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Portrait Highlight - Emmeline Pankhurst Political activist, founder & leader of the WSPU

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928) British political activist and founder and leader of the British suffragette movement (WSPU)

Sophia Goulden (née Craine)

Emmeline was born to Sophia (née Craine) and Robert Goulden, on 15th July 1858 in the Moss Side district of Manchester. Her family had been involved in political agitation for generations; Sophia was a Manx woman from the Isle of Man (the first country to grant women the right to vote in national elections in 1881) who was descended from men who were charged with social unrest and slander. Robert came from a modest Manchester merchant family with its own background of political activity. His mother worked with the Anti-Corn Law League, and his father was present at the Peterloo massacre, when cavalry charged and broke up a crowd demanding parliamentary reform.

Robert had co-founded a small business in Seedley which is where the family moved to soon after Emmeline’s birth. He was also active in local politics, serving for several years on the Salford town council. The Gouldens included their children in social activism from a young age. As part of the movement to end U.S. slavery, Robert welcomed American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher when he visited Manchester and Sophia used the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Beecher's sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (American author and abolitionist), as a regular source of bedtime stories for her sons and daughters.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Despite being an avid reader, Emmeline was not given the educational advantages enjoyed by her brothers. The Gouldens still believed that their five daughters needed to learn the art of "making home attractive" and other skills desired by potential husbands and expected their daughters to marry young and avoid paid work. Although they supported women's suffrage (Sophia received and read the Women's Suffrage Journal for years) and the general advancement of women in society, they believed their daughters incapable of the goals of their male peers. It was through the Women's Suffrage Journal, lying about the house, that Emmeline was first introduced to the subject and grew fond of its editor Lydia Becker. At the age of 14, she accompanied her mother to a public meeting about women's voting rights where Becker addressed the crowd. Her speech enthralled the young Emmeline who later wrote, "I left the meeting a conscious and confirmed suffragist.”

Richard Pankhurst

In 1878, at the age of 20, Emmeline met and began a relationship with Richard Pankhurst, a barrister twenty-four years her senior, who had advocated women's suffrage – and other causes, including freedom of speech and education reform – for years. Emmeline suggested to Richard that they avoid the legal formalities of marriage by entering into a free union, but he objected on the grounds that she would be excluded from political life as an unmarried woman. So in December 1879, Emmeline Goulden became Emmeline Pankhurst.

Their daughter Christabel was born less than a year later, with Estelle Sylvia arriving in 1882, Francis Henry (Frank) in 1884 and Adela in 1885. Although she gave birth to four children in quick succession, both she and Richard believed that she should not be "a household machine” and she still devoted time to political activities and the Women's Suffrage Society. Soon after Adela’s birth, Richard Pankhurst left the Liberal Party and the family moved to London, where Richard ran unsuccessfully for election as a Member of Parliament and Pankhurst opened a small fabric shop called Emerson and Company, together with her sister Mary Jane.

In 1888, Francis developed diphtheria and sadly died on 11 September. Emmeline blamed the poor conditions of the neighbourhood having caused their son’s illness, and the family moved to a more affluent middle class district at Russell Square. Their Russell Square home became a centre for political intellectuals and activists, including, "Socialists, Protesters, Anarchists, Suffragists, Free Thinkers, Radicals and Humanitarians of all schools.”

That same year, Britain’s first nationwide coalition of groups advocating women's right to vote, the National Society for Women's Suffrage (NSWS), split after a majority of members decided to accept organisations affiliated with political parties. Angry at this decision, some of the group's leaders, including Lydia Becker and Millicent Fawcett, stormed out of the meeting and created an alternative organisation committed to the "old rules," called the Great College Street Society after the location of its headquarters. Pankhurst aligned herself with the "new rules" group, which became known as the Parliament Street Society (PSS). When the reluctance within the PSS to advocate on behalf of married women (who they argued, had their husband’s to vote on their behalf) became clear, Pankhurst and her husband helped organise another new group dedicated to voting rights for all women – married and unmarried.

Lydia Beckett and Millicent Fawcett

During this time Emmeline had become pregnant once more and declared that the child was "Frank coming again". She gave birth to a son on 7th July 1889 and named him Henry Francis in honour of his deceased brother. The inaugural meeting of the Women's Franchise League (WFL) took place not three weeks later on 25th July 1889, at the Pankhurst home in Russell Square. Early members of the WFL included Josephine Butler, leader of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts; the Pankhursts' friend Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy; and Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch, daughter of US suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The WFL was considered a radical organisation, since in addition to women's suffrage it supported equal rights for women in the areas of divorce and inheritance. It also advocated trade unionism and sought alliances with socialist organisations. The group's radicalism soon caused some members to leave; both Blatch and Elmy resigned from the WFL. The group fell apart one year later.

