"They have fought the Bolshevist and Pacifist element with great skill, tenacity, and courage."
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Emmeline Pankhurst was a British political activist and leader of the Britishsuffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote. In 1999 Time named Pankhurst as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating:
"she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back."
She was widely criticised for her militant tactics, and historians disagree about their effectiveness, but her work is recognised as a crucial element in achieving women's suffrage in Britain.
Born in Moss Side, Manchester, to politically active parents, Pankhurst was introduced at the age of 8 to the women's suffrage movement. Although her parents encouraged her to prepare herself for life as a wife and mother, she attended the École Normale de Neuilly in Paris.
On December 18, 1879 she married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister 24 years her senior known for supporting women's right to vote; they had five children over the next ten years. He supported her activities outside the home, and she founded and became involved with the Women's Franchise League, which advocated suffrage for both married and unmarried women. When that organisation broke apart, she tried to join the left-leaning Independent Labour Party through her friendship with socialist Keir Hardie but was initially refused membership by the local branch on account of her sex. While working as a Poor Law Guardian, she was shocked at the harsh conditions she encountered in Manchester's workhouses.
In 1903, five years after her husband died, Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), an all-women suffrage advocacy organization dedicated to "deeds, not words."
The group identified as independent from – and often in opposition to – political parties. It became known for physical confrontations: its members smashed windows and assaulted police officers. Pankhurst, her daughters, and other WSPU activists were sentenced to repeated prison sentences, where they staged hunger strikes to secure better conditions. As Pankhurst's oldest daughter Christabel took leadership of the WSPU, antagonism between the group and the government grew. Eventually the group adopted arson as a tactic, and more moderate organisations spoke out against the Pankhurst family.
In 1913 several prominent individuals left the WSPU, among them Pankhurst's daughtersAdela and Sylvia. Emmeline was so furious that she "gave [Adela] a ticket, £20, and a letter of introduction to a suffragette in Australia, and firmly insisted that she emigrate," in which she complied. The family rift was never healed. Sylvia became a socialist.
With the advent of the First World War, Emmeline and Christabel called an immediate halt to militant suffrage activism in support of the British government's stand against the "German Peril." They urged women to aid industrial production and encouraged young men to fight, becoming prominent figures in the white feather movement.
In 1918 the Representation of the People Act granted votes to all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30.
This discrepancy was intended to ensure that men did not become minority voters as a consequence of the huge number of deaths suffered during the First World War. Pankhurst transformed the WSPU machinery into the Women's Party, which was dedicated to promoting women's equality in public life. In her later years she became concerned with what she perceived as the menace posed by Bolshevism and joined the Conservative Party, and was selected as a Conservative Party candidate for Stepney in 1927.
She died on 14 June 1928, only weeks before the Conservative government's Representation of the People Act (1928) extended the vote to all women over 21 years of age on 2 July 1928.
She was commemorated two years later with a statue in London's Victoria Tower Gardens.
- Christabel Pankhurst
- Sylvia Pankhurst
- Francis Henry (1884-1888)
- Adela Pankhurst
- Henry Francis (1889-1910)
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