Her father believed education was more important for boys given the society in which they lived and Ms Pankhurst’s early education therefore followed the conventional model. After early schooling in Manchester she attended École Normale Supérieure, a finishing school in Paris, France. Unlike most finishing schools, this had a rounded educational programme in which girls were taught subjects such as sciences and bookkeeping alongside the more traditional female accomplishments young ladies were expect to exhibit, such as music and sewing. Although intelligence was deemed more important for boys by her father, Ms Pankhurst was intelligent and he did not believe she should be limited in her intellectual scope.
Ms Pankhurst returned to Manchester in 1878 where she met Richard Pankhurst, a socialist and feminist campaigner whom she was to marry. Mr Pankhurst was a friend of John Stuart Mill, the author of “The Subjection of Women”, and he had himself had been instrumental in two governmental policies advancing the rights of women. Despite a 24-year age gap the pair were strongly attracted to each other and their marriage was a successful one. Four children, Christabel (1880), Sylvia (1882), Frank (1884) and Adele (1885), were to follow within six years of marriage. Ms Pankhurst continued her campaigns throughout this entire period, supported by her husband.
In 1886 the family moved to Richmond, London and held political meetings for groups such as the “National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies” within the family home. Ms Pankhurst became involved in the Matchgirls Strike of the same year, the dreadful conditions suffered by the girls having a profound effect on her.
In 1889 Ms Pankhurst formed the political pressure group “Women’s Franchise League” together with her husband, dedicated to fighting for votes for women. In 1894 she became a Poor Law Guardian which involved visiting prisons. Her concern about how poorly female prisoners were treated hardened her resolve to campaign for women’s suffrage. She and her husband were active members of the Independent Labour Party, but after unsuccessfully standing for election Richard Pankhurst died in 1899 of a perforated ulcer. The loss of his income meant the family had to return to live in Manchester and Ms Pankhurst took up a position as a Registrar.
Change was slow to come and in 1903 Ms Pankhurst founded the “Women’s Social & Political Union”. The intent was to recruit working-class women into the struggle. The patriarchal media stopped reporting on suffrage activism, detrimentally affecting the cause. In response the WSPU became more militant in activism, prepared to break the law in the fight for suffrage. It was this group whose members were first named “suffragettes”, a diminutive first coined by the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper as a disparaging term for female suffragists, but the term was soon reclaimed and adopted by activists in women’s rights.
The actions of the WSPU were notorious for violence; arson, window-smashing and hunger strikes were common techniques used. Between 1907 and 1914 Ms Pankhurst was imprisoned repeatedly, and in one 18 month period went on 10 hunger strikes. She was subjected to violent force-feeding in prison in response to her hunger striking. In direct response to hunger strikes in 1913, the government passed the “Cat and Mouse Law” in which prisoners would be released, they would regain their health, and then they would be rearrested and the hunger strike cycle would start again.
A schism developed between Ms Pankhurst and Christabel on one side, and Sylvia and Adele on the other; the latter two had long since had concerns concerning the increasing violence of the WPSU, its abandonment of the founding socialist principles, and lack of democratic decision-making within the movement.
In 1914 Ms Pankhurst published her autobiography “My Own Story”, but the outbreak of World War I decreased activities as Ms Pankhurst worked towards supporting the war effort, playing a major role in the recruitment drive. In 1917 she and her daughter Christabel formed “The Women’s Party”, advocating equal pay, equal parental rights, maternity benefits and changes to the marriage laws to empower women.
In 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave women aged 30 and over the right to vote in Britain. Ms Pankhurst joined the Conservative Party with her daughter Christabel, cementing the divide between the two of them and Ms Pankhurst’s other two daughters, although Adele had also become a Conservative. Sylvia remained a Socialist.
In 1926 Ms Pankhurst stood for election on behalf of the Conservative party, but withdrew due to ill health. The campaign for equal voting rights continued, and in 1928 women were finally granted equivalent access to voting with men in 1928. A few weeks later on 14th June Ms Pankhurst died, having achieved one of her primary goals in her political life.
Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography by June Purvis (2002, Routledge)
FOTW No.111 by Kayla Calkin, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like Facebook” group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/234694839904110/doc/482741065099485/
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson