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Emmeline Pankhurst

From Women in European History

A critical biography by Ah Rume (Julie) Park

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1929)

Emmeline Pankhurst was a prominent woman suffragist from Great Britain who led the suffrage movement with unwavering resolution and unprecedented tactics. Her autobiography, My Own Story, delineates not only her use of tactics that were more radical and aggressive than those of her predecessors, but also reveals her motivation and determination. Pankhurst’s advocacy for women’s suffrage signified a greater concern for human rights, as she believed that women voters would be able to help resolve social injustices such as poverty. She herself attacked a government that valued property more than human rights. Furthermore, she pointed out that men and women shared equally important responsibilities in society and tried to reduce gender inequality by improving women’s political rights. She also spread her tactics and ideas on the suffrage movement overseas, particularly the United States, prompting a more progressive women's movement worldwide. Pankhurst challenged women's social inequality and opened a new era of the women’s movement by using militant tactics to claim political rights for women.


The Making of a Militant

Emmeline Pankhurst (left) and her daughters, Christabel (middle) and Sylvia (right)

Pankhurst was brought up in a setting that made her socially aware starting at a young age. She was born on July 15th, 1858 in Manchester, England, to parents who were actively involved in many social movements of their time, including the antislavery movement (for more information on abolitionism, see Additional Background Material for Anna Leonowens). Her childhood was characterized by a loving family, a comfortable home, and a good education, but she began to develop convictions about the “incomplete ideal” of gender relationships when she found out that her education was to “make home attractive” while her brother’s was considered a “much more serious matter."[1]

She was fourteen years old when she attended her first suffrage meeting and reasoned that she had “always been an unconscious suffragist” as she could “scarcely have been otherwise…with [her] temperament and her surroundings.[2] Through discussing social issues with her brother and attending social movement meetings, Pankhurst developed her own opinion about social injustices and was ready to put her thoughts into action; she was 'fit' to become a suffragist. Although she did not personally suffer from “deprivations…that bring many men and women to a realization of social injustice,” she got a “close hand view of the misery and unhappiness of a manmade world, before [she] reached the point where [she] could successfully revolt against it."[3] Pankhurst's social awareness and involvement in the women's movement stemmed from actively helping those in need. Furthermore, by participating in the suffrage movement, Pankhurst hoped to enable policy changes through women's enfranchisement.

Pankhurst was committed to women’s voting rights because she thought women’s suffrage was not only a right but also a necessity.[4] She drew together ideas on women's individual rights and their involvement in "social housekeeping" to justify and demand suffrage for women. Pankhurst believed that “women have more practical ideas about relief…than men display” and thought that enfranchised women would find ways to lessen poverty by participating in policy making.[5] Pankhurst also used the rising idea of individualism, supported by John Stuart Mill, to campaign for women's suffrage. She pointed out that women suffered for their families, but not for themselves: “Women had always fought for men, and for their children. Now they are ready to fight for their own human rights."[6] Here, Pankhurst not only brought attention to the role of women in maintaining and running a household, but also their rights to express themselves by exercising political rights. Observing differences in education, social positions, and political rights between men and women, Pankhurst asserted that “men regarded women as a servant class in the community, and that women were going to remain in the servant class until they lifted themselves out of it."[7] Pankhurst reproached the submissive role of women in society and the passiveness of women's movement at the time, and called for more aggressive action on women's part. She thought that having political rights would enable women to not only exercise their rights as citizens but also to have constructive impacts on the country's social policies.

In addition to having been brought up under parents who supported various social issues, Pankhurst’s family members were also deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement. She met her husband, Dr. Richard Pankhurst, who drafted the first enfranchisement bill known as the Women’s Disabilities Removal Bill, while working for the women’s suffrage movement. Both of her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, were also active suffragettes and worked alongside their mother. While many suffragettes were denounced for neglecting household duties and deviating from womanly behavior, Pankhurst did not face opposition from her family because her whole family was involved in the suffragist movement. To her, family served as another outlet for enacting her ideas about women's voting rights.

The environment in which Pankhurst was brought up, her own family's support of the suffrage movement, and her exposure to social issues all contributed to Pankhurst's development as a leader of an aggressive women's suffrage movement.

