing Street, Emmeline demanded to be treated as a political prisoner; for her the suffrage campaign was nothing less than a war, particularly after the Liberal government had blocked the passage of Conciliation Bills on women’s suffrage in 1910 and 1911. Sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment, Pankhurst went on a hunger strike in June but was released three days later.
The years 1912–1914 marked the final stage of WSPU militancy, with Christabel masterminding the organization of the WSPU from Paris. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband were ousted as treasurers, and Emmeline Pankhurst took control of a pared-down leadership in London. The Pethick-Lawrences, who had been loyal and unquestioning servants of the organization, accepted their ejection with good grace. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence graciously recorded in her memoirs that although both Christabel and Emmeline were “quite ruthless” in their dealings with other people but that “men and women of destiny are like that” (1938, 69).
In April 1913 Emmeline was once again arrested, for incitement to break the law, and this time sentenced to three years in prison. As soon as she was jailed, she went on a hunger strike, and so a pattern was established. The Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act—popularly known as the Cat and Mouse Act—was brought hastily into operation, under which hunger-striking suffragettes were released long enough to recover and then rearrested. Released under the act and back into the arms of adoring supporters, nurses, and well-wishers, Pankhurst was rearrested after six weeks but was back out again within days, having resumed her hunger strike. She endured nine periods of hunger, thirst, and even sleep strikes over a period of sixteen months; her total number of imprisonments eventually reached fourteen.
In October 1913, during a period of freedom, Emmeline attempted to go on another fund-raising tour of the United States but was detained at Ellis Island. This caused a public uproar, and the ensuing publicity garnered a further much-needed £4,000 in donations from supporters. But upon her return to the United Kingdom, she was once again arrested and once more in and out of prison on hunger and thirst strikes, often carried out of jail on a stretcher, such was her extreme state. By this time, a desperate government was resorting to overkill in its enlistment of huge numbers of police to fight off protests by suffragettes on every—often very public—occasion of Emmeline Pankhurst’s rearrest. In the midst of such scenes, the tiny and increasingly fragile figure of Pankhurst often became completely lost. Her exhausting and stubborn pattern of protest had ensured that by the end of July 1914, when she managed to get across to France after her latest release, she had served only about twenty-three days of her three-year sentence.
In August 1914 WSPU militancy, and with it Emmeline’s imprisonments, came to a sudden halt when Emmeline and Christabel embraced the war effort and agreed to temporarily shelve the suffrage campaign, exhorting British women to join shoulder to shoulder with men to defeat the Germans. Emmeline lobbied the trade unions to accept women workers in the munitions industry and also volunteered for propaganda missions to the United States and Russia. In Petrograd, she personally inspected the famous Women’s Battalion of Death organized by Maria Bochkareva, a woman after Emmeline’s own heart who had lobbied the tsar in 1914 to be allowed to enlist in the army. With the WSPU journal the Suffragette jingoistically renamed Britannia, Emmeline set about arousing the patriotic spirit of British women and recruiting them to war industries with the same fervor with which she had sought recruits to the WSPU. She set up a home for illegitimate and unwanted war babies in Kensington and went back to the United States to fund-raise on its behalf. But her war work was colored by a frighteningly blinkered demonization of the entire German people and, for that matter, of pacifists and conscientious objectors. Her attitude fueled the fires of xenophobia in Britain and divided the opposing forces in the conflict along naively simplistic lines, with the French portrayed as innocent victims of the rapacious “Huns.” These prejudices carried over into support by both Emmeline and her daughter Christabel for the imposition of draconian postwar reparations on Germany.
At the end of the war, Emmeline’s long fight for women’s suffrage ended when the British government finally awarded women the vote in 1918. But it was a limited reward for the 1,000 or so women who had suffered imprisonment, force-feeding, and police brutality during suffrage campaigning. For the limited franchise was applicable only to women over thirty who were property holders in their own right or married to property holders and also those over thirty holding university degrees. Thus it excluded the majority of working-class women. Although it emancipated Emmeline Pankhurst and many of her class, most British women would have to wait another ten years to be fully enfranchised under universal suffrage measures in 1928. (The decision to set an age limit of thirty in 1918 had consciously been made in order to exclude women of a younger age from enfranchisement and thus prevent an imbalance in the male-female vote after so many younger men had been killed during World War I.)
In 1918 and 1919, Emmeline again visited the United States and also Canada, promoting her own and Christabel’s social purity campaign and lecturing on the dangers of venereal disease for the National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases. She also spoke in support of temperance and warned against the dangers of the new communist state in Bolshevik Russia. She remained in Canada until 1924, living in Toronto. Ill health forced a period of rest in Bermuda, after which, in perennial financial difficulty, she went to France in 1925, for a while running a genteel tea shop on the Riviera. Emmeline returned to the United Kingdom in 1926, once more living a hand-to-mouth existence in cheap accommodations. She joined the Conservative Party and prepared to stand as a candidate in the Labour Party constituency of Whitechapel at the next election, an act seen as a deliberate slap in the face to her socialist daughter Sylvia, who worked for many years in the East End. But Emmeline’s health finally failed, and she died on 14 June 1928. Estranged from all three of her daughters (the youngest, Adela, had emigrated to Australia) and practically penniless, she left only £86 in her will. Her death came just three weeks after the Equal Enfranchisement Act finally gave the vote to all women over the age of twenty-one.
The writer Rebecca West (1992) has talked of Pankhurst living and campaigning in the spirit of the principles of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. Certainly, she developed a brand of “romantic feminism” (as Holton 1990 describes it) that was all her own. Although many would challenge West’s view, arguing that her elitist and dictatorial leadership of the WSPU was far from democratic, Emmeline Pankhurst was a woman of enormous courage who appeared to have no fear for her own safety or of the physical tolls of hunger striking on her body. Her friend the suffragette and composer Ethel Smyth saw in her an “otherworldliness,” a quality that while perhaps defying comprehension, compels respect: “There was in her a deep sense of what in my Carlyle-ridden youth people used to call the Immensities; the things that lie beyond life and death, effort and fruition, success and failure, love and the dying away of love” (Smyth 1987, 295).
In March 1930, a bronze statue was erected in Emmeline Pankhurst’s memory at Victoria Tower Gardens in sight of the Houses of Parliament. In October 1999, she was voted Woman of the Century by the Women of the Year Assembly in London for “acting as “the catalyst … that enabled women to leave their household chores and establish their own place in modern society” (The Times, 12 October 1999). The Pankhurst family home at 62 Nelson Street in Manchester was saved from developers and is now a Pankhurst museum and women’s center. For further information on the Pankhurst Centre, go to www.manchester2002-ukCentre.com/museums/museums6.html. For archival information, go to the Fawcett Library’s web site: http://www.lgu.ac.uk/fawcett.
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