by Radiyah Shakur
Emmeline (Emily) Pankhurst’s name is practically synonymous with the women’s suffragist movement. She dedicated her life to women’s struggle, and was not afraid of vocalizing opinions and using bold methods to achieve her goal.
Emily’s father was a successful businessman, who took part in campaigns against slavery and Corn Laws, while her mother Sophia Crane was a passionate feminist who started taking Emily to women’s suffrage meetings in the 1870s.
Emily’s own husband Richard Pankhurst, a successful lawyer who was twenty years her senior, was very supportive of women’s rights. He was the author of the first women's suffrage bill in Britain, as well as the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women to keep earnings or property acquired before and after marriage.
Both she and her husband Richard were active members of the Independent Labour Party. Additionally, both founded the Women’s Franchise League that fought to allow married women the right to vote in local elections. When her husband died in 1898, Emily was joined by her daughters to continue the struggle.
Disappointed by the major political parties’ disinterest in women’s suffrage, the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed in 1903. Emily was known as a natural speaker, possessing a melodious voice that drew to it many followers. Daughter supporters Christabel became the strategist and activist, while Sylvia, who was a talented artist, created the logo for the organization.
Pankhurst was arrested on numerous occasions for her lead role and radical tactics. She also participated in hunger strikes. At the onset of World War I, Emily was able to negotiate her full release and the release of fellow suffragettes. Stepping back from leadership with WSPU, she encouraged women to do all they could for the war effort. Her pro-war stance and her controversial effort to encourage women to take the traditional jobs of men, and allow the government to draft all able-bodied men, caused her to lose some of her followers.
She tried to resurrect the militancy of the suffrage movement in her war effort, which was demonstrated in hard-line articles Pankhurst wrote in the WSPU’s newspaper the Britannia (formerly The Suffragette), and in the renaming of the Union in 1917 to the Women’s Party. In addition to supporting war efforts, the Women’s Party supported equality of pay, rights, work, divorce and marriage laws; and a system of maternity benefits.
In March 1918, Pankhurst saw the first victory in women’s enfranchisement, which was the Representation of the People Act- giving voting rights to women over 30 and men over 21. In November 1918, women over the age of 21 were granted the right to become Members of Parliament. One year later, Emily emigrated to Canada, and left the Independent Labour Party. In 1926 she returned to England and was chosen as the Conservative Candidate for a seat in East London but her bad health hindered her from entering elections.
Emmeline Pankhurst died in 1928, a few weeks before women finally achieved equal voting rights to men in the UK.
Her autobiography, My Own Story, was published in 1914