Emmeline Pankhurst

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Biography of Emmeline Pankhurst, who appeared in Time magazine as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

She fought hard for the right of women to vote, to eradicate poverty and to end ignorance.

A woman of great charisma, with a formidable talent to harangue the masses, and passionate until she reached violence. Her work was a crucial element in achieving women’s suffrage in Britain in 1918.

Childhood and family of Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Goulden was born on July 15, 1858.

Her mother, Sophia Jane Craine, was from the Isle of Man, dependent on the British Crown and situated between England and Ireland; known for its rugged coastline and for its medieval castles.

In 1881, the Isle of Man was the first country to grant women a vote in national elections.

Her father Robert Goulden came from a modest Manchester merchant family. The Gouldens had eleven children.

Emmeline was the eldest of five daughters

Robert Golden was an enthusiastic dramatic performance partner at the Manchester Athenaeum and participated in the Dramatic Reading Society.

He owned a theater in Salford and played the main character in several William Shakespeare plays there.

The Gouldens were clearly against slavery in the United States and in favor of women’s suffrage in England.

Emmeline’s mother frequently chose “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a lullaby for her children.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s life in her youth

From an early age, Emmeline began reading history books; Among her favorites were the three volumes of “The French Revolution” by Thomas Carlyle.

However, Emmeline was unable to study like her siblings, as the parents believed that daughters should only learn what was necessary to create an attractive home and please potential husbands.

Emmeline’s parents’ support for women’s suffrage did not include accepting that their daughters were able to achieve the same goals as men.

Emmeline married Richard Pankhurst

In the fall of 1878, at the age of 20, Emmeline Goulden met Richard Pankhurst, a 44-year-old lawyer, who had fought for women’s suffrage and educational reform.

Their mutual attraction was intense and they married on December 18, 1879. They went to live at Emmeline’s parents’ house.

They had five children in ten years: Christabel (1880), Estelle (1882), Francis (1884), Adela (1885), Henry Francis (1890).

Richard Pankhurst’s political ideas clashed too much with that of his father-in-law, Robert Goulden.

In 1885, after Richard failed to be elected to Parliament, he decided to move to London with his family.

In September 1888, little Francis contracted diphtheria and died.

Upon discovering that a faulty drainage system in the back of their home had caused their son’s illness, the Pankhurst went to live in a middle-class district in Russell Square.

Soon after, Emmeline gave birth to her fifth child, whom they named Henry Francis.

The Pankhurst engaged in active politics

The Pankhurst house in Russell Square became a Center for political activity, with occasional lodgings and where business meetings of the various activist and anarchist groups that gathered around them were held.

Famous activists dedicated to obtaining the right to vote for women passed by; diverse groups were formed: some, advocating to achieve objectives little by little; others, determined to go for it all, immediately.

In 1893 the Pankhurst closed their London shop, spending several months in Southport, then Disley; finally they settled in Victoria Park, in Manchester.

Emmeline Pankhurst stopped being moderate in politics

Emmeline started working on her own with various political organizations, but was quickly disappointed with the moderate positions of her group.

She joined the newly created Independent Labor Party, trusting that the PLI would put in place the necessary means to correct the political and social ills in Britain.

One of her first activities with the PLI was to distribute food to the poor through the “Committee for Assistance to the Unemployed“.

She was horrified by what she observed in the Manchester poor houses: girls of 7 and 8 years old scrubbing the floor in the corridors, women in an advanced state of pregnancy and others with their babies on their breasts, doing heavy work.

Emmeline Pankhurst decided to dedicate herself body and soul to changing these sad conditions of life and became a spokesperson for the movement in favor of approving the “Law of the Poor“.

In 1897, Richard Pankhurst’s health began to deteriorate severely; Hoping that the fresh air would aid their recovery, they moved to the field.

Before long, Richard felt well again and they returned to Manchester.

But, in the summer of 1898, while Emmeline was in Switzerland with her older daughter Christabel, Richard got worse.

Emmeline returned immediately, but when she was on the train from London to Manchester, she read in a newspaper the announcement of her husband’s death.

