Emmeline Pankhurst

Background

The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 extend the right to vote to all British men. But women are excluded. Women and their supporters unite to fight for full and equal voting rights.

Mini biography

Born Emmeline Goulden on 14 July 1858 in Manchester, England.

1879 - She marries Richard Marsden Pankhurst, a lawyer who drafted an amendment to the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 which allowed unmarried women householders to vote in local elections, and who wrote the Married Women's Property Acts in 1870 and 1882.

1880 - Her daughter Christabel Harriette Pankhurst is born. The first of Pankhurst's five children, Christabel is destined to also become prominent in the women's suffrage movement, as is Pankhurst's second daughter, Sylvia, born in 1882.

1889 - She helps found the Women's Franchise League.

1894 - The league wins the right for married women to vote in elections for local offices, but not the right for them to vote for the House of Commons.

1895 - She holds a succession of municipal offices in Manchester.

1898 - Her husband, Richard, dies of a perforated ulcer.

1903 - She founds the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester.

1905 - The suffrage movement attracts wide attention in October when two of its members, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, are jailed. After being thrown out of a Liberal Party election rally for demanding a statement about votes for women, the two were arrested in the street for a technical assault on the police but refused to pay their fines.

1906 - Pankhurst directs WSPU activities from London. She organises marches and rallies and campaigns against the Liberal government's candidates at elections. Her followers interrupt meetings of Cabinet ministers. The women are disparaged as "suffragettes" by the 'Daily Mail' newspaper but the movement proudly adopts the description.

1908-09 - She is jailed three times.

1910 - On 18 November a deputation from the WSPU including Pankhurst attempts to gain admission to the House of Commons to see Prime Minister Asquith and protest against the dropping of the Conciliation Bill, which would have given women the vote. Pankhurst is refused entry by the police. The protest develops into a riot when the women try to break through the police lines. Over 100 women are arrested on charges varying from disturbing the peace to assaulting police officers, although most charges are subsequently dropped. Many of the women accuse the police of brutality. The day comes to be known to the suffragettes as 'Black Friday'.

1912 - The WSPU becomes militant, with Christabel Pankhurst directing arson attacks, window smashing, picture slashing and hunger strikes from Paris, where she has fled to avoid arrest for conspiracy. Emmeline is arrested, released and rearrested 12 times within a year, serving a total of about 30 days jail. Under the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act of 1913 (the 'Cat and Mouse Act') hunger-striking prisoners could be freed for a time and then reimprisoned when strong enough to serve the rest of their sentences.

1914 - When the First World War breaks out Pankhurst and Christabel call off the suffrage campaign to support the war effort. The government releases all suffragist prisoners. During the war Pankhurst visits the United States, Canada, and Russia to encourage the mobilisation of women. After the war she lives in the US, Canada, and Bermuda for several years.

1917 - The WSPU changes its name to the Women's Party.

1918 - The Representation of People Act is passed in February. The act gives the vote to women over 30.

1926 - Pankhurst returns to England and is chosen as the Conservative candidate for an east London seat, but her health fails before she can be elected.

1928 - She dies on 14 June in London, a few weeks after the Representation of the People Act establishing voting equality for men and women is passed.

Comment

It seems incredible these days that women in the West were ever denied equal voting rights. It seems even more incredible that women in Britain had to fight for about 80 years and finally resort to violent protest to win this right. This wasn't the case elsewhere. Women in New Zealand obtained the vote peaceably in 1893. Australian women were given the franchise on 12 June 1902, 18 months after the country federated. Australian women were also the first in the world to be given the right to stand for parliament. Women in the US got the vote in 1920. There are heroes in all of these stories but the drama and significance of the struggle in Britain throws Emmeline Pankhurst's story into prominence.