The Women’s Social and Political Union

The Women's Social and Political Union: Deeds, Not Words

Pankhurst’s progressive philosophy was represented by her involvement with, and establishment of, suffrage organizations. Pankhurst served in various suffrage organizations, such as the Women’s Suffrage Society and the Women’s Franchise League, until she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (W. S. P. U.) in October, 1903. The permanent motto of the W. S. P. U. was “deeds, not words,” and the organization was so named in order to “emphasize its democracy” and “define its object as political rather than propagandist."[8] The W. S. P. U. was not to be “hampered by a complexity of rules” and was a voluntary, “suffrage army in the field" with the single goal of achieving women's suffrage [9] Pankhurst emphasized that the W. S. P. U. was composed of women of all classes of the community, including working women, professional women, and women of royal rank, in order to show that women’s suffrage was desired by women of all classes.[10] The women of the W. S. P. U. discarded conventional notions of what was ‘ladylike’ and ‘good form’ and adopted more aggressive methods in order to achieve their goal; instead of using passive means, such as petitioning or coaxing members of the parliament, they disrupted parliament members' speeches; distributed suffrage literature; held street meetings to increase people's awareness; and most notably, resorted to militant tactics to further their cause.

The Women’s Revolution

Pankhurst being arrested; resisting the police

After a more peaceful approach proved ineffective, the W. S. P. U. employed militant tactics that defied the previous notions of ‘proper women,’ and as a result, brought attention to the women’s suffrage movement. The ideas behind militancy and the attack of public and private properties were represented in Pankhurst’s speech: “There is something that government cares for more for than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy."[11] Pankhurst thought it was the W. S. P. U.’s duty to “restore…true values, to emphasize the value of human rights against property rights."[12] Pankhurst urged women to “be militant each in your own way” and encouraged participation in the cause for women suffrage in every way.[11] During demonstrations, women demolished glass panes as they passed and put bombs in letter boxes so that the letters were destroyed by corrosive chemicals. One of the suffragettes, Emily Davison, jumped in front of King George V's horse and died four days later, sacrificing her life to show the desire and the need for women's suffrage. Pankhurst recollected that one of the suffragette prisoners said, “we have tried demonstrations, and now at last we have to break windows. I wish I had broken more."[13] The women of the W. S. P. U. felt that “the only way to attain women’s suffrage was to commit a government to it” and in order to end the government’s ignorance, “a demonstration such as no old-fashioned suffragist had ever attempted” was needed.[14]

The policies of the W. S. P. U. during this period were of "high visibility and disrupted patriarchal structures" to draw attention to their cause.[15] Propriety for women at the time did not include drawing attention to themselves in public spaces by holding rallies, vandalizing or breaking laws. While participating in such activities was effective since it drew attention to the cause, doing so required a substantial commitment from the woman who broke social mores and drew attention also to herself.[15] Every militant act of the W. S. P. U. required bravery from each member and Pankhurst encouraged them through resisting the government, even to the point of being sentenced to time in prison

Instead of neutralizing gender differences, the women of the W. S. P. U. accentuated femininity and demanded political rights for women, who they believed shared equal burden and responsibilities with men in society. The "flagrant femininity" was one of its most striking political tactics of the W. S. P. U., as they refused to give up their dresses and hats."[16] The women of the W. S. P. U. "never fought man to man, making quite clear that they were proud to be women."[16] Breaking windows and bombing mailboxes did not match with the image of long dresses and ornate hats. As a result of emphasizing their femininity, the militant tactics of the suffragettes were further highlighted and differentiated from other militant social movements at the time. By retaining gender identity outwardly, the suffragettes put political focus on the women in women's interests.

The Women's Movement: The Press and the Public Recognition

The Suffragette, a publication of the W. S. P. U.

Despite a press boycott of her activities, Pankhurst led “campaign[s] to arouse the public to the importance of woman suffrage” and distributed various suffrage literature, including the Suffragette, which was printed and handed out at street meetings.[17] However, as the W. S. P. U. adopted militant tactics, the government led a press boycott against Women’s suffrage. While the street meetings and militant actions were scandalous enough to draw the public’s attention, the press purposely neglected the women’s suffrage movement to de-emphasize the women’s efforts and the cause and the average man still remained ignorant of the history of the women’s movement. The press boycott reflected the fact that the government did not recognize the women’s actions as politically legitimate and did not want the public to be stirred by the women’s movement and think that women’s suffrage should be established. With recognition and demand from the general public, not just women suffragists, it would become harder for the government to ignore the women’s movement. Every effort made by the Government to suppress the Suffragette, however, failed and the newsletter continued to come out regularly every week.[18] The continued publication of the Suffragette signified the women suffragists' persistence and refusal to be silenced.

