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Emmeline Pankhurst - Suffragette

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Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 - 1928) was the British suffrage leader who led the movement to win the vote for women in Britain. She was born Emmeline Goulden in Manchester and she studied at the École Normale in Paris from 1873-77. In 1879 she married Richard Marsden Pankhurst, a barrister, who worked with her to promote equality for women. They had two daughters: Christabel (1880 - 1958) and Sylvia (1882 - 1960), both of whom supported their mother in her beliefs.

Political Life

In 1889 Mrs Pankhurst was one of the founders of the Women's Franchise League. Five years later the league succeeded in promoting the passage of a law granting women the right to vote in local elections. In 1903, she founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester. The group came to prominence when Mrs Pankhurst moved its headquarters to London.

The Suffragette Movement

By 1905 the media had lost interest in the struggle for women's rights. Newspapers rarely reported meetings and usually refused to publish articles and letters written by supporters of women's suffrage. In 1905 the WSPU decided to use different methods to obtain the publicity they thought would be needed in order to obtain the vote. They held public meetings and led protest marches to the House of Commons.

On 13 October, 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney attended a meeting in London to hear Sir Edward Grey, a minister in the British government. When Grey was talking, the two women constantly shouted out, 'Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?' When the women refused to stop shouting, the police were called to evict them from the meeting. Ms Pankhurst and Ms Kenney refused to leave and during the struggle, a policeman claimed they kicked and spat at him. The two women were arrested and charged with assault.

Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were found guilty of assault and fined five shillings each. When the women refused to pay the fine, they were sent to prison.

The Case Shocked the Nation

For the first time in Britain women had used violence in an attempt to win the vote. Members of the WSPU now became known as suffragettes.

On the 13 October, 1908, the WSPU held a large demonstration in London and then tried to enter the House of Commons. There were violent clashes with the police and 24 women were arrested, including Emmeline Pankhurst, who was sentenced to three months in prison.

Hunger Strikes

In July, 1909, Marion Dunlop, an imprisoned suffragette, refused to eat. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, it was decided to release her. Soon afterwards other imprisoned suffragettes adopted the same strategy. Unwilling to release all of the imprisoned suffragettes, the prison authorities force-fed the women on hunger strike. In one 18-month period, Emmeline Pankhurst, who was now in her 50s, went on hunger strike no less than ten times.

81 women were still in prison, some for terms of six months. Mother and Mr and Mrs Pethick-Lawrence went on hunger strike. The Government retaliated by forcible feeding. This was actually carried out in the case of Mr and Mrs Pethick-Lawrence. The doctors and wardresses came to mother's cell armed with forcible-feeding apparatus. Forewarned by the cries of Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, mother received them with all her majestic indignation. They fell back and left her.
- Christabel Pankhurst

Neither then nor at any time in her long and dreadful conflict with the government was she 'forcibly fed'.

In 1909, Mrs Wallace Dunlop went to prison and defied the long sentences that were being given by adopting the hunger strike. 'Release or Death' was her motto. From that day, 5 July, 1909, the hunger strike was the greatest weapon we possessed against the Government. Before long, all Suffragette prisoners were on hunger strike, so the threat to pass long sentences on us had failed. Sentences grew shorter.
- Annie Kenney


In July 1913 attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who were opposed to women having the vote. These attempts failed, but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes. This was followed by cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire.

The WSPU members increased their campaign to destroy public and private property. The women responsible were often caught and once in prison they went on hunger-strike. Determined to avoid these women becoming martyrs, the government introduced the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act. Suffragettes were now allowed to go on hunger strike but as soon as they became ill, they were released. Once the women had recovered, the police re-arrested them and returned them to prison where they completed their sentences. This successful means of dealing with hunger strikes became known as the Cat and Mouse Act.

By the summer of 1914, over 1,000 suffragettes had been imprisoned for destroying public property. All the leading members of the WSPU were either in prison, in very poor health or living in exile. The number of active members of the organisation in a position to commit acts of violence was very small.

A Break for War

The beginning of World War I in 1914 prompted Mrs Pankhurst and the WSPU to cease their campaign and devote themselves to war work.

On 4 August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On 10 August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as:

  • We Demand the Right to Serve
  • For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work
  • Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws

At the meeting attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

In October 1915 the WSPU changed its newspaper's name from The Suffragette to Britannia. Emmeline Pankhurst's patriotic view of the war was reflected in the paper's new slogan:

For King, for Country, for Freedom

Emmeline Pankhurst's Legacy

Mrs Pankhurst died in London on 14 June, 1928, a few weeks after British women were granted full voting rights. Her legacy is that each and every female in the country, once attaining the age of 18 years, has the right to vote in political elections. A sad fact is that not many care enough to exercise this right, through ignorance or apathy. Emmeline Pankhurst and others like her helped ensure that women of today are treated as equals with men in the eyes of the law. To have the ability to vote in a democratic society should never be taken for granted.

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