Emmeline Pankhurst after her husband died

She moved with her family to a smaller house, and got a job at the Civil Registry, in the Birth and Death Section.

This work gave her a deeper insight into the sad conditions of women.

In her autobiography, she wrote: “They used to tell me stories; some of them terrible stories, and all of them pathetic, with a moving resignation to poverty“.

In 1900 Emmeline was elected to serve on the Manchester School Board and witnessed new cases of women forced to endure unfair treatment and with few opportunities to improve their condition.

During this time she reopened her store, in order to obtain an additional income for the family.

Her eldest daughter Christabel soon became involved in the suffrage movement and joined her mother in activities and street protests.

Her daughter Sylvia got a scholarship to the Manchester School of Art. Later she went to study art in Florence and Venice.

Emmeline saw that after many years of speeches and repeated promises by members of Parliament, there had been no progress in what women suffragettes demanded.

The bills in 1870, 1886, and 1897 were promising, but none of them had gone through.

Founder of the Political and Social Union of Women

On October 10, 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and several colleagues founded the WSPU, “Women’s Political and Social Union“, an organization that only women could access, and whose sole objective was to take direct action to win the right from women to vote.

Their motto was: “Actions, not words“.

Initially, the WSPU did not employ violent tactics. In addition to giving speeches and getting signatures, it organized rallies and published a newsletter.

However, Emmeline had to admit that “the condition of our sex is so deplorable that we will have to break the law, to draw attention to the reasons why we do what we do“.

When on May 12, 1905, a new bill for women’s suffrage was defeated in Parliament, the WSPU mounted a protest that garnered massive support.

It was shown that the WSPU was already a political force to be reckoned with.

Emmeline was arrested as a troublemaker

Emmeline’s three daughters became active members of the WSPU and were arrested multiple times.

Emmeline herself was arrested for the first time in February 1908, when she attempted to enter Parliament to deliver a letter of protest to the Prime Minister.

They sentenced her to six weeks in prison.

Emmeline described the harsh conditions of her first imprisonment: “like those of a human being in the process of being transformed into a wild beast“.

But she did not flinch; and in June 1909, to ensure her arrest, she struck an officer twice in the face.

Emmeline’s fight for women’s suffrage

The WSPU decided to oppose matches that did not have women’s suffrage as a priority.

The group was protesting against all the candidates who belonged to the ruling government party, since the latter refused to pass the legislation that would give women the vote.

The WSPU was gaining recognition and notoriety. Emmeline maintained a tight grip on maintaining the group’s exclusive goal.

Anyone who started trying to change this rule was immediately terminated.

The inviolable standard was “There is nothing that can be changed or played with or fought over during meetings. The WSPU is simply a suffragette army on a battlefield“.

On June 21, 1908, 500,000 activists gathered in Hyde Park to demand the right to vote for women.

Outraged by the indifference of politicians and police abuses, twelve women tried to make speeches about women’s suffrage in Parliament Square and two others went to 10 Downing Street and threw stones at the windows of the Prime Minister’s home.

In June 1909, the WSPU incorporated the imprisoned members’ hunger strike into its repertoire of resistance.

Prison authorities had to force-feed these women, using tubes inserted through the nose or through the mouth; These techniques required the use of steel jaws to hold the mouth open.

The reaction of the doctors and the press was to condemn this violence.

Emmeline Pankhurst
Portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913. Credit: Wikipedia, Matzene

The leader of another group of suffragettes, Millicent Fawcett, opposed violence on the streets and declared that hunger strikes were mere publicity ruses and that violent activists had become the main obstacle on the way to the movement’s success. suffragist.

Millicent Fawcett, brave and intelligent suffragette, like Emmeline Pankhurst. Credit: public domain. Reuter

In 1913, many prominent members left the WSPU, including Emmeline’s daughters: Adela and Sylvia. Adela went to Australia and Silvia joined the Socialist Party.

Emmeline Pankhurst
Emmeline Pankhurst detained at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Credit: Wikimedia.

Emmeline during the First World War

During World War I, all the WSPU dams were released, Christabel was able to return to London.

Emmeline established a truce with the government; and launched the WSPU to assist in war efforts, in the field crops and in industrial production.