Because Pankhurst used militant tactics to advocate for women's suffrage, her work, especially in war relief and human rights movement, was not recognized until she diverged from militancy. Although Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel were leading female figures at the time, they were not included in Who’s Who, a biographical compendia of eminent persons in 19th and 20th century England, until 1914. While the name of the book changed from Men of the Time to Men and Women of the Time to reflect the growing involvement of women in society, feminists, especially those that employed militant tactics, were omitted from the selection.[19] The sudden addition of the Pankhursts in 1914 was a result of the temporary suspension of their militant campaign to devote themselves entirely to the war effort (for more information on World War II, read additional background material in Elena Skrjabina's biography). Pankhurst “devoted all her time to National Service; has taken active part in recruiting work and made many speeches on the War."[20] Only when she diverged from militancy on behalf of the suffrage cause did Pankhurst receive recognition for her work for human rights.

As a Political Prisoner

Emmeline Pankhurst is greeted by numerous suffragettes upon her return from the prison

Pankhurst was sent to jail numerous times due to her militant activities. While serving in prison, Pankhurst and other suffragettes were not classified as political prisoners because the militant tactics they used to fight for women's suffrage were not recognized by the government as "political." The government at the time applauded “men’s blood-shedding militancy” in the name of nationalism while punishing women’s symbolic militancy with prison sentences.[21] By refusing to recognize the suffragettes as political prisoners, the government intentionally ignored the women’s political purpose and categorized the women as “troublemakers” of society. Nevertheless, Pankhurst insisted that the women suffragists were political prisoners and enforced hunger strikes to defy unreasonably long prison sentences. Pankhurst urged imprisoned women to “insist on refusing to abide by ordinary prison rules."[22] By this, she did not mean to avoid punishment, but to assert the suffragette’s rights to be recognized as political prisoners. Pankhurst was sent to prison numerous times and accepted the sentences as a “punishment for a leader of an agitation disagreeable to the Government."[23] However, she used hunger strikes and even thirst strikes as protests against unfair and long prison sentences (for example, three months in jail for breaking a window). Pankhurst referred to herself as a “prisoner of war…who feels no sense of guilt” and encouraged and strengthened the will of many other suffragettes to protest against unfair prison sentences.

The British government not only force-fed the suffrage prisoners on hunger strike, but also passed the “Cat and Mouse Act,” which released a hunger striking suffrage prisoner until she regained strength enough to serve out the remainder of her sentence. While the women suffragists were not being classified as political prisoners, they were to be temporarily released in order to fully serve their terms, unlike regular inmates. The government’s initial purpose would have been to reduce the suffrage activities both by confining the active women in jail, and deterring others from following their example by showing that militant actions would be severely punished. However, by passing the act, the government in a way distinguished women suffragists from regular prisoners and classified them as de facto political prisoners. Pankhurst said that “the idea of militant suffragists respecting a law of this order is almost humorous,” reflecting that the government inflicted undeserved punishments on the women suffragists.[24] The suffragettes, however, came out of prison “injured in health, weakened in body, but not in spirit."[25] Pankhurst utilized even her prison sentence as a means to claim more political recognition for women.

Transatlantic Suffrage Movement

Elizabeth Robins, an American suffragette who collaborated with Pankhurst to prompt a more aggressive women's suffrage movement in the U. S.

Pankhust’s impact on women’s suffrage was not limited to England; by communicating with women from other parts of the world, notably the United States, she facilitated more active women’s suffrage movements around the globe. In My Own Story, Pankhurst frequently addressed the American readers by using phrases such as, “I can assure the American women” and “I knew that I had found friends in America."[26] During her first visit to the United States, Pankhurst found the suffrage movement in the United States in a “curious state of quiescence,” as she saw that American women wanted a vote but did not necessarily realize the need for it.[27] During her later visit to the United States, however, Pankhurst was “delighted to find a thoroughly alive and progressive suffrage movement."[28] Pankhurst knew from experience that a passive women’s movement would not bring about a change in women’s political role in society, if there at all, and was glad to find such lively movement that was capable of bringing progress to the women’s movement in the U. S.

