Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Emmeline Pankhurst: Deeds Not Words

Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst (born 15 July 1858)

I've already noted two key British suffrage activists, the sisters Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, but today's posting, for Emmeline Pankhurst, focuses on perhaps the most prominent figure in the cause of women's suffrage in Britain.

For what it's worth, Pankhurst was also included as one of the twentieth century's one hundred "most influential people" in Time magazine's end-of-the-century round-up, along with Einstein, the Roosevelts (Eleanor as well as Theodore and Franklin), Stalin, and Gandhi--but, then, the list included Lucille Ball and Bart Simpson, so, as I say, "for what it's worth." Though Aretha was on the list too, so there is that.)

Emmeline Pankhurst, c. 1913
Anyway, born on 15 July 1858, Emmeline Goulden was the daughter of a Manchester businessman, Robert Goulden, and Sophia Crane, both politically active--Robert Goulden campaigning against slavery, among other social causes, Sophia Crane Goulden a feminist who actively supported women's suffrage. As a friend of John Stewart Mill, Robert Goulden also supported the suffrage movement.

Despite their progressive politics, however, neither of Emmeline's parents was interested in educating their daughters in the same way they educated their sons.

As early as 1868, Emmeline and her younger sister Mary attended a suffrage demonstration; by 1872 she had attended her first suffrage meeting. A year later, in 1873, she was sent to the École Normale de Neuilly, but there she learned more than the kinds of conventional training in domestic skills that her parents seemed to consider all that was essential for girls. (Later, in her autobiography, she would write, "It used to puzzle me to understand why I was under such a particular obligation to make home attractive to my brothers. We were on excellent terms of friendship, but it was never suggested to them as a duty that they make home attractive to me.")

The school provided its female students, like Emmeline Goulden, a program that included chemistry and bookkeeping in addition to the kinds of finishing-school education most girls usually received. Soon after her return to Manchester in 1878, Emmeline Goulden met Richard Pankhurst; the two were married in 1879.

The marriage was reasonably happy--Richard Pankhurst had previously sworn to remain a bachelor so he could devote himself to public service, including drafting the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 allowing unmarried female householders a vote in local elections. The couple had four children in their first six years of marriage, including three daughters, Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela, all of whom would join their mother in the suffrage cause. (A son, Francis, died at the age of four in 1888; Pankhurst gave birth to another boy in 1889.)

In 1889, after some disappointment with the direction other women's suffrage groups had been taking, Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst founded the Women's Franchise League, a "radical" group that not only advocated for the vote for both married and unmarried women but also supported unions and advocated reforms in marriage and property laws (in particular in relationship to divorce and inheritance). The group's political aims and ambitions caused it to fall apart.

Emmeline Pankhurst at the podium, 1905, in front of
the WSPU slogan, "Deeds Not Words."
By the time Richard Pankhurst died in 1898, Christabel had joined her mother in the suffrage cause (as would Sylvia and Adela).

In 1903, disillusioned with established suffrage organizations and tired of the parliamentary promises that failed to result in action, Pankhurst and a group of like-minded women founded the Women's Social and Political Union--a militant group whose activities soon moved from non-violent to violent, a group whose chosen motto was "Deeds Not Words."

Christabel was arrested in 1905 for spitting at a police officer, Sylvia and Adela the next year for protesting outside parliament. Refusing to pay fines, women were sent to prison for their political activities.

By 1908, the group had rallied a crowd of 500,000 in Hyde Park. Protestors threw rocks at the windows of 10 Downing Street; twenty-seven women, including Emmeline Pankhurst, were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to six weeks imprisonment. And women added hunger striking to their list of militant tactics--arrested again in October 1908, this time for producing an inflammatory handbill, Emmeline and the women imprisoned with her began a hunger strike (she is reported to have endured ten hunger strikes during one eighteen-month period.) Authorities responded by force feeding. Mary Clarke, Pankhurst's sister, was one of several women who died as a result of these brutal procedures. (For an essay from The Guardian describing the forcible feeding of women imprisoned for their militancy, click here.)

Afraid of the increasing violence, Emmeline Pankhurst's daughter Adela left the WSPU in 1911; her sister Sylvia also expressed her doubts. Undaunted, in 1912, Emmeline Pankhurst and her WSPU continued their window-smasing campaign, and Pankhurst spent another period in prison, undergoing yet another hunger strike. After her release, she went even further, advocating arson attacks--this resulted in Sylvia, too, leaving the WSPU. 

The outbreak of the first world war, in 1914, halted the activities of both the militant WSPU and the more moderate National Union of Suffrage Societies (and members like Millicent Fawcett and Elizabeth Anderson). Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst worked on behalf of the war effort (Adela and Sylvia were both committed pacifists).

After the war, in 1918, women--or, at least, some women--finally gained the right to vote. The 1918 Representation of the People Act, passed in February, gave women who were at least thirty years old the right to vote if they were property owners. (According to the UK Parliamentary website: "The age 30 requirement was to ensure women did not become the majority of the electorate. If women had been enfranchised based upon the same requirements as men, they would have been in the majority, due to the loss of men in the war.")

Although it is frequently said that Pankhurst ultimately witnessed the passage of the 1928 Representation of the People Act--the "Equal Franchise Act" that removed the various qualifications on women and granted them the same right to vote as men--she did not. Emmeline Pankhurst died on 14 June 1928--the bill was introduced into Parliament in March, but it did not pass and become law until 2 July 1928. 

There are many excellent biographies of Emmeline Pankhurst, so rather than suggesting a book about her, I'll link to work by her. You can read her autobiography via Project Gutenburg (click here) or at the Internet Archive (click here).

You can also read one of her great speeches, "Freedom or Death," delivered in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1913.

On 6 March 1930, a statue of Pankhurst was unveiled,
Victoria Tower Gardens
(with Westerminster in the background)

The sculpture today.

Update, February 2018: In honor of the centenary of some British women at last gaining the right to vote (the 1918 Representation of the People Act, 6 February 1918), the BBC's History Extra podcast has produced two excellent shows: "The Suffragettes" and "The Pankhursts." Enjoy!