Emmeline Pankhurst – Notable Women in History Series

Photo courtesy Encyclopedia Britannica 

While we’ve already discussed 2 notable American women who fought for woman suffrage (Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony), we wanted to take some time to share the story of British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst is best-known for her militant campaigning strategy. Though opinions may differ on whether this was the best strategy, in the end, it worked. Let’s take an inside look at her life and the road to woman suffrage in Britain!

Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Manchester, England in 1858 into a family whose tradition of radical politics was no secret. Her mother took her to her first woman suffrage meeting when she was 14. Later, in 1879 she married a like-minded lawyer, Richard Pankhurst. Richard authored the first woman suffrage bill in Great Britain in the late 1860’s, as well as the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882.

For her part, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1894, which secured married women the right to vote in elections to local offices. However, her attention and energy were increasingly in demand by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which she founded in 1903. The union first attracted widespread attention in 1905, when two of its members were thrown out of a Liberal Party meeting for demanding a statement about votes for women. The women were then arrested in the street for a technical assault on the police, and, after refusing to pay fines were ultimately sent to prison.

This type of occurrence became common among members of the union leading to the term “militant” campaigning. Pankhurst herself was jailed countless times throughout her life. The group became increasingly more extreme in 1912, mainly in the form of arson. The group also used hunger strikes as a tool, prompting the passage of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act of 1913, also known as the “Cat and Mouse Act.” This act allowed hunger-striking prisoners to be temporarily released from prison to regain their health, after which they would be re-arrested. At the outbreak of World War I, Pankhurst and her daughter called off the suffrage campaign to focus on the war efforts, and the government released all the suffragist prisoners.

The tireless efforts of Pankhurst and the WSPU finally paid off when the British government granted limited voting rights (for women who met a property requirement and were at least 30 years old) with the Representation of the People Act of 1918. Though she did not live to see it, women were eventually granted voting rights equal to those of men in 1928, the same year as that of her death.

While some may consider her methods controversial, Pankhurst is still worthy of recognition for the 40 years she spent campaigning for women’s rights.