Emmeline Pankhurst was a prominent British political activist who is remembered for the famous UK suffragette movement and her advocacy for women’s right to vote. She is named among the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century by Time. She is believed to have shaped the idea of women being an important part of society and women being capable of changing how it works. Many disagreed with her methods, which were described as militant, but all agree that her part in fighting for women led to the women’s suffrage in the UK.
Emmeline was born on 15 July 1858 on Sloan Street in the Moss Side district of Manchester. Her parents, Sophia and Robert Goulden, were politically active. Emmeline’s father Goulden supported dramatic organisations including the Dramatic Reading Society and the Manchester Athenaeum. He also owned a theatre in Salford and played the lead in several Shakespear roles. He was involved in local politics and served for many years on the Salford town council. The Gouldens family was active in social activism. Robert once invited American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher as part of their movement to end slavery in the U.S. Emmeline loved reading books, which she started as early as 3. She drew inspiration from some of the books she liked, including The Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan, and Thomas Carlyle’s three-volume treatise The French Revolution: A History. She was not given educational privileges like those her brothers received due to the beliefs that women were meant to be married and make the home attractive. Her mother was interested in women’s suffrage and read the Women’s Suffrage Journal. Emmeline was introduced to women’s suffrage at the age of 14 and even accompanied her mother to a public meeting of people advocating for women’s voting rights. She later joined École Normale de Neuilly, a school that provided her with classes in chemistry, bookkeeping, and embroidery. Emmeline was married in 1878 to Richard Pankhurst, a barrister who was advocating women’s suffrage, freedom of speech and education reform. The couple was blessed with five children.
After joining the women’s suffrage movement, Emmeline founded the Women’s Franchise League, a movement that advocated suffrage for the married and unmarried women. The organisation broke apart, and she attempted to be part of the Independent Labour Party but was denied membership because she was a woman. She worked as a Poor Law Guardian in Manchester’s workhouses. In 1903, she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a suffrage advocacy organisation composed of only women. The organization was advocating for “deeds, not words.” The group was always opposing political parties. The members of the group got into physical altercations with law enforcement officers. In addition to destroying property, the group was known for assaulting police officers. Pankhurst had introduced her daughters to the movement they were repeatedly given prison sentences due to their acts, alongside other members. They used such strategies as hunger strikes and arson to make themselves heard. The government and other organisations grew tired of the Pankhurst family. Later in 1913, some prominent persons in WSPU, including Pankhurst’s younger daughters, Adela and Sylvia, left the movement. This created enmity between the sisters and their mother. During the First World War, Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel, who had taken leadership of WSPU, urged their members to stop the militant suffrage terrorism so as to support the British government’s stand against the “German Peril.” She then transformed WSPU into the Women’s Party, which worked to promote women’s equality. She was so concerned with Bolshevism threat and she joined the Conservative Party. She was later selected as the Conservative candidate for Whitechapel and St Georges in 1927. The Representation of the People Act (1928) of the Conservative government on 2 July 1928 allowed the vote to all women aged over 21 years of age, down from 30 years. Emmeline died on 14 June 1928, weeks before the act was passed.