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1858 - 1928


The Victorian Englishwoman marshaled the suffragist movement, which won women the right to vote
By MARINA WARNER for Time Magazine


Not even the noisiest proponents of women's proper place back in the home could seriously suggest today that women should not have the vote. Yet "the mother half of the human family," in Emmeline Pankhurst's phrase, was fully enfranchised only in this century. In Britain, so proud to claim "the Mother of Parliaments," universal suffrage — including women's — was granted only in the year of her death, 1928. Mrs. Pankhurst was born a Victorian Englishwoman, but she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.

The struggle to get votes for women, led by Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel at the head of the militant suffragists, convulsed Britain from 1905 to 1914. The opposition the Liberal government put up looks incomprehensible today, and it provoked, among all classes and conditions of women, furious and passionate protests. The response of the police, the courts and sometimes the crowds of suffragist opponents still makes shocking reading. Women were battered in demonstrations and, on hunger strikes, brutally force-fed in prison. When these measures risked taking lives, the infamous Cat & Mouse Act was passed so that a dangerously weakened hunger striker would be released and then rearrested when strong enough to continue her sentence. Under its terms, Mrs. Pankhurst, age 54 in 1912, went to prison 12 times that year. No wonder she railed, "The militancy of men, through all the centuries, has drenched the world with blood. The militancy of women has harmed no human life save the lives of those who fought the battle of righteousness."

Mrs. Pankhurst's father was a Manchester manufacturer with radical sympathies. When she was small, she was consuming "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "John Bunyan" and abolitionist materials; her earliest memories included hearing Elizabeth Cady Stanton speak. Her father was keen on amateur theatricals in the home; his daughter later enthralled the suffragists with her oratory and her voice. The young Rebecca West described hearing Mrs. Pankhurst in full cry: "Trembling like a reed, she lifted up her hoarse, sweet voice on the platform, but the reed was of steel and it was tremendous."

Richard Pankhurst, whom she married in 1879, when she was 20 and he was 40, was a brilliant lawyer, selflessly dedicated to reform, who drafted pioneering legislation granting women independent control of their finances. Emmeline bore five children but lost two sons, and when Richard died suddenly in 1898, she was left to bring up her children alone, with no private means.

The surviving Pankhurst women formed an intrepid, determined, powerfully gifted band. In 1903 they founded the Women's Social and Political Union. It was, Emmeline Pankhurst wrote later, "simply a suffrage army in the field." The charismatic, dictatorial eldest daughter Christabel emerged in her teens as the W.S.P.U.'s strategist and an indomitable activist, with nerves of tungsten. Mrs. Pankhurst's second daughter Sylvia, the artist, pioneered the corporate logo: as designer and scene painter of the W.S.P.U., she created banners, costumes and badges in the suffragist livery of white, purple and green. Though the family split later over policy, their combined talents powered from the beginning an astonishingly versatile tactical machine.

The W.S.P.U. adopted a French Revolutionary sense of crowd management, public spectacle and symbolic ceremony. They would greet one of their number on release from prison and draw her triumphantly in a flower-decked wagon through the streets, and they staged elaborate allegorical pageants and torchlight processions, with Mrs. Pankhurst proudly walking at their head (if she wasn't in jail). Her example was followed internationally: the U.S. suffragist Alice Paul, who had taken part in suffragist agitation when she was a student at the London School of Economics, imported Pankhurst militancy to the U.S., leading a march 5,000 strong in 1910.

The political leaders of Edwardian Britain were utterly confounded by the energy and violence of this female rebellion, by the barrage of mockery, interruptions and demands the suffragists hurled and, later, by the sight of viragoes in silk petticoats, matrons with hammers, ladies with stones in their kid gloves, mothers and mill girls unbowed before the forces of judges, policemen and prison wardens. Many suffragists in Britain and the U.S. argued that the Pankhursts' violence — arson, window smashing, picture slashing and hunger strikes — was counterproductive to the cause and fueled misogynistic views of female hysteria. Though the question remains open, the historical record shows shameless government procrastination, broken pledges and obstruction long before the suffragists abandoned heckling for acting up.