She devoted the same energy and determination that she had previously given to women’s suffrage to patriotic defense in war efforts.

She organized government support rallies and toured across the country urging women to join the workforce.

Under these circumstances, there was a problem that troubled her greatly: war babies.

Emmeline established an adoption home for war orphans, designed to use the Montessori Method in the education of children.

Emmeline Pankhurst adopted four of these children and together they lived in London, where she had a permanent residence in Holland Park.

In 1916, she toured the United States and Canada, collecting funds and exhorting American rulers to support England and its allies.

Emmeline Pankhurst haranguing a crowd in New York. Credit: Wikipedia. Topical Press Agency

In June 1917, Prime Minister David Lloyd George facilitated a trip to Russia for her to enlist the support of the Russians for the Allies.

In Petrograd she addressed the crowds saying: “I came to Petrograd with a prayer from the English nation to the Russian nation, that you continue the war on which the freedom of civilization depends“.

Emmeline met with Alexander Kerensky, the Russian Prime Minister, to also ask for his support against Facist Germany.

Emmeline later declared to the New York Times that Kerensky was the “greatest fraud of modern times” and that his government could destroy Western civilization.

Triumphs in favor of women’s suffrage

In 1918, the British Parliament granted the vote to all men over 21 and women over 30, giving more than 8 million women the right to vote.

The law also allowed women to be eligible for Parliament.

In fact, the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons was Nancy Astor, who won a partial election at Plymouth Sutton on December 1, 1919.

WSPU became the “Women’s Party” dedicated to promoting women’s equality in public life, equal marriage laws, equal pay for the same job, and equal job opportunities for women.

Emmeline Pankhurst in the 1920s

Emmeline defended the existence of the British Empire: “Some think that the Empire is something that should be condemned and that we should be ashamed. It is a great pride to be the heirs of an Empire like ours … with great economic potential. .. If we used this potential properly, we could eradicate poverty and end ignorance“.

For years she traveled throughout England and North America, promoting support for the British Empire and warning audiences about the danger of communism.

In Canada, Emmeline saw that there was a policy of equality between men and women to her liking; in 1922 she rented a house in Toronto, where she moved with her four adoptive children.

However, before long she got fed up with the long Canadian winters and ran out of money.

She returned to England in late 1925, and was reunited with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel; but they had followed very different paths and the initial affection turned into a sad distancing.

In 1926 Emmeline joined the Conservative Party. The experiences lived in the war and what she had learned in America, had considerably modified her vision of politics; she was convinced that communism was a danger to the West.

She had the support of a large number of voters; and she thought that belonging to the Conservative Party could better secure women’s newly won right to vote.

In 1927, she was elected as a Conservative Party candidate in Stepney.

Last years in the life of Emmeline Pankhurst

The continuous trips, marches, imprisonments and hunger strikes had reduced her health; fatigue and illness became permanent.

She decided to apply for a place at a nursing home in Hampstead.

On July 2, 1928, the Conservative government extended the vote to all women over the age of 21.

Death of Emmeline Pankhurst

But, Emmeline could not enjoy this triumph, since she had died two weeks earlier, on June 14, 1928, at the age of 69 years.

In Spain, another courageous and determined woman, Clara Campoamor, was also fighting for the recognition of women’s rights.

The news of Emmeline Pankhurst’s death had wide repercussions in the press in England and North America.

The Daily Mail, the New York Times, and the New York Herald Tribune described her as the most notable social agitator of the early part of the twentieth century and the paramount protagonist of the women’s emancipation campaign; she was compared to Martin Luther King and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Her funeral service on June 18, 1929, was well attended and was attended by many of her colleagues at WSPU and those who worked with her in different areas and times.

An order was given to place one of her portraits in the National Portrait Gallery.

Shortly after the funeral, funds were raised to raise a statue for her.

Very soon, on March 6, 1930, her statue was unveiled in the Garden of the Victoria Tower, to the sound of the hymn “The march of women” executed by the Metropolitan Police Band.

In 1987, one of her Manchester houses was restored as a “Pankhurst Center”, a museum and a meeting place exclusively for women.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

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