Champion of women’s suffrage, Emmeline Pankhurst was born in 1858 in Manchester, England, to radical politically active parents. When she was 14 years old, they opened her eyes to women who were fighting for the right to vote – a cause she immediately took up and advocated for the rest of her life.
When Emmeline was 21, she married Dr. Richard Pankhurst, a liberal barrister 24 years her senior. He was also a prominent supporter of women’s rights and a friend and colleague of John Stuart Mill, who authored the first women’s suffrage bill in Great Britain in the late 1860s. Emmeline’s husband encouraged her to continue with her efforts in challenging what they both considered to be the oppressive status quo. He was her partner in founding the Women’s Franchise League which in 1894 secured the right for married women to vote in local elections, though not for members of the House of Commons.
After Richard’s death, Emmeline founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (ESPU), who were the first activists to be labeled “suffragettes”. The members were known for their militant and sometimes violent approach to activism. “Deeds not words” was Pankhurst’s approach to change, a distinct departure from the peaceful protests that women had previously used. These policies led the ESPU to sometimes act with violence and extremism, including bombings, arson, window smashings, and violence against police. Women would chain themselves to buildings and railings to protest inequality. The group’s tactics were not without fatalities. In 1913, union member Emily Davison threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby in protest of the government’s failure to give women the vote.
Early on, members of the ESPU were expelled from a Liberal Party meeting for loudly demanding the members make a statement on votes for women. The women were arrested for assaulting police and, as the group would continue to do in the future, refused to pay bail and opted to go to prison instead. Emmeline was arrested over a dozen times, often staging hunger strikes which the government attempted to thwart by violently force feeing her. Police began using a “cat and mouse” tactic wherein they would release a hunger-striking prisoner, then re-arrest them once they were healthy. Objecting to the group’s violence and militancy, some members began to drift away from the union, including some members of Pankhurst’s family.
In 1914, Pankhurst temporarily set aside her suffrage efforts, devoting time and energy to Britain’s participation in World War I. She encouraged women to take industrial jobs to aid in wartime efforts – jobs usually given to men. An estimated 2 million women entered the workforce during the war. Proving they could do the work as efficiently as men, these women’s efforts did a great deal to change the perception of women in Britain’s society.
The Representation of the People Act of 1918 granted voting rights to women over the age of 30, though men 21 and over had the right to vote. The WSPU reinvented itself into what became known as the Women’s Party, which worked toward women’s equity in society. In 1926, Pankhurst was nominated as the Conservative candidate for an East London region, but was unsuccessful in her attempt, as her health began to fail before the election. Emmeline passed away just two weeks before women were awarded the same rights to vote as men. Though considered by many to be a revolutionary to the end, The New York Herald Tribune described Pankhurst as “the most remarkable political and social agitator of the 20th century and the supreme protagonist of the campaign for the electoral enfranchisement of women.” In 1996 Time named Pankhurst one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating that “she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.” There are plans for an 8-foot bronze statue in Britain’s Manchester city center, the first statue of a woman to be erected in the city in more than a century.
Pankhurst was quoted as saying, “We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half,” a motto she promoted until the end of her life.