A Historical Figure’s Memory Still Vital Today

In the early years of the 20th century, women in Europe began to rise up to fight for their right to vote.  

One of these women was British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst.  She led the women’s suffrage movement by employing militant tactics, such as destruction of property, hunger strikes, and crashing Labor Party meetings, and changed these tactics depending on the actions or inactions of the Parliament.  

Her ability to adjust the movement’s demonstrations and responses to the British government’s actions helped bring about the votes for women and the wider place of women in British society in the years after her death and up to the present day.

Emmeline Pankhurst was born Emmeline Goulden in Manchester, England, on July 14, 1858.  She grew up in a politically radical family, which influenced her activism later in her adolescence and the rest of her life.  After studying in Paris, she returned home and met Richard Pankhurst, whom she married in 1879.  He was a lawyer and very active in many political causes, including women’s suffrage.  He wrote a book called the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which permitted women the ability to keep what they earned or their property obtained before and after marriage.  He supported and encouraged Emmeline’s participation in their shared political causes.  They had five children, for which one of them, Frank, died in childhood.  The four living children were daughters, Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela, and son, Harry.  

Richard continued to encourage Emmeline’s passion for political causes, as well as, and especially, women’s suffrage.  

This gesture was not the norm in English society at the time, where women were expected to tend to the children and the home as their primary duties and support their husbands in their endeavors.  Women were treated as second-class citizens with no voice in politics or social issues, such as the legal rules for men and women in marriages.[1]

Richard died nineteen years later in 1898, which struck Emmeline with much grief and shock.  She was then a widow with four children in which to care for, and in the first year following Richard’s death, Emmeline did get support from siblings and from friends by a fund that was established for Richard.  Emmeline moved the family into a smaller home in London and opened up a clothes and hat shop.  At that time, the Chorlton Board of Guardians also offered her a job as Registrar of Births and Deaths.  She accepted the position with the satisfaction of having a steady income and a pension.[2]               

In 1900, Emmeline was elected to the Manchester School Board as an Independent Labor Party candidate.  In late 1901, She and her oldest daughter, Christabel, who was considered her favorite according to Sylvia and Adela, joined the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage.  

In 1903, Pankhurst created her own all-women’s organization called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), in which their motto was Deeds Not Words.  Two years later, they were following bills in the Parliament pertaining to women’s suffrage, one of which was brought forth, but was not even voted on.  Instead, the men dismissed it and exchanged crude jokes about women and celebrated this dismissal at the end of the day.  

This would be the start to moving the movement to a more militant response to the British government.  Pankhurst and her group of women who had gathered in the waiting area outside the Commons, called the women to have a meeting to protest the government.  

This was the first confrontation the women had with the police, wherein the police attempted to stop the women by shoving the women down the House of Commons’ steps.  But Emmeline was resolute and pressed the police to tell her where their meeting could take place.  The police obliged her and led the group to a spot near the gate of West Minster Abbey, where Pankhurst proceeded to speak, with Keir Hardie, a Scottish man who was a member of the Labor Party in Parliament, standing beside her.  He was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage.[1]  

These rallies were carried on, as well as heckling members of the Labor Party in meetings.  In one of those meetings, Emmeline’s daughter, Christabel and another suffragette from WSPU were arrested.  They refused to pay the fine and were put in jail overnight.  When they were released the next day, their stories made the newspapers, and in this revelation of garnered attention through her daughter’s and sister suffragette’s actions, Pankhurst saw an avenue to take to increase notice and their message.  

She realized it would only be through more militant actions that disrupted the lives of those men in Parliament and businessmen that change could happen.  She employed such tactics as throwing rocks through store windows, setting incendiary bombs in empty homes and buildings, and slashing works of art at the National Gallery.  

In a letter to her WSPU readers, she dictated the importance of these destructive methods, in which she said that the level of militancy each woman did was of her own judgment, but it must be done at some level because, as she said, “I know that the defeat of the Amendments will prove to thousands of women that rely on peaceful, patient methods, is to court failure, and that militancy is inevitable.”[1]

In her most famous speech, “Freedom or Death,” given to an American audience in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 13, 1913, while on one of her short hiatuses from jail at that time, she explained more explicitly why she had employed the militant methods used by her and her group.  

