Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst

3, Chester Road (1 Quayton Terrace), Stretford, Lancashire


Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Richard Marsden Pankhurst




Barrister in Active Practice

Stoke, Stafford

Emmeline Pankhurst





Manchester, Lanchashire

Christabel Harriet Pankhurst





Stetford, Lancashire

Katherine Jane Kneole





Kirk Lonan, Isle of Man

Amelia Ann Kneole





Kirk Lonan, Isle of Man

Black hair, glossy. High cheekbones; a flush of red. Eyes almost the colour of violets, absorbed by the cause. Eyebrows pencilled. Neat feet (size: 3?). In the back of her mind, ticking like noisy clock, like one of her migraines, her father's words, "What a pity she wasn't born a lad" - this when she was ten, and her parents were bidding good night to their (as they thought) sleeping children. Now she has a child of her own, Christabel, the immediate fruit of her marriage - marriage, alas, in a brown velvet dress, ugly brass buttons, with none of the bridal elegance and extravagance she had quietly craved. But still: a bold and successful man, twice her age, a man of ideas, a man of law, untidy. She has suggested of dispensing with weddings altogether; not at all shocking; except to their parents. And his parents having both died, the wedding has taken place in a kind of haste, to soothe his depression. Now, though, there is work to be done - not the domestic chores - the Kneole sisters would see to these. They are from the Isle of Man, recommended by her mother's side of the family. Already she is on the committee of the Women's Suffrage Society. No time for her husband's theoretical books; a novel instead. She has been reading since the age of three; she is fluent in French. Her voice is firm, steady, and commanding. Soon, surely, she will have the dowry her father promised her. Her husband Richard calls her "My lady"; a man of conscience, sentiment, and intellect. He must serve in Parliament.

Emmeline Pankhurst (not Emily Pankhurst, as she is often mistakenly called) was born Emmeline Goulden on July 14th 1858 near a village outside Salford. Actually, her birth certificate claims it was July 15th, but she always celebrated July 14th - Bastille Day. As a francophile and a revolutionary, she either adopted July 14th, or her certificate is in error. She was the second child of ten; the eldest daughter of five. Her father Robert had built up a calico bleaching and printing business; her mother Jane was a far from impassive spectator of the political causes her husband supported - emancipation from slavery, parliamentary change, Irish liberation, female suffrage. It was Jane who took Emmeline, then fourteen, to her first suffrage meeting in Manchester. Her new, red-headed and red-bearded husband Richard was already deeply involved in radical politics, and had ambitions to be an M.P., rather than remain a lawyer. He had impressed Emmeline's father as a speaker. Indeed, her father acted as Richard's agent in a Manchester by-election in 1883 which Richard managed to lose badly, and at some cost. When Emmeline attempted, shortly afterwards, to obtain the "dowry" she thought her father had promised, she was rebuffed. She never spoke to her father again. But then, her life was full of fallings-out with her family, with the singular exception of Christabel.

Emmeline and Harry, 1893

Emmeline was involved in local government as a Poor Law guardian from 1894; she was an effective champion of workhouse reform. But her main aim was to champion Richard, who stood for Parliament three times: as an Independent (Manchester); as a Liberal and Radical (Rotherhithe); as an ILP candidate (Manchester again). He lost all three elections, at least partly by tactical blunders, but also by refusing to compromise his principles. He was an easy target in one respect - as an atheist. His servants were known to have remarked on the failure of the Pankhursts to provide any religious instruction. One effect of these losses was to galvanise his family into political action. Another was to create a financial black hole when Richard Pankhurst died in 1898 (she learned of his death on a train, seeing it reported in a newspaper as she travelled back to be with him). Emmeline Pankhurst needed to live; she needed to fulfil her husband's thwarted destiny. She was employed as the registrar in Rusholme, in Manchester; she ran a fancy goods shop, or rather, let her children run it. But it was her suffrage campaign which was her main occupation as well as her passion, having seen the degrading way in which workhouse women were treated. As a registrar, she had also witnessed the sorry trail of single, and sometimes abused mothers; it gave a whetted edge to her commitment.