Elizabeth Robin, an actress and a novelist, was one of the notable American suffragists who helped to bring such a change in the United States by working with Pankhurst. While she was in England to stage plays, she became one of the most “able propagandists of militant feminism, both as a speaker and a writer."[29] Robin was particularly effective in relating militant tactics of the British suffragettes to her more “law-abiding American sisters."[29] American and British suffragettes shared tactics and complaints through visits and letters, urged each other on with telegrams and flowers, and introduced suffragist leaders to each other. Such a transatlantic suffrage movement suggests that the essential nature of women’s movements is internationalism and those women served causes greater than their own.[29] The militant tactics used by the British suffragettes spurred a more progressive movement by the American suffragettes that caught the attention of the American government and the public. As a result, the women’s movements were gaining more power and evolving through the sharing of information and support. The transatlantic effort further showed that Pankhurst’s concern for women’s voting rights was not limited to England, but was used to improve lives of women throughout the world.

The Pankhurst statue in London

Upon her release from prison after inciting a rush on the House of Commons in 1908, Pankhurst was awarded a medal for her activist efforts.[30]. Ten years after the medal was awarded, British women older than 30 years were granted the right to vote under the Representation of the People Act of 1918. Ten years later, the year Pankhurst passed away, women gained the same voting rights as men under the Representation of the People Act of 1928.[30] Subsequently, many women throughout the world gained suffrage, though some women still do not have voting rights to this day. The Pankhurst medal symbolizes the struggle that women went through in order to gain suffrage.

Emmeline Pankhurst reflected about her autobiography: "Hastily prepared as it has been, it will give the reader of the future a clearer impression of the strenuousness and the desperation of the conflict, and also something of the heretofore undreamed of courage and fighting strength of women, who, having learned the joy of battle, lose all sense of fear and continue their struggle up to and past the gates of death, never flinching at any step of the way."[31] Pankhurst recorded her thoughts and policies on the women’s suffrage movement in order to show that women at the time fought bravely in the face of hardships. By using militant tactics and showing assertiveness that deviated from the proper image of women at the time, Pankhurst initiated and led the women’s suffrage movement that granted women the deserved right to vote. Through her life, we can trace not only the progressive women’s suffrage movement in England and other parts of the world, but also the growing recognition of women’s rights and role in society in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because of Pankhurst’s efforts, the brave actions of the women suffragists are now recognized as political and just.


  1. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 6.
  2. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 9.
  3. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 17.
  4. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 28.
  5. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 31.
  6. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 57.
  7. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 35.
  8. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 38.
  9. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 59.
  10. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 237.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 265.
  12. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 281.
  13. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 219.
  14. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 43,45.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Unwin, Melanie. "The 1908 Pankhurst Medal: Remembering the Campaign for Votes for Women in Parliament." Parliamentary History. 27.3 (2008): 437.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Jane, Marcus. “Transatlantic Sisterhood: Labor and Suffrage Links in the Letters of Elizabeth Robins and Emmeline Pankhurst.” Signs. 3. The University of Chicago Press, 1978. 751.
  17. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 61.
  18. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 350.
  19. Park, Jihang. "Women of Their Time: The Growing Recognition of the Second Sex in Victorian and Edwardian England." Journal of Social History. 21.1 (1987): 49.
  20. Park, Jihang. "Women of Their Time: The Growing Recognition of the Second Sex in Victorian and Edwardian England." Journal of Social History. 21.1 (1987): 59.
  21. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 268.
  22. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 134.
  23. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 236.
  24. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 303.
  25. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 292.
  26. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 15,160.
  27. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 161.
  28. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 183.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Jane, Marcus. “Transatlantic Sisterhood: Labor and Suffrage Links in the Letters of Elizabeth Robins and Emmeline Pankhurst.” Signs. 3. The University of Chicago Press, 1978. 745.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Unwin, Melanie. "The 1908 Pankhurst Medal: Remembering the Campaign for Votes for Women in Parliament." Parliamentary History. 27.3 (2008): 436.
  31. Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London: VIRAGO, 1979. 324.

(See Margaret Thatcher's biography for other British women in politics)

Annotated Bibliography - Emmeline Pankhurst

Additional Background Information: Representation of the People Acts

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