She first explained how men had used violent methods in revolutions and revolts, such as the one in Ireland, to bring about the change they wanted, with both the acknowledgement and understanding that lives could and would be lost in these movements.  But, she herself, did not believe in losing lives in movements, especially her own.  She believed life to be sacred and only wished to stir these lives through destruction of property.  

She said in her speech, “We had to get the electors, we had to get the business interests, we had to get the professional interests, we had to get the men of leisure all unitedly saying to the government, relieve the strain of this situation and give women the vote,” and further along said, “There is a homely English proverb which may help to clear the situation which is this:  You cannot rouse the Britisher unless you touch his pocket.”  

She expressed that it is not through comfort but only through the continued discomfort felt by these people through destruction of their property, thus their loss of money (their pocket) that prompts them to want it to stop and therefore, capitulate to changing the laws on votes for women.[2]

Along with these tactics, another risky one was adopted while in jail by one of the suffragettes, which all followed:  hunger strikes.  

These also drew much attention and the early release of the women before they starved themselves to death.  

In counter to the women’s hunger strikes, the jail wardens and doctors violently force-fed some of these women, of which Emmeline wrote of one account in her book, My Story, 1914, of suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton.  She participated in many demonstrations that led to confrontations with the police in which many of her sister suffragettes were throttled.  Because of her status, she was not manhandled, but incensed over what she saw had happened to her sisters, she cut off all of her long hair, changed into tattered clothing, called herself “Jane Warton,” and went back out to march in the streets with the others and was arrested and put in jail.  

Because the police and jail wardens did not know her true identity, they did not give her special treatment and subjected her to forcible feedings.  

Being of higher social class, she was not accustomed to such rough treatment and forcible feedings, and Pankhurst wrote, “…she suffered frightful nausea each time, and when on one occasion the doctor’s clothing was soiled, he struck her contemptuously on the cheek.”  Emmeline said that this horrible treatment continued until her identity was revealed, and she was then released.  Pankhurst closed this story saying, “…she never recovered from the experience, and is now a hopeless invalid.”[3]  Pankhurst, herself, was never subjected to forcible feedings.  

Women made great sacrifices for the cause of votes for women. 

In giving women the right to vote, it would give them power to change laws in areas concerning women, such as marriage, divorce, and later on, equal wages in the workplace and rights to contraception and abortions (**this is a historical paper stating facts. As a pro-lifer, obviously I have some views on the latter, but this essay isn’t about my personal thoughts, other than the advancement of women being active and valued participants in their societies and treated with respect).  

In Britain in the few years before World War One, Emmeline had explained in her speech in Connecticut that women had no voice in the raising of their children, in where they went to school.  They were paid much lower wages than men and if they were widows, women who had siblings or parents to take care of, how were they to support them and their families?  

She spoke of girls lawfully married at age twelve, and for wives, all of the sacrifice, effort, tears, and joy they put into raising their children and taking care of their husbands was taken away from them and left penniless if a husband decided to leave his wife.  

The laws needed to be changed, and these laws could only be changed if women were given the power to vote because then they had a voice and eventually a spot in Parliament to change such laws.[4]  

Emmeline was a charismatic woman and leader who galvanized all women and women’s groups, but her group was the only one that was all women and made militancy part of their strategy for votes for women.  She did have support at times from the leader of the women’s suffrage group, The National Union of Woman’s Suffrage Societies, Millicent Garrett Fawcett.  Their group was more reserved and tried to make changes through letters and meetings, which did not garner much attention from the men in Parliament.  

Some women were part of the Socialist Party and did also rally for votes for women but were more centered on equal wages.  One of the women who was most opposed to Pankhurst and her style used in her movement was her own daughter, Sylvia, who was a socialist, feminist, and pacifist.  

When World War One broke out, Emmeline called a halt to WSPU’s militant methods and encouraged the suffragettes to help in the factories and support the men going to the front.  