Josephine Butler, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy & Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch

In 1893 the Pankhursts closed their London store and returned to Manchester. Emmeline began to work with several political organisations, distinguishing herself for the first time as an activist in her own right and gaining respect in the community. In addition to her work on behalf of women's suffrage, she became active with the Women's Liberal Federation (WLF), an auxiliary of the Liberal Party. However, she quickly grew disenchanted with the group's moderate positions, and decided to apply to join the newly formed Independent Labour Party (ILP). The local branch refused her admission on the grounds of her sex, but she eventually joined the ILP nationally. One of her first activities with the ILP was distributing food to poor men and women through the Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed. In December 1894 she was elected to the position of Poor Law Guardian in Chorlton-on-Medlock. She was appalled by the conditions she witnessed first-hand in the Manchester workhouse:

“The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years old on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors ... bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time ... I found that there were pregnant women in that workhouse, scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their babies came into the world ... Of course the babies are very badly protected ... These poor, unprotected mothers and their babies I am sure were potent factors in my education as a militant.” Pankhurst immediately began to change these conditions, and established herself as a successful voice of reform on the Board of Guardians.

Female workers in a 19th century workhouse

In 1896 Richard Pankhurst began to experience severe stomach pains. He had developed a gastric ulcer, and his health deteriorated quickly over the next two years. He died 1888 whilst Emmeline was on route back from a trip to Switzerland to visit a friend. The loss of her husband left her with new responsibilities and a significant amount of debt. She moved the family to a smaller house, resigned from the Board of Guardians, and took up a paid position as Registrar of Births and Deaths in Chorlton. This work gave her more insight into the conditions of women in the region and her observations of the differences between the lives of men and women, for example in relation to illegitimacy, reinforced her conviction that women needed the right to vote before their conditions could improve. In 1900 she was elected to the Manchester School Board and saw new examples of women suffering unequal treatment and limited opportunities.

By 1903, Emmeline was wholly skeptical that, after years of moderate speeches and broken promises about women's suffrage from members of parliament, political parties, with their many agenda items, would ever make women's suffrage a priority. Although suffrage bills in 1870, 1886, and 1897 had shown promise, each had been defeated. Her belief (or lack of) led to her breaking with the ILP when it refused to focus on Votes for Women. Instead, on 10th October 1903 Emmeline and several colleagues founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organisation open only to women and focused on direct action to win the vote. "Deeds," she wrote later, "not words, was to be our permanent motto.” The group's early militancy took non-violent forms such as making speeches and gathering petition signatures, organising rallies and publishing a newsletter called Votes for Women. As the WSPU gained recognition and notoriety for its actions, Emmeline resisted efforts to democratise the organisation itself which led to several frustrated members, including Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard, quitting to form their own organisation, the Women's Freedom League.

In 1909 the hunger strike was added to the WSPU's repertoire of resistance and members soon became known around the country for holding prolonged hunger strikes to protest their incarceration. Prison authorities frequently force-fed the women, using tubes inserted through the nose or mouth. The painful techniques (which, in the case of mouth-feeding, required the use of steel gags to force the mouth open) brought condemnation from suffragists and medical professionals.

The tactics employed by the WSPU caused tension between them and more moderate organisations, which had coalesced into the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett. She originally hailed WSPU members for their courage and dedication to the cause, but by 1912 she declared that hunger strikes were mere publicity stunts and that militant activists were "the chief obstacles in the way of the success of the suffrage movement in the House of Commons." The NUWSS refused to join a march of women's suffrage groups after demanding without success that the WSPU end its support of property destruction. Fawcett's sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (England's first qualified female physician and surgeon) later resigned from the WSPU for similar reasons.

Rokeby Venus, slashed

In 1912 WSPU members adopted arson as another tactic to win the vote. Over the next two years women set fire to a refreshments building in Regent's Park, an orchid house at Kew Gardens, pillar boxes, and a railway carriage. And then, in what is arguably the most famous of all events in the fight for women's suffrage, Emily Davison threw herself under the Kings Horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Her funeral drew 55,000 attendees along the streets and at the funeral and gave significant publicity to the movement, leading to similar violent incidents around the country. In 1914 the Canadian suffragette Mary Richardson slashed the Velasquez painting Rokeby Venus to protest against Emmeline's imprisonment.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

The WSPU's approval of property destruction led to the departure of several important members, including Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband Frederick who were unceremoniously kicked out whilst on holiday in Canada. Around the same time, Emmeline's own daughter Adela left the group. She disapproved of WSPU endorsement of property destruction and felt that a heavier emphasis on socialism was necessary. Adela's relationship with her family – especially Christabel – was strained as a result. Emmeline decided that Adela should move to Australia, and paid for her relocation. They never saw one another again. Sylvia had been working with the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), a local branch of the WSPU which had a close relationship with socialists and organised labour, but Christabel had become convinced that her sister was organising a group that might challenge the WSPU in the suffrage movement. With their mother's blessing, Christabel ordered Sylvia's group to dissociate from the WSPU bu removing the word "suffragettes" from its name. When Sylvia refused, Emmeline wrote her an angry letter:

“You are unreasonable, always have been & I fear always will be. I suppose you were made so! ... Had you chosen a name which we could approve we could have done much to launch you & advertise your society by name. Now you must take your own way of doing so. I am sorry but you make your own difficulties by an incapacity to look at situations from other people's point of view as well as your own. Perhaps in time you will learn the lessons that we all have to learn in life.”