The Pankhursts had five children, although the autobiography she wrote with the aid of an American journalist names only two - Christabel and Sylvia, her eldest two children. She had a third, and highly political daughter, Adela, however; and although her first son Frank died at the age of 4, her second son Harry was also involved in the "suffragist" cause, until his death from polio in 1910, when he was 20. Adela in particular was incensed that her mother had not even bothered to name her in her account of her life.

Emmeline's close relationship with Christabel was forged through their shared sense of absolute correctness. They were the generals in the war against Liberal and Conservative governments; they ran their affairs with autocratic brilliance; they were not disposed to follow orders, but to issue them. This caused some difficulties when their organisation, the Women's Social and Political Union, took off. There are two common myths about the Pankhursts: the first is that they led "the suffragettes" (a Daily Mail coinage). The other is that they instigated the more violent and militant tactics, including the arson of Lloyd George's half-built home. The truth is that they led the most successful of a number of warring suffragist factions, the history of whose splits and splinters would fill several dog-eared minute-books. The other factions were variously disposed to make greater compromises, or to attach themselves to political parties. Emmeline would do neither. When their members took to violent protest, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst had the boldness to endorse the actions of their members, and then to follow their example. They also believed strongly that their organisation should be all-female.

Both were remarkable orators. Emmeline was still, low-voiced and powerful; Christabel was more emotional, enjoying physical gestures. Both women were also united (as opposed to Sylvia and Adela) to the cause of suffrage itself, and did not ally themselves with any line of political thinking for other than tactical reasons. This led them to fall out with many of the more radical thinkers in their movement. These included Sylvia and Adela, both of whom regarded Emmeline and Christabel as moving away from the radicalism of their father. (Sylvia had been ILP leader Keir Hardie's lover). By 1914, the rift was so pronounced that Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU; about the same time, Adela was provided with ?20 to effect her emigration to Australia. Adela was never to see her Emmeline again. She later became politically active as a communist in her adopted country.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1896

The image of Emmeline Pankhurst in the public mind is essentially contradictory, and it is an image which she played with delicious vigour. She is a rather matriarchal figure, middle-class, good-looking, gasping for the camera as a burly Edwardian policeman lifts her away from Buckingham Palace. She is over-dressed for the occasion, you feel, has come from a respectable funeral. (The veil was incidentally a clever weapon which helped her escape from the police, who once arrested the wrong woman after Emmeline had exchanged hats). This kind of photograph played well. Here was a well-off woman who did not need to intercede like this in public affairs. She is one of the first figures to have a love affair with the lens (something her daughters never, incidentally, achieved). Yet she lived on a financial knife-edge for almost all of her life, during which she was an advert for stamina. Her early tactic was to act as a spoiler at by-elections, of which there were many more, since a change of post within the government then required the resignation of a seat. She was almost perpetually on the move, criss-crossing the country in the Edwardian years.

She had played cat and mouse with the establishment long before the Cat and Mouse Act, or, to give it its proper name, the Prisoner Temporary Discharge For Ill-Health Act, a cunning ruse dreamed up by the exasperated Asquith and Lloyd George. Women who went on hunger strike could be discharged, and then re-arrested; the scale of the force-feeding could thereby be reduced, and the propaganda losses limited. Her more militant career had begun when, in 1905, a private members' bill to introduce women's suffrage was talked out by smirking MPs, of all parties, including the Independent Labour Party to which she then belonged. Their filibuster was achieved in a footling discussion of a bill obliging vehicles to have a rear light. In the ensuing furore, Christabel went to prison. By 1907, Emmeline resigned as registrar under political pressure; and resigned from the ILP, too. She was now precariously dependent on income from a political pressure group, and living in London. She also tried her hand again at running a shop.

In 1908, she was arrested for incitement to riot. At her trial, she proved her skill in spinning phrases. "We are not here because we are law-breakers; we are here in our effort to become law-makers," she announced - perfect resonance, expertly memorable. On her first fund-raising tour of America in autumn 1909, she opened with the ringing irony "I am what you call a hooligan". Her elegance, always insisted upon, defied her opponents (Emmeline had no truck with the anti-feminine "rational" dress code of some of her co-suffragists). The next four years saw her suppress everything in favour of the cause. On the afternoon after Harry's funeral in 1910, she travelled to Manchester to address 2,000 people. On the sun-soaked afternoon of July 23rd, she glowed when a quarter of a million people filled Hyde Park. On "Black Friday", November 22nd, 1911, police broke up a demonstration like bullies let loose; her closest sister, Mary, was arrested - and died not long after being released. Politicians played bluster-and-run, broke promises like cheap saucers. They'd put women on an equal footing; no, there again, they'd give all men over 21 the vote, and suggest that women would catch up. They confiscated her private papers, including mementoes she'd never see again.

