Visible Women

“Emmeline Pankhurst wasn’t perfect, but she was still a hero”

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Moya Crockett
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14 July is Emmeline Pankhurst Day. The leading suffragette was flawed, divisive and autocratic – and we should never forget her. 

When it comes to female icons, it’s sometimes tempting to ignore or brush over their less pleasant attributes. It’s comforting to imagine that we would like our heroes, if we ever met them. But of course, being likeable is a trait that’s rarely demanded from men, whether they’re politicians or musicians, from the past or the present day. We should be able to see trailblazing women in their totality: to recognise the seismic contributions they made to society, while also acknowledging their serious flaws. A woman you’d want in charge of a revolution is not necessarily a woman you’d want to go on holiday with, and that’s OK.

Emmeline Pankhurst was one such woman. The leading suffragette was a pivotal figure in the fight for women’s right to the vote, thanks to the militant tactics of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation she founded in 1903 and led until 1918.

Without Pankhurst’s courageous, committed and radical leadership, it’s questionable whether any British women would have won the vote a century ago – but she could also be severe and autocratic, with some political views that make for uneasy reading in 2018. This is her story.

Pankhurst as a young woman 

The beginning

Pankhurst was born into a middle-class family in Manchester in 1858. Her birth certificate records her date of birth as 15 July, but she always believed she was born a day earlier, on Bastille Day. Bastille Day commemorates a key moment in the French Revolution, and Pankhurst often spoke of how inspiring she found it to be born on a day associated with radical politics.

Her parents Sophia and Robert were politically active, and Sophia in particular has been widely credited with introducing her daughter to the women’s suffrage movement. Aged 14, Pankhurst accompanied her mother to a talk by the suffragist Lydia Becker. Pankhurst would later write: “I left the meeting a conscious and confirmed suffragist.”

At 20, she married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister 24 years her senior. Pankhurst was a proud socialist who believed in women’s suffrage, free secular education for all, Irish home rule, the abolition of the House of Lords and independence for India. Years before he met Emmeline, he drafted the first bill for the enfranchisement of women ever presented to parliament. He also wrote the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, which allowed women to keep their own earnings and property after they got married.

Pankhurst (centre) with daughter Christabel (second left) and WSPU supporters after Christabel’s release from prison, 1908

Moves, births, deaths and work

The Pankhursts moved from Manchester to London in 1885, and their home in Russell Square quickly became a gathering place for prominent socialists and suffragists. (The term ‘suffragette’, originally meant as a disparaging term for militant suffragists, would not be coined by the Daily Mail – and subsequently reclaimed by the women it was meant to demean – until 1906.)

By this point, the Pankhursts had four children: Christabel, Estelle (known by her middle name of Sylvia), Francis and Adela. (Francis died from diphtheria in 1888, and the Pankhursts would later have another son, Henry.) 

The couple founded suffrage campaign group the Women’s Franchise League in 1889, but Richard struggled to find work in London, and the family returned to Manchester.

Richard died unexpectedly in 1898, and Pankhurst was forced to move her family to a smaller house on Nelson Street (now the Pankhurst Centre) and find paid work. She got a job as a registrar of births and deaths in Chorlton, an experience she would later cite as a formative one.

“I was shocked to be reminded over and over again of the little respect there was in the world for women and children,” she later wrote in her autobiography My Own Story. “I have had little girls of 13 come to my office to register the births of their babies.” Her commitment to securing equal rights for women intensified. 

Pankhurst delivering a speech, date unknown 

The creation of the WSPU

By the early 20th century, Pankhurst had grown frustrated with the suffragist groups that had coalesced under the banner of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1867. Their tactics, she believed, were too moderate, too slow-moving and too concerned with ‘respectability’. 

They were also manifestly ineffective. Between 1866 and 1902, many petitions, bills and resolutions went before the House of Commons as a result of NUWSS campaigning. Every single one had been rejected.

Supported by several other women who had become disillusioned with the NUWSS, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in October 1903. Her elder daughters Christabel and Sylvia, then aged 23 and 21, also joined the group. From the beginning, the WSPU prioritised direct action. “Deeds,” Pankhurst later wrote, “not words, was to be our permanent motto.”

At first, women in the WSPU focused on making speeches, gathering petitions, organising rallies and publishing pamphlets and newsletters to garner support for their cause. It wasn’t until two years later that their tactics became militant. 

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Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in prison dress

Moves towards militancy

In 1905, Christabel and Annie Kenney – a working-class suffragette from Lancashire – attended a Liberal party rally in Manchester. During the meeting, Kenney and Christabel stood up and unfurled a banner reading ‘Will You Give Votes for Women?’

They were swiftly thrown out of the hall, but Christabel knew their protest would get in the newspapers if she was arrested – thus raising awareness of the WSPU and its goals. She spat at a policeman, a criminal offence, and both she and Kenney were sent to prison. Their trial received heavy media coverage, and more and more women joined the WSPU.

After Christabel’s imprisonment, Pankhurst took the WSPU in an increasingly combative direction. The group became famous for smashing windows, cutting electricity wires, chaining themselves to railings, blowing up post boxes and slashing paintings. In return, they were imprisoned, force-fed and assaulted. Pankhurst was arrested in February 1908 after she tried to enter parliament to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister, and was sentenced to six weeks in prison. (She would go on to be jailed and released 13 times, and was force-fed after going on hunger strike in 1912.) 

