Emmeline Pankhurst

Lived:July 15, 1858—June 14, 1928 (aged 69)
Career:British suffragist

Emmeline Pankhurst was a political activist and leader of the suffrage movement in Great Britain. Though often criticized for her strongly militant tactics, her contributions toward achieving women's suffrage in Great Britain are well-recognized.

Pankhurst was born on July 15, 1858, in Manchester, England, to politically active parents. Despite being academically gifted, she did not receive the same education as her brothers. Although her parents supported women's suffrage and the general advancement of women in society, they believed that the most important part of a girl's education were the skills needed to make a home for her family. At age 15, Pankhurst left home to attend the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. In 1878 she married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister 24 years her senior who supported women's right to vote and Emmeline's political work outside the home. Over the next ten years, Pankhurst had five children while remaining active in political organizations, including the Women's Suffrage Society.

In 1889, the Pankhursts founded the Women's Franchise League, which advocated suffrage for all women—married and unmarried. In 1893, Pankhurst began to distinguish herself as an activist in her own right. She became active with the Women's Liberal Federation (WLF), an auxiliary of the Liberal Party, but quickly grew disenchanted with the group's moderate positions. She resigned from the WLF and applied to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP). She was refused admission to the local branch because of her gender, but eventually joined the national ILP. One of her first activities with the ILP was distributing food to the poor through the Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed. She also worked as a Poor Law Guardian, exposing her to the harsh conditions in Manchester workhouses. She campaigned for improvements to the conditions, becoming a successful voice of reform on the Board of Guardians.

In 1898, after the death of her husband, Pankhurst resigned from the Board of Guardians and took a paid position as Registrar of Births and Deaths in Chorlton. This position and her elected position on the Manchester School Board served to reinforce her political convictions regarding women's suffrage. The Pankhurst children also started becoming more active in the women's suffrage movement. In 1903, Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a suffrage organization whose slogan was "deeds, not words." The group became infamous for its tactics of smashing windows and assaulting police officers, leading to repeated prison sentences for its members, including Pankhurst and her daughters. In prison, the women staged hunger strikes and the authorities' policy of force-feeding garnered significant sympathy for the women. After Pankhurst's oldest daughter, Christabel, took over the WSPU in 1912, arson became a common tactic of the organization, drawing criticism against the Pankhurst family from more moderate organizations. In 1913, several prominent members left or were forced out of the WSPU, including Pankhurst's other daughters, Adela and Sylvia.

In 1914, Emmeline and Christabel suspended their suffrage activities to support Great Britain's involvement in World War I, becoming prominent figures in the White feather movement. In 1917, Pankhurst dissolved the WSPU and formed the Women's Party, a political party dedicated to promoting women's equality in public life. In 1918, after the Representation of the People Act granted votes to all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30, the party stood Christabel as a candidate in the 1918 general election. She won 47.8% of the vote in her constituency, losing by only 775 votes to her Labour Party opponent.

In her later years, Pankhurst joined the Conservative Party and was selected as a Conservative Party candidate in 1927.

Pankhurst died on June 14, 1928, only a few weeks before the Representation of the People Act (1928) extended the vote to all women over 21 years of age.