Sometimes a circuit breaker is needed to change the course of history, even in a great movement full of an immense variety of courage, intelligence and virtues. For the women’s suffrage movement, such a catalyst was Emmeline Pankhurst. If the ‘suffragette myth’ has sometimes been overblown, not for nothing did Time magazine name her as one of the ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century’…
It is not always that radical thought is effectively aligned with dynamic organisation. This was the greatest achievement of Emmeline Pankhurst nee Goulden (1858 -1928). Although her parents did not give her the same educational opportunities as her brothers, her family had been politically active for generations, and as a child she was therefore introduced to a variety of campaigns, including anti-slavery and women’s suffrage. Notably, her mother received and read the Women’s Suffrage Journal, and Emmeline grew fond of its editor, Lydia Becker. At the age of 14, she returned home from school one day to find her mother on her way to a public meeting about women’s voting rights. After learning that Becker would be speaking, she insisted on attending. She was enthralled and wrote later: ‘I left the meeting a conscious and confirmed suffragist.’ In 1878, she then married Richard Pankhurst, twenty four years her senior, who was a supporter of women’s rights as well as other radical issues. Until his death in 1898, they worked together supportively, linked closely to a network of radicals both in Britain and overseas.
Emmeline Pankhurst’s genius was to create new forms of strategy, organisation, and tactics. In 1889 for instance, she helped create the Women’s Franchise League, which not only broke with the old patterns of allegiance to parties but was dedicated to voting rights for all women, both married and unmarried. It also worked on a far wider range of women’s issues, supporting equal rights for women in divorce and inheritance, advocating trade unionism and making links with emerging socialists. For, although Emmeline also began political work with the Women’s Liberal Federation, she quickly became disenchanted with its conservatism and eventually joined the Independent Labour Party. She also worked as Poor Law Guardian, appalled by the conditions she witnessed first-hand in the Manchester workhouse. As she later wrote in her autobiography Unshackled:
The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years old on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors … bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time … I found that there were pregnant women in that workhouse, scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their babies came into the world … Of course the babies are very badly protected … These poor, unprotected mothers and their babies I am sure were potent factors in my education as a militant.
With the death of her husband, she was given a paid position as Registrar of Births and Deaths in Chorlton, which provided more insight into the conditions of poor women:
They used to tell me their stories, dreadful stories some of them, and all of them pathetic with that patient and uncomplaining pathos of poverty.
Similarly, in 1900, she was elected to the Manchester School Board and saw new examples of women suffering unequal treatment and limited opportunities. All of this gave further fuel to the need for a new political way forward and, in 1903, this came about with the launch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). A long succession of suffrage bills had been presented, talked out or defeated. All means of ‘constitutional’ agitation had been tried and consequently new, militant, means were needed. As Emmeline once put it:
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.
Deeds, she wrote, not words, was to be our permanent motto.
The group’s early militancy was non-violent and effective in gaining publicity. Gradually however, this was heightened in new ways in the light of continued Parliamentary resistance, heavy policing and the constant need for media attention. Emmeline’s daughter Christabel’s arrest after spitting at a policeman during a meeting of the Liberal Party in October 1905 was a key turning point. Emmeline herself was arrested for the first time in February 1908, when she tried to enter Parliament to deliver a protest resolution to Prime Minister Asquith. She was then arrested six more times before women’s suffrage was approved. For arrest and prison had become a new tactic. As she told the court during her trial on 21 October 1908:
We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.
By its militancy the WSPU gained recognition for the women’s movement as a whole. Yet it came at a cost. For the WSPU’s single-minded focus on the vote and its autocratic structure was not to everyone’s taste. Emmeline Pankhurst dismissed such criticism directly:
if at any time a member, or a group of members, loses faith in our policy; if any one begins to suggest that some other policy ought to be substituted, or if she tries to confuse the issue by adding other policies, she ceases at once to be a member. Autocratic? Quite so. But, you may object, a suffrage organisation ought to be democratic. Well the members of the WSPU. do not agree with you. We do not believe in the effectiveness of the ordinary suffrage organisation. The WSPU. is not hampered by a complexity of rules. We have no constitution and by-laws; nothing to be amended or tinkered with or quarrelled over at an annual meeting… The WSPU. is simply a suffrage army in the field. (in her autobiography, 1914)
In this sense, the WSPU was thus like the Salvation Army, but with a different focus. Indeed it directly borrowed some of the Salvation Army’s tactics, such as recruiting at fairgrounds, as well as ethos and leadership approach.
In 1909 the WSPU began hunger strikes as part of its strategy. The response was gruesome, as prison authorities frequently force-fed the women, using tubes inserted through the nose or mouth often requiring steel gags. When, in 1910, another, narrowly defined, (Conciliation) Bill for women’s suffrage was defeated, Emmeline Pankhurst led a protest march of of 300 women to Parliament Square on what became known as Black Friday. The women met with aggressive police responses, directed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill. Officers punched the marchers, twisted arms, and pulled on women’s breasts. Two women died, one of whom was Emmeline Pankhurt’s own sister. It was thus an example which, together with political stalemate, enflamed militancy further. The government responded with equal severity, including the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which, to avoid public horror at possible deaths, allowed releases for suffragettes facing ill-health due to hunger strikes, subject always to recall.
The cost of the struggle to Emmeline Pankhurst herself was immense. Apart from the suffering of herself and others in prison and force-feeding and with constant harassment outside of prison, her relationships came under strain. As the WSPU began to condone property destruction, several important colleagues, notably the Pethick-Lawrences objected to the tactics and were cast aside. Such figures also included Emmeline’s two younger daughters Sylvia Pankhurst and Adele Pankhurst: the first of whom, despite her remarkable suffrage and socialist work in east London, became largely estranged; the second of whom left for Australia never to see her mother again. Perhaps, as Mary Stocks later commented, the outbreak of the first world war may have saved the WSPU and Emmeline from an ‘ignominious end. It had shot its bolt’. Yet, as she also remarked, ‘what an effective bolt it had been!’
Ironically, for someone raised on the left of politics, in later life Emmeline became a conservative. This began with the first world war where she ended WSPU activity in order to serve the greater purposes of the nation in opposing what she called ‘the German Peril’. She urged women to aid industrial production and encouraged young men to fight, becoming a prominent figure in the White Feather movement. This was much to pacifist suffragists’ chagrin, although arguably such support may thereby have further strengthened conservative support for women’s suffrage. After the war her conservative trajectory continued however, as she became a strong anti-communist and imperialist, and even a Conservative party candidate in the late 1920s. A complex character therefore, but always a fearsome advocate of what she believed, Emmeline Pankhurst made a formidable contribution to the advance of women. Little wonder, in 2002, she was placed at number 27 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
God of Salvation,
we give thanks for the life and work of Emmeline Pankhurst
and for all who have given leadership to the women’s movement.
Grant that we may develop similar insight, personal strength and skills of organisation,
to enable the good of all.
In the name of the Suffering Servant, who laid down his life for others, Amen.