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Emmeline and Christabel considered that the threat posed by Germany was a danger to all humanity, and that the British government needed the support of all men. They persuaded the WSPU to halt all militant suffrage activities until fighting on the European mainland ended. They then set the WSPU into motion on behalf of the war effort; Emmeline putting the same energy and determination she had previously applied to women's suffrage into patriotic advocacy of the war effort. She organised rallies, toured constantly delivering speeches, and lobbied the government to help women enter the work force while men were overseas fighting. She also attempted to shame men into volunteering for the front lines. Sylvia and Adela, meanwhile, did not share their mother's enthusiasm for the war. As committed pacifists, they rejected the WSPU's support for the government. Sylvia's socialist perspective convinced her that the war was another example of capitalist oligarchs exploiting poor soldiers and workers. Adela, meanwhile, spoke against the war in Australia and made public her opposition to conscription.

Another issue which concerned Emmeline greatly at the time was the plight of so-called war babies, children born to single mothers whose fathers were on the front lines and established an adoption home at Campden Hill. Due to lack of funds, however, the home was soon turned over to Princess Alice. Emmeline herself adopted four children, whom she renamed Kathleen King, Flora Mary Gordon, Joan Pembridge and Elizabeth Tudor. They lived in London, where–for the first time in many years–she had a permanent home, at Holland Park.

When, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act removed property restrictions on men's suffrage and granted the vote to women over the age of 30 (with several restrictions), suffragists and suffragettes alike celebrated this not inconsequential win. In the years after, Emmeline continued to promote her nationalist vision of British unity. As a result of her many trips to North America, Emmeline became fond of Canada and in 1922 applied for Canadian "permission to land", renting a house in Toronto, where she moved with her four adopted children. She became active with the Canadian National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases (CNCCVD), which worked against the sexual double standard which Emmeline considered particularly harmful to women. During a tour of Bathurst, the mayor showed her a new building which would become the Home for Fallen Women. She replied: "Ah! Where is your Home for Fallen Men?" It wasn't long, however, before she grew tired of long Canadian winters, and she ran out of money. She returned to England in late 1925.

Sylvia and Richard

The following year she joined the Conservative Party and two years later ran as a candidate for Parliament in Whitechapel and St George's. Her transformation from a fiery supporter of the ILP and window-smashing radical to an official Conservative Party member surprised many people. She replied succinctly: "My war experience and my experience on the other side of the Atlantic have changed my views considerably.” However, her campaign for Parliament was pre-empted by her ill health and the news in April 1928 that Sylvia had given birth out of wedlock. She had named the child Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst, in memory of her father, her ILP comrade, and her colleagues from the WSPU respectively. These offences against the social dignity which Pankhurst had always valued devastated the elderly woman. As her health went downhill, Emmeline moved into a nursing home in Hampstead On Thursday 14 June 1928 Pankhurst died, at the age of 69. She was interred in Brompton Cemetery in London.

Emmeline Pankhurst, Victoria Tower Gardens

News of Emmeline Pankhurst's death was announced around the country, and extensively in North America. Her funeral service on 18th June 1928 was filled with her former WSPU colleagues and those who had worked beside her in various capacities. The Daily Mail described the procession as "like a dead general in the midst of a mourning army”. Press coverage around the world recognised her tireless work on behalf of women's right to vote – even if they did not agree on the value of her contributions. The New York Herald Tribune called her "the most remarkable political and social agitator of the early part of the twentieth century and the supreme protagonist of the campaign for the electoral enfranchisement of women.” Emmeline Pankhurst's memorial statue (1930), by Arthur George Walker, was erected with unusual speed, in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to and gesturing towards the Houses of Parliament. A proposal to move the statue of Pankhurst away from the Houses of Parliament to the private Regent's University London in Regent's Park was submitted to Westminster City Council planning department in July 2018 by former Conservative MP Sir Neil Thorne. This proposal was withdrawn in September 2018 after widespread anger and a public campaign against it.

During the twentieth century Emmeline's value to the movement for women's suffrage was debated passionately, with no consensus reached. Recent biographies show that historians differ about whether her militancy helped or hurt the movement; however, there is general agreement that the WSPU raised public awareness of the movement in ways that proved essential. In 1987 one of her homes in Manchester was opened as the Pankhurst Centre, an all-women gathering space and museum. In January 2016, following a public vote, it was announced that a statue of Emmeline would be unveiled in Manchester in 2019, making her the first woman to be honoured with a statue in the city since Queen Victoria more than 100 years ago. This, in fact, happened on 14th December 2018, one hundred years after British women were first able to vote in the 1918 UK general election. Her name and image and those of 58 other women's suffrage supporters including her daughters are etched on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London that was unveiled in 2018.

If you'd like to read more about Sylvia Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett and other prominent feminists, please head to the Portrait Highlights series area of the blog.


Emmeline Pankhurst, pen on paper (2021)

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