Who Was Emmeline Pankhurst?

Over 160 years ago this month, on the 14th July 1858, leading British women’s rights activist Emmeline Goulden was born.

She was introduced to the women’s suffrage movement at age 14 having been born into a family steeped in political agitation for generations; her mother, Sophia, was a Manx woman from the Isle of Man who was descended from men who were charged with social unrest and slander. In 1879 she married Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer and supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. He was the author of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women to keep earnings or property acquired before and after marriage. His death was a great shock to Emmeline when he passed away prematurely in 1898.

Emmeline founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1889 which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections. She then went on to help create the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) through frustrations with the lack of progress from her other organisations. WPSU gained notoriety for its activities and its member were the first to be christened ‘Suffragettes’.

The Suffragettes became increasingly extreme and their campaign more widespread. Churches and MPs’ homes were burnt down, windows were smashed and Oxted Station was even bombed. In 1913, WSPU member Emily Davison was killed when she threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby as a protest at the government’s continued failure to grant women the right to vote. Emmeline herself was no stranger to being arrested and was even violently force-fed during a hunger strike.

This period of militancy abruptly ended with the outbreak of war in 1914, and Emmeline turned her energies to supporting the war effort. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over 30. Emmeline died on 14th June 1928, shortly after women were finally granted equal voting rights with men at 21.

In 1999, Time named her as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. Although she was widely criticised for her militant tactics, and historians now differ about whether Emmeline’s militancy helped or hurt the movement, her work for the WSPU is recognised as a crucial element in achieving women’s suffrage in the UK.