In October 1908, Pankhurst organised a ‘rush’ on parliament, which saw 60,000 people gather in Parliament Square as suffragettes attempted to enter the House of Commons. By the end of that year, the WSPU was more popular than the Labour party.

The group’s tactics became even more extreme in 1913, as they began setting fire to and even bombing houses belonging to male politicians. That summer, suffragette Emily Davison died after running out in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. While many people opposed the WSPU’s militant tactics, Pankhurst believed fervently that the suffragettes had been left with no other choice.

“You know perfectly well that there never was a thing worth having that was not worth fighting for,” she said at a rally in 1913, addressing the men in the crowd. “You know perfectly well that if the situation were reversed, if you had no constitutional rights and we had all of them … you wouldn’t stand it for a single day.”

In her autobiography, she pointed out that men were often praised for taking direct action, whereas women were condemned. “The militancy of men, through all the centuries, has drenched the world with blood, and for these deeds of horror and destruction men have been rewarded with monuments, with great songs and epics.” 

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Pankhurst being arrested outside Buckingham Palace for trying to deliver a petition to the King 

Rows and rifts

As with any political movement, the WSPU was rife with divisions and conflicts. Pankhurst and Christabel, her favourite daughter and right-hand woman, believed they couldn’t afford to waste time by debating how the WSPU should operate or what issues it should prioritise. Consequently, they ran the organisation more like a dictatorship than a democracy, often refusing to listen to other members’ views.

In 1913, several prominent individuals left the WSPU, among them Pankhurst’s daughters Adela and Sylvia. Both women were socialists who felt the WSPU had become too concerned with the needs of middle- and upper-class women, while Adela strongly disagreed with the destruction of property as a protest method.

Adela later moved to Australia, and Sylvia’s rift with her mother and Christabel never healed. 

From L-R: Emmeline Pankhurst with daughters Christabel and Sylvia 

War and victory

When the First World War began in 1914, the WSPU ended all its militant activities and agreed to help the British government with the war effort in exchange for all suffragettes being released from prison. Pankhurst and Christabel began organising pro-war rallies, denouncing Germany, speaking at meetings to recruit young men into the army, and encouraging their supporters to volunteer in factories and on farms.

Pankhurst was also deeply troubled by the rise in illegitimate children seen during the war. This phenomenon was attributed to soldiers being stationed at military camps around the country and impregnating local women who they never planned to marry. In 1915, she formally adopted four so-called “war babies”, and in 1917 set up an adoption home in Holland Park. 

Pankhurst’s enthusiasm for the war effort appalled her daughters Sylvia and Adela, who were pacifists. Many other women in the WSPU were astonished that Pankhurst, once so virulently opposed to any male politician who wasn’t actively engaged in the women’s suffrage movement – who said that “every man with a vote was considered a foe to woman suffrage unless he was prepared to be actively a friend” – was now so vocally supportive of the government.

But backing the war was a canny move. Many historians believe WWI played a key role in helping secure women’s suffrage, as it became increasingly difficult for male politicians to argue that women didn’t deserve the vote – or couldn’t be trusted with it – after female volunteers stepped up to serve their country.

Being at war with Germany also made the battle over voting rights seem rather insignificant. In May 1917, the then-home secretary George Cave summed up this change in mood in a speech in parliament: “War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides.”

Less than a year later, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, giving around 8.4 million women over the age of 30 the right to vote. 

Pankhurst photographed for Time magazine in 1926 

After the vote

Once the Representation of the People Act was passed, Pankhurst largely retired from campaigning for votes for women, despite the fact that millions of younger and working-class women were still disenfranchised. She was almost 60, and while she still hoped for universal women’s suffrage, she turned her attention instead to raising the alarm about Bolshevism, which she saw as a major threat to world peace.

Partly thanks to her fear of communism, Pankhurst became surprisingly conservative in later life. An unabashed imperialist, she was prone to zealous defences of the British Empire, something that casts an unpleasant shadow over her popular image as a progressive radical. In 1926, she joined the Conservative Party, and ran as a Tory parliamentary candidate in east London two years later. 

Her election campaign was disrupted by scandal, however, when Sylvia announced she had had a child out of wedlock. Pankhurst had been suffering with ill health for some time, thanks in no small part to the punishing months she had spent in prison and on hunger strike. Her estranged daughter’s news affected her profoundly, and her health deteriorated even further.

Eventually, Pankhurst moved into a nursing home in Hampstead, where she requested she be treated by the doctor who cared for her during her hunger strikes in prison. She died on 14 June 1928. Less than three weeks later, a law was passed giving all women in Britain the same voting rights as men.

Pankhurst wasn’t perfect. But if we demand perfection from our female heroes, we’re unlikely to be able to find many. She could be jingoistic, narrow-minded and judgemental -but she was also powerful, intelligent, passionate and staggeringly brave. We all, each and every one of us, owe her an enormous debt.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s best quotes

“It is obvious to you that the struggle will be an unequal one, but I shall make it – I shall make it as long as I have an ounce of strength left in me, or any life left in me.”

“Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it.”

“I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion.”

“Be militant each in your own way, I accept the responsibility for everything you do!”

“We women, in trying to make our case clear, always have to make as part of our argument, and urge upon men in our audience the fact – a very simple fact – that women are human beings.”

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of inspiring women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images