Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst played an important role in women’s rights movement and in 1999, the Time magazine included her in the list of 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. Emmeline is remembered for her leadership of the suffragette movement in Britain and political activism which, however, remains a controversial subject. While her contribution to the advancement of women’s rights, above all the right to vote cannot be denied, some historians are critical to the methods she and her followers used to fight for women’s suffrage in the UK as they involved militant tactics.

Early Life

Emmeline was born in 1858 in Manchester to politically active parents who introduced her to political activism early in her childhood. She is said to be introduced to suffragette movement as early as at the age of 8. Although her parents supported women’s right to vote and advancement of women in society, they raised their daughter to become a wife and mother. She did so but her husband Richard Pankhurst whom she married in 1878 advocated women’s suffrage and supported Emmeline in her political and social activism.

Political Activism

In 1889, Emmeline and her husband Richard created the Women’s Franchise League which advocated women’s right to vote as well as equal rights in areas such as inheritance and divorce. Their League was joined by several notable activists including Josephine Butler and Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch but the group fell apart after four years. Emmeline thereafter sought to join the Independent Labour Party but she was initially rejected on the basis of gender. After her husband’s death in 1898, Emmeline founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) that advocated women’s suffrage and “deeds, not words”. The deeds involved smashing windows and assaulting police officers and as a result, Emmeline and her followers including her daughters often found themselves in prison.

Later Years and Death

In 1912, the leadership of the WSPU was taken over by Emmeline’s daughter Christabel who further radicalised the organisation’s methods. As a result, several moderate members including two other Emmeline’s daughters left the WSPU which also became increasingly criticised by the public. After the outbreak of the First World War, the WSPU gave up it militant tactics and supported the government. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act finally gave women above the age of 30 the right to vote, while Emmeline established the Women’s Party as a successor to the WSPU. In her later years, she became worried about Bolshevism and joined the Conservative Party. In 1926 she ran as a candidate for MP for Whitechapel and St Georges but she wasn’t elected. She died two years later, aged 69.