Visible Women

Michelle Keegan discovers her remarkable connection to Emmeline Pankhurst

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Moya Crockett
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In the new series of Who Do You Think You Are?, Keegan learns about her family’s connections to the women’s suffrage movement.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Michelle Keegan had unearthed a family connection to the suffragettes while filming for BBC One genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? Now, in newly-released previews of the episode, the actor is seen discussing her pride at discovering that her great-great-grandmother was active in the fight for the vote.

Keegan, whose military drama Our Girl returns to BBC One on 5 June, learns that her great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Kerwin was a suffragist in the early 20th century. While her great-aunt Paula once told her that Elizabeth had campaigned for women’s suffrage, Keegan had always assumed this would be impossible to confirm, as working class women’s contributions to the movement were often not recorded.

However, researchers on Who Do You Think You Are? were able to locate census documents from 1911, showing that Elizabeth – who was living in poverty in Manchester at the time – listed her full-time occupation as a “suffragist”.

“She was proud, she was like, ‘This is me, and I’m writing that down,’” says Keegan.

Later documents from 1918, when the Representation of the People Act gave some women the right to vote for the first time, show that Elizabeth and her husband John were the first people in their neighbourhood to vote.

“That’s amazing. That’s unbelievable,” says Keegan. “It’s very empowering. I bet a lot of these women would have been fighting for this for years. This day would have meant a lot to them.”

Keegan in Our Girl 

In a final remarkable twist, Keegan also learns that suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst registered the birth of Elizabeth and John’s daughter. Pankhurst worked as a registrar of births and deaths in Manchester in the late 19th century, and later said that the experience shaped her belief in the need for gender equality.

In her 1914 autobiography My Own Story, Pankhurst wrote: “I was shocked to be reminded over and over again of the little respect there was in the world for women and children. I have had little girls of thirteen come to my office to register the births of their babies.”

As well as learning about her family’s radical feminist roots, Keegan’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? also sees her discovering that some of her ancestors came from Italy.

“I’m sure my great-great-great-grandkids would watch the show in 100 years from now and think no way were we part of the suffragette movement and no way we got Italian roots, so it’s something that has dawned that is really special that all the family members can look back on,” she says. 

“I can’t believe it’s only 100 years ago,” she continues. “If you say it in your head it doesn’t seem like very long. It wasn’t even that long ago when this happened.”

Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Michelle Keegan will air on BBC One on 6 June at 9pm. Read our interview with Keegan here – and if you want to discover if you have any suffragette ancestors of your own, this clever tool will help you do just that. 

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women – past and present – who’ve made a difference to society. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images / BBC One