Emily Pankhurst (15 July 1858 – 14 June 1928) was a leading British suffragette, who played a militant role in helping to gain women the right to vote.
“Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.”
– Emmeline Pankhurst From Freedom or Death (1913)
Short Bio Emily Pankhurst
In 1878, she married Richard Pankhurst, leader barrister, who at the time was 24 years older than her. Richard Pankhurst was a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Together they had five children, his death in 1898, was a great shock to Emily.
After his death, she threw herself into the women’s suffrage movement forming the Women’s Franchise league in 1898. In 1894, she was elected a poor law guardian and she spent time visiting workhouses in Manchester becoming aware of the shocking levels of poverty, many faced.
“I thought I had been a suffragist before I became a Poor Law Guardian, but now I began to think about the vote in women’s hands not only as a right but as a desperate necessity.”
In 1903 she formed the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was through the political action of the WSPU that the term women’s suffragette movement was created. She led a passionate group of women who were willing to take part in drastic action such as tying to railings, smashing windows and launching demonstrations. Pankhurst defended the militant tactics on the grounds that:
“The condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do.
Her tactics contrasted with those of the NUWSS and Millicent Fawcett. The government and establishment were shocked at the tactics of the women and many were arrested. When they went on hunger strike they were force fed or released only to be rearrested – something known as ‘cat and mouse’. In 1912, Emily Pankhurst was convicted or breaking windows and sent to Holloway Prison. In prison she went on hunger strike in protest about the appalling conditions, prisoners were kept in. She described her time in prison. “like a human being in the process of being turned into a wild beast”
In 1913, Emily’s daughter Christabel took leadership of the WPSU, and their tactics became increasingly militant. However, this polarised opinion within the WPSU, and many members left, arguing the violence was counter-productive and damaging the cause. Two of Emily’s other daughters, Adela and Sylvia left the movement creating a rift in the family, which never healed. Due to the increased militancy of the British suffrage movement, public opinion was increasingly polarised. Militant suffragettes were often described as fanatics. In 1913, Emily Davison was killed after throwing herself under the King’s horse.
However, at the outbreak of war in 1914, Emily Pankhurst used her campaigning tactics to support the war effort – and announcing a temporary truce in the women’s suffrage campaign. She considered the menace of German aggression to be the greater threat. As she said at the time:
What is the use of fighting for a vote if we have not got a country to vote in?
The government and the suffragettes declared a truce and political prisoners were released.
In the war effort, women were drafted into factories and took on many jobs previously the preserve of men such as bus drivers and postmen. The radical social change of the first world war helped to diminish the opposition to women getting the vote; and in 1918, women over the age of 30 were given the vote.
In 1926, she surprised many by joining the Conservative party, and two years later running for Parliament as a Conservative candidate. This was in stark contrast to her earlier political experiences and sympathy with the poor. But, after the Russian revolution she was increasingly concerned by Communism and became more conservative in political views.
In 1928 women were granted equal voting rights with men (at 21). However, in 1928, Emmeline fell ill, and died on 14 June 1928.
Legacy of Emily Pankhurst
There is dispute over the extent to which the militant campaigns, led and inspired by Emily Pankhurst helped or hindered the women’s suffrage movement. Some argue, violence made the establishment more reluctant to agree to their demands, others say it helped raise the profile of the movement and was a factor in helping women gain the vote in 1918. Whatever the merits of her action, she epitomised the passionate belief that women deserved equal rights and helped to give this a higher profile. She lived through an age of rapidly changing opinions about the role of women in society, and ultimately saw women given the vote.