Start With Her Death
News of Emmeline Pankhurst’s death was announced around the U.K., and extensively in North America. Her funeral service on June 18, 1928, was filled with her former WSPU colleagues and those who had worked beside her in various capacities.
The Daily Mail described the procession as “like a dead general in the midst of a mourning army.” Women wore WSPU sashes and ribbons, and the organization’s flag was carried alongside the Union Flag. Christabel and Sylvia (two of her daughters) appeared together at the service, the latter with her child. Adela (another daughter) did not attend. Press coverage around the world recognized her tireless work on behalf of women’s right to vote – even if they didn’t agree on the value of her contributions.
The New York Herald Tribune called her “the most remarkable political and social agitator of the early part of the twentieth century and the supreme protagonist of the campaign for the electoral enfranchisement of women.”
One of the Most Important People of the 20th Century
Emmeline Pankhurst (born Goulden; July 15, 1858) was a British political activist and leader of the British suffragette 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 criticized for her militant tactics, and historians disagree about their effectiveness, but her work is recognized as a crucial element in achieving women’s suffrage in Britain.
Founded the Women’s Social and Political Union
In 1898, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an all-women suffrage advocacy organization dedicated to “deeds, not words.”
The group placed itself separately from – and often in opposition to – political parties. The group quickly became infamous when 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 the helm of the WSPU, antagonism between the group and the government grew. Eventually arson became a common tactic among WSPU members, and more moderate organizations spoke out against the Pankhurst family. In 1913 several prominent individuals left the WSPU, among them Pankhurst’s daughters Adela and Sylvia. The family rift was never healed.
First World War
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. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act granted votes to women over the age of 30. 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 – unhappy with the political alternatives – joined the Conservative Party.
Just two year’s after her death in1928 she was commemorated with a statue in London’s Victoria Tower Gardens, quite an extraodinarily short time for such to happen.
Education as a Militant
In December 1894 she was elected to the local position of Poor Law Guardian. She was appalled by the conditions she witnessed first-hand in the Manchester workhouse:
“The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years old on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors … bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time … I found that there were pregnant women in that workhouse, scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their babies came into the world … Of course the babies are very badly protected … These poor, unprotected mothers and their babies I am sure were potent factors in my education as a militant”
Pankhurst immediately began to change these conditions, and established herself as a successful voice of reform on the Board of Guardians. Her chief opponent was a passionate man named Mainwaring, known for his rudeness. Recognizing that his loud anger was hurting his chances of persuading those aligned with Pankhurst, he kept a note nearby during meetings: “Keep your temper!”
Time to Change Tactics
By 1903 Pankhurst believed that years of moderate speeches and promises about women’s suffrage from members of parliament had yielded no progress. Although suffrage bills in 1870, 1886, and 1897 had shown promise, each was defeated. She doubted that political parties, with their many agenda items, would ever make women’s suffrage a priority.
She even broke with the ILP when it refused to focus on Votes for Women. It was necessary to abandon the patient tactics of existing advocacy groups, she believed, in favor of more militant actions. On October10, 1903 Pankhurst and several colleagues founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organization open only to women and focused on direct action to win the vote. “Deeds,” she wrote later, “not words, was to be our permanent motto.”
Pankhurst was arrested for the first time in February 1908, when she tried to enter Parliament to deliver a protest resolution to Prime Minister H. H. Asquith.
She was charged with obstruction and sentenced to six weeks in prison. She spoke out against the conditions of her confinement, including vermin, meager food, and the “civilized torture of solitary confinement and absolute silence” to which she and others were ordered.
Pankhurst saw imprisonment as a means to publicize the urgency of women’s suffrage; in June 1909 she struck a police officer twice in the face to ensure she would be arrested. Pankhurst was arrested seven times before women’s suffrage was approved. During her trial on October 21, 1908 she told the court: “We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
Illness and Death
Emmeline Pankhurst’s campaign for Parliament was pre-empted by her ill health. The years of touring, lectures, imprisonment, and hunger strikes had taken their toll; fatigue and illness became a regular part of Pankhurst’s life.
As her health went downhill, Emmeline Pankhurst moved into a nursing home. She requested that she be treated by the doctor who attended to her during her hunger strikes. His use of the stomach pump had helped her feel better while in prison; her nurses were sure that the shock of such treatment would severely
wound her but her request was carried out. Before the procedure could be started, however, she fell into a critical condition from which none expected her to recover. On Thursday, June 14, 1928 Pankhurst died, at the age of 69.
Emmeline Pankhurst’s importance to the United Kingdom was demonstrated again in 1929, when a portrait of her was added to the National Portrait Gallery. The BBC dramatized her life in the 1974 mini-series Shoulder to Shoulder, with Welsh actress Siân Phillips in the role of Emmeline Pankhurst.
In 1987 one of her homes in Manchester was opened as the Pankhurst Centre, an all-women gathering space and museum. In 2002, Pankhurst was placed at number 27 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
Of Course, Women’s Voting Rights Came To The U.K.
All over the Western hemisphere, women now have the right and privilege to vote. Through such persons as Emmeline Pankhurst this was achieved, though with great struggle and even blood shed. (Please note that I am not advocating violence.) The odds were often great. But what are the odds in your life? You need not so something so large as the
vote for women. But what are you doing to change your world for the better, whether you are female or male? You probably won’t face the odds Pankhurst face. So … get to it.
Source: Wikipedia.org (Please donate to this fine resource.)
- Emmeline Pankhurst 1913 (corrc003.wordpress.com)
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