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Emmeline Pankhurst was a major leader in the campaign for female suffrage in Britain. Together with her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, she created the Women’s Social and Political Union and shaped the militant struggle for female suffrage until 1918.

Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Manchester and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement at the age of 14. On 18 December 1879 she married Richard Pankhurst, a liberal-minded lawyer some 24 years older than her. With her husband’s support, Emmeline was a co-founder of the Women’s Franchise League. She also tried to join the Independent Labour Party, but was rejected due to her gender. Richard died in 1898.

Emmeline founded the Women's Social and Political Union in Manchester in 1903 as an all-women group independent of any political party. She held office as Honorary Secretary and later Honorary Treasurer of the WSPU. A powerful speaker and charismatic leader Emmeline was hugely popular with the membership but her often dictatorial approach leadership brought her into conflict with other notable Suffragettes.

The motto of the Women’s Social and Political Union was “Deeds, not words” and they adopted progressively more militant tactics. At first mainly involved in non-violent gathering of signatures to petitions, the WSPU began to disrupt political meetings of government politicians, and to resist arrest when the police were called. Pankhurst also embraced the destruction of property as a valid militant tactic. Emmeline Pankhurst declared “The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics”.

She was sentenced to three terms of imprisonment: two in 1908 for leading a deputation to Parliament, and for inciting the public to 'rush' the House of Commons; after the window smashing campaign of March 1912 she was sentenced to 9 months in prison for conspiracy to commit damage. During her trial in 1908 she told the court “We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”

Emmeline participated in the Suffragette tactic of hunger-striking while imprisoned, but unlike most rank-and-file members was never force fed.

In April 1913 Emmeline Pankhurst received her final prison sentence of three years penal servitude for incitement to place an explosive in a building at Walton, Surrey. She again went on hunger strike and was subsequently released from Holloway after several days. On her recovery she was rearrested under the terms of the Cat and Mouse Act and thus began a pattern of release, recuperation and re-arrest that continued until the end of July. During each period of recuperation from hunger strike Emmeline Pankhurst found refuge in a number of safe houses and was always nursed back to health by her nurse Catherine Pine.

In 1913 several prominent individuals left the WSPU, among them Pankhurst's daughters Adela and Sylvia. Emmeline was so furious that she "gave [Adela] a ticket, £20, and a letter of introduction to a Suffragette in Australia, and firmly insisted that she emigrate". Adela complied and the family rift was never healed. Sylvia became a socialist and allied more closely with the Independent Labour Party.

With the advent of the First World War, Emmeline and her daughter Christabel called an immediate halt to militant suffrage activism in the face of the ‘German Peril’. They helped to enlist women in the war effort and supported the British government until 1918, when the Representation of the People Act gave some women over the age of 30 the right to vote. Emmeline reorganised the remaining members of the Women’s Social and Political Union as the Women’s Party, campaigning more generally for equality in public life.  

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Further information

  • Born: 1858

  • Died: 1928