Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) fought on the front lines of the British suffrage movement and is considered by many to be its leader.
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Yesterday, we talked about Christabel Pankhurst, who fought on the front lines of the British suffrage movement. Today, we’re going further back in time to learn about her mother, who is considered by many to be the head of that movement. Let’s talk about the revolutionary Emmeline Pankhurst.
Emmeline Goulden was born in Manchester, England in 1858. She was the eldest of 10 children. Both of her parents were abolitionists and advocated for women’s suffrage themselves.
Emmeline studied in Paris before returning to her home city. There, she met her husband, Dr. Richard Pankhurst, who also supported radical causes for the era like women’s suffrage.
Emmeline and Richard had five children together, though one passed away in childhood. Despite her full plate of childrearing and homemaking, Emmeline remained politically active. When Richard ran for parliament, she supported him by hosting political gatherings.
In 1889, Emmeline got involved in the women’s suffrage movement through her support of the Women’s Franchise League. This league was unique for its support of enfranchisement for all women, not just single women and widows. Richard encouraged his wife’s involvement in advocacy until he passed away in 1898.
Emmeline was grief-stricken over his death for many years. Still, her passion for suffrage didn’t subside. In 1903, she teamed up with two of her daughters to create the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU. As we discussed yesterday, Christabel’s arrest after a Liberal Party meeting protest in 1905 spurred Emmeline to lead the WSPU down a more combative, militant path.
At first, Emmeline’s tactics included holding rallies and hounding politicians. When the group was hopeful that a law would move forward, they would relax their protests. When a bill was shot down, the women turned to vandalism.
Emmeline was arrested multiple times during her protests. While serving one nine month sentence, she went on hunger strike -- as many suffragettes were doing at the time -- and ended up being released early. This tactic led to a law that allowed police to release sick prisoners, and then re-imprison them once they’d recovered.
In 1913, this impact of this law became clear. Emmeline was arrested after an incendiary device started a fire in an unoccupied house that was being built for a member of parliament. She received a sentence of three years, went on hunger strike, and was released. However, that led to a series of re-arrests and re-releases that lasted months. During one period of release, Emmeline even delivered a series of lectures in America.
This game of cat and mouse ended when World War I began. Emmeline, Christabel, and the rest of the WSPU declared a temporary truce for the suffrage fight. The government agreed to release all of the WSPU prisoners, and Emmeline encouraged the women to help in the war effort.
This act of patriotism impressed the government. After World War I ended, parliament granted partial suffrage to women who met a property requirement and who were over 30 years old. Another law passed later gave women the right to be elected to Parliament.
Emmeline celebrated this law of partial suffrage with her daughter Christabel, but full suffrage was still the end goal. Emmeline ran for Parliament as a Conservative, but had to end her campaign due to sickness.
Emmeline passed away at age 69 in 1928. Less than a month later, full suffrage was granted to British women.
We talked about two of the incredible women who helped lead the suffrage movement in England, but it’s important to remember that these causes are made of many strong-willed and imperfect advocates. Emmeline and Christabel weren’t alone while hunger striking in jail. It was the combined effort of thousands that brought about women’s suffrage.
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