Visible Women

This new BBC documentary about Emmeline Pankhurst is a must-watch

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Moya Crockett
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Emmeline Pankhurst: The Making of a Militant will explore the woman behind the myth. 

Ninety years after her death, Emmeline Pankhurst is still the most famous member of the British women’s suffrage movement. We know what she looked like: that high-cheekboned, imperious face, topped with a fluffy Victorian up-do, is instantly recognisable. We know what she fought for, and how: Pankhurst’s militant, fearless approach to winning the vote for women, encapsulated in the famous photo of her being dragged away by police outside Buckingham Palace, is the stuff of legend. But how much do we actually know about the woman who led the battle for the vote?

A new BBC Four documentary, Emmeline Pankhurst: The Making of a Militant, sheds light on Pankhurst’s personal story and reveals what led her to dedicate decades of her life to the women’s suffrage movement. Presented by Sally Lindsay, the documentary explores how Pankhurst – a lower middle-class girl from Moss Side in Manchester – first became interested in women’s rights.

It also delves into why Pankhurst became convinced that extreme tactics were essential if women wanted the vote. The organisation that she founded in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was famous for its slogan “Deeds Not Words”, and its leader was an outspoken advocate for direct action. 

Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested at a suffragette protest outside Buckingham Palace, 1914 

Militant suffragettes, led by Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, set letterboxes alight or poured acid into them to destroy their contents. They smashed thousands of shop and office windows with hammers, slashed paintings in galleries, cut telephone wires, and planted bombs in St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and near the Bank of England. 

They also had a penchant for setting buildings on fire – including the (empty) houses of prominent members of society and venues that were the preserve of men, such as cricket pavilions and horse racing tracks. 

The suffragettes’ methods for campaigning for the vote were deeply unpopular, and created a rift between them and suffragists such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who advocated for a moderate, peaceable approach. In The Making of a Militant, Lindsay visits Manchester to discover how Pankhurst’s own life experiences – including her time working in the city’s poorest districts, her marriage to a committed male feminist and civil rights activist, and significant financial hardship – shaped her radical political beliefs.

The documentary also recruits surviving members of Pankhurst’s family, including Stylist contributing editor Helen Pankhurst, to share their insights into their famous relative. 

Emmeline Pankhurst: The Making of a Militant airs at 7.30pm on BBC Four, Monday 18 June.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images