Mrs. Pankhurst took the suffragist thinking far and wide: she even managed to slip in a lecture tour of the U.S. between spells of a Cat & Mouse jail sentence. In her tireless public speaking, suffrage meant more than equality with men. While she was bent on sweeping away the limits of gender, she envisioned society transformed by feminine energies, above all by chastity, far surpassing the male's. In this, she is the foremother of the separatist wing of feminism today: the battle for the vote was for her a battle for the bedroom. She wrote, "We want to help women...We want to gain for them all the rights and protection that laws can give them. And, above all, we want the good influence of women to tell to its greatest extent in the social and moral questions of the time. But we cannot do this unless we have the vote and are recognised as citizens and voices to be listened to." Her plea to the court in 1912 ringingly concluded, "We are here, not because we are lawbreakers; we are here in our efforts to become lawmakers."

It is hard today not to sigh at the ardour of her hope in what voting could achieve, not to be amazed at the confidence she showed in political reform. But heroism looks to the future, and heroes hold to their faith. Joan of Arc was the suffragists' mascot, Boadicea their goddess, and Mrs. Pankhurst the true inheritor of the armed maidens of heroic legend.


The English reformer Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) led the movement for women's suffrage in Great Britain, in the process developing agitational tactics still controversial and consequential.

Emmeline Pankhurst was born Emmeline Goulden in Manchester on July 4, 1858. At the age of 14 she accompanied her mother to a women's suffrage meeting. The next few years Emmeline spent in Paris attending school. After her return she married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister and an activist in radical causes, especially in women's suffrage. He died in 1898, leaving her with four children, including daughters Christabel (1880-1958) and Sylvia (1882-1960).

Pankhurst had briefly joined the Fabian Society and then had joined the Independent Labour party. She had held local offices as a Poor Law guardian, as a school board member, and as a paid registrar of births and deaths. In all these experiences she had observed the inferior position of women and their legal and social oppression by men. She concluded that only political rights for women would emancipate women and reform society at large.

In 1903 Pankhurst and Christabel formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). From its founding, the WSPU held certain policies: Its membership was exclusively female; it was independent of all political parties; it concentrated exclusively on the suffrage issue; and it distrusted all promises and demanded immediate parliamentary action. Another policy, developed in the next few years, was tactical militancy in harassing the Liberals, the political party with the greatest number of sympathizers and after 1905 the party in power, in order to force it to adopt women's suffrage as a party measure.

Pankhurst soon discovered that processions to the Houses of Parliament and hecklings and disruptions of election meetings produced police countermeasures and thus newspaper publicity favorable to her cause. The history of the movement recorded her mounting frustration with Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith's personal resistance to votes for women and his consequent delaying tactics in Parliament.

In 1908 Pankhurst declared that the suffragettes would either convert the ministry by force or see "the Government themselves destroyed." Soon the WSPU surpassed all other dissident movements, if not in rhetoric, in its violence and in its disruption of public life. The suffragettes organized campaigns of window smashing in central London, burned letters in postboxes, defaced paintings, and burned unoccupied buildings. Pankhurst called this escalation "guerrilla warfare" against property "to make England and every department of English life insecure and unsafe." She stopped short only of endangering human life.

The ministry responded with arrests and imprisonment, of Pankhurst herself for the first time in 1908. The women prisoners then began hunger strikes, which the officials met with brutal forms of forced feeding. In 1913 the "Cat and Mouse" Act allowed the release of fasting prisoners and their rearrest when they had recovered; under these terms Mrs. Pankhurst served only 30 days (of a 3-year sentence) during a calendar year.

Historians have asserted that by 1914 violence had become an end in itself for the WSPU, although Pankhurst always declared it temporary and historically and politically validated. After 1912 Christabel Pankhurst, who had taken sanctuary in Paris, directed the strategy. Yet the movement's objectives, as distinct from its tactics, had become less radical. It accepted a "Conciliation Bill, " which excluded working-class women from the vote and which opposed as impractical the introduction of genuinely universal suffrage. Finally, after Sylvia Pankhurst's expulsion from the movement, on grounds of her socialism and organizational activity among the lower classes, the ministry made her a formal promise of government support. Because of the outbreak of World War I, the pledge could not be redeemed until 1918, when most women over 30 years of age were enfranchised. Later, the Representation Act of 1928 gave women the vote on the same basis as men. Emmeline Pankhurst, who had played little part in the movement after 1914, died on June 14, 1928.










This web page was last updated on: 14 December, 2008