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In the Spotlight: Emmeline Pankhurst, b. 1859

“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”

These were the words of Emmeline Pankhurst during her court trial in 1908.

October 23rd marks the anniversaries of both the first National Women’s Rights Convention which took place in Massachusetts in 1850, and the 1915 Fifth Avenue Women’s March in New York, when almost 33,000 women paraded the streets in order to advocate their right to vote. I therefore thought it fitting to celebrate one of the most influential proponents of female suffrage in Great Britain.

(Photo credit: the Mirror)

Pankhurst developed a social conscious at an early age as her parents were both ardent supporters of the antislavery movement and encouraged human rights. After attending suffrage meetings with her mother, Pankhurst quickly became a giant within the movement.However, though her radically political parents fed her wish to popularise social freedom, Emmeline resented the importance that was placed solely upon the education of her brothers, whilst little consideration went towards educating Emmeline and her sisters. 

Her husband, Richard Pankhurst, was also a firm believer in the social and political emancipation of women, and his ideas did a lot to bolster Emmeline’s. In 1889 the couple founded the Women’s Franchise League. However, the movement was deemed hopelessly out of touch with society, and by 1903, the Pankursts’ daughter had convinced her parents to form a more ardent organisation.

Pankhurst is perhaps most recognised for forming the Women’s Social and Political Union, the leading militant organisation campaigning for women’s suffrage in Great Britain from 1903 to until the end of World War I. The Union’s militant tactics earned Pankhurst several imprisonments as the women regularly refused food, soon the notoriety WSPU had them labelled “suffragettes” rather than “suffragists.” Emily Davison famously stepped in front of the horse of King George V at the Epsom Derby, suffering fatal injuries. Her funeral, on the 14th June 1913, was organised by the WSPU, and was attended by thousands of suffragettes.

(Photo credit: Labour uncut)

The arson, window smashing, and hunger strikes caught the attention of the press and public until 1914, when Emmeline took a nationalistic stance and turned her attention to supporting the war effort. Emmeline Pankhurst died on 14 June 1928, only weeks before the Conservative government’s Representation of the People Act extended the vote to all women over 21 years of age. Described by the Daily Mail as “a dead general in the midst of a mourning army”, Pankhurst was never to acknowledge the impact she had in both Great Britain and North America. However, her legacy lived on through her daughters and colleagues who eventually won universal suffrage, a giant step towards equality between men and woman.

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