Sylvia was angered by her mother’s support of the war and her perceived belief that her mother was obsessed with her cause and too centered just on votes for women.  Sylvia protested against the war and continued the fight for women in the workplace throughout the war, and she ended up writing two books on the women’s movement in Britain and a personal account that showed resentment toward her mother.  

Her book became very well-known and was adopted by many feminist socialists in the subsequent decades.  There were also women that admired her.  One of those women was suffragette, Rebecca West, who was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union.  She had written positive words in regards to Pankhurst, saying, “There has been no other woman like Emmeline Pankhurst.  She was courageous, small, and fragile…. She put herself in the way of horses’ hooves, she stood up on platforms under a reign of missiles, she sat in the darkness of underground jails hunger struck…”[5]  

After the Great War, Emmeline was much older, and she had lost interest in the Labor Party and socialism.  She still carried on her cause for votes for women, but without the militancy practiced in the early years of the movement before the war.  She believed to make headway for women, the former tactics were not needed.  

She had said of this, “Now, I think I deserve to be allowed to work for the general questions affecting women and the country generally.”  

Emmeline Pankhurst died on June 14, 1928, before she could finish campaigning as a candidate for the Conservative Party.  

A month later on July 2, a law established voting rights for women equal to men.  Two years later, Emmeline Pankhurst was recognized for her achievements with the unveiling of a statue made in her honor next to the House of Commons.[6]  

Presently, this year (2017), a statue is in the works in honor of Mrs. Pankhurst.  

Emmeline’s great-granddaughter, Helen, was there collaborating with 19 top sculptors.  She said that people recognize her name, Pankhurst, and said, “…they say, ‘I voted because of your great grandmother.”  It is to be completed in 2019, and presented in St. Peter’s Square in Manchester, England.[7]

With the progressive hard work of Pankhurst and her group, she helped to give visibility to women’s causes and votes for women in British society.  Through her work, many women, including her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, in different ways, carried on her work and inspiration to the subsequent generations of women, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, which brought about women’s rights to divorce, and more in Europe and elsewhere.[8]  Their fight for equal pay continues today.  




      1.  Jane Purvis, “Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), Suffragette Leader and Single Parent in Edwardian Britain,” Women’s History Review 20, no. 2 (February 2011), 87-108, accessed July 21, 2016, http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b80666a7-b246-4bcb-b327-0fdb04cbc9c2%40sessionmgr101&vid=3&hid=111

      2.  Ibid.

      3.  Carl Rollyson, “A Conservative Revolutionary:  Emmeline Pankhurst (1857-1928),” VQR 92, no. 3, last modified 2003, accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.vqronline.org/essay/conservative-revolutionary-emmeline-pankhurst-1857-1928

4.  “The Suffragettes:  Deeds not words,” The National Archives, accessed July 26, 2016, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/education/suffragettes.pdf

      5.  Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” The Guardian, last modified April 27, 2007, accessed July 13, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches2

      6.  Emmeline Pankhurst, “My Story, 1914,” Europe in the Contemporary World:  1900 to the Present, (Boston/New York:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 107-110.

      7.  Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” The Guardian, last modified April 27, 2007, accessed July 13, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches2

      8.  Carl Rollyson, “A Conservative Revolutionary:  Emmeline Pankhurst (1857-1928),” VQR 92, no. 3, last modified 2003, accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.vqronline.org/essay/conservative-revolutionary-emmeline-pankhurst-1857-1928

      9.  Ibid.

      10.  Jennifer Williams, “Emmeline Pankhurst statue will be ‘rallying point for modern feminists’,” Manchester Evening News, last modified July 20, 2016, accessed July 24, 2016, http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/emmeline-pankhurst-statue-rallying-point-11640431

      11.  Felix Gilbert and David Clay Large, The End of the European Era:  1890 to the Present, (New York:  Norton and Company, 2009)

      3.  Carl Rollyson, “A Conservative Revolutionary:  Emmeline Pankhurst (1857-1928),” VQR 92, no. 3, last modified 2003, accessed July 14, 2016, http://www.vqronline.org/essay/conservative-revolutionary-emmeline-pankhurst-1857-1928

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