In March 1912, having thrown stones at 10 Downing Street - Emmeline had a lousy aim - she led a group of women along Regent Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly, smashing department store windows with hammers. Imprisoned, she threatened the force-feeders with a jug; surprisingly, she was never force-fed herself, although taking part in hunger-strikes. By this time, Christabel had been spirited to France, where Emmeline herself was able to snatch occasional respite. After the arson attack on Lloyd George's property, in which she had played no part, but for which she claimed responsibility, she was given three years' penal servitude. The government and Emmeline played each other - she eluded them, they were glad to be eluded. She only ever served 42 days of this sentence, using her freedom as a 'mouse' to give another lecture tour in the USA.

She was now in her mid-fifties. The expulsion of Sylvia; the break with Adela; the death of Harry; the death of Mary - none of these broke her spirit. In 1914, after a strip-search, she refused to dress herself, and lay, cold, naked and dignified on the floor of the damp cell. The campaign had a momentum of its own. Empty churches were torched; famous paintings slashed; water mains broken. It was only the Great War which brought about a truce. By now, she had effectively ensured that the government would act, as indeed they did in 1916-1918. Ironically, the Representation Of The People Act 1918 contained a compromise of the very kind she loathed - the vote was given to women over the age of 30, and denied to at least a fifth even of these. Yet the triumph was Emmeline Pankhurst's.

Nor were her struggles over. In 1915, astonishingly, she set up a home for fifty illegitimate children, and adopted four of them herself: Elizabeth, Kathleen, Joan and Mary. She campaigned against Germany; she campaigned for Serbia. She visited Russia on the eve of the revolution; she founded, with Christabel, The Women's Party. In the 1918 election, she encouraged Christabel to stand as one of its candidates, against a Labour man. History repeated itself: like her father, Christabel failed to enter the Commons. (Christabel by this time had joined a millennialist sect, the Second Adventists; she had also adopted Elizabeth, her favourite of the four Emmeline had chosen).

Emmeline vanished to America for six years, where she earned her keep as a speaker, campaigning against venereal disease. The three children were brought up by Kate Pine, who had often nursed Emmeline back to health. Kate was to leave after a dispute with Christabel over the respective treatment of Elizabeth (not admonished) and the other three (sternly and firmly held in check). In the penultimate drama of Emmeline's life, she relinquished Kathleen and Joan, who were re-adopted in England, and moved with Mary, Elizabeth and Christabel to the French Riviera, where an attempt to run an English tea-shop collapsed. She returned to England. An attempt at a rapprochement with Sylvia, now living with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio, failed. Sylvia and Emmeline were on opposite sides when the General Strike took place.

Emmeline is often condemned as a turncoat. Some have even criticised her enjoyment of shopping, as if this betrayed some fatal flaw. Perhaps most surprising to her admirers is her selection as the Conservative candidate to fight Whitechapel and St. George's; she was an admirer of Baldwin. She moved to live in the impoverished constituency. Sylvia - unmarried, as Emmeline had once suggested to Richard they should be - gave birth to a son in late 1927. A frantic campaign to conceal this from Emmeline ended when local hecklers, and then newspapers got wind of the story. Emmeline was now dying. She had at least lived to see the 1928 Act pass its second reading in March in the Commons, giving all women over 21 the vote. A few months later, on June 14th 1928, she died. She was almost 70.

As if to stress how close she had always stayed only just within her means, she left just ?86 5s 6d in her will. When the 1911 census is released, Emmeline Pankhurst will not be discovered in it. She scrawled across the enumerator's page "No Votes - No Census".


Christabel's second name was Harriette, not Harriet. Richard Pankhurst was actually 45 at the time of the 1881 census, not 44.


My Story, by Emmeline Pankurst Greenwood Press, 1914

(co-written by Rheta Childe Dorr)

The Pankhursts, by Martin Pugh Allen Lane, 2001

Emmeline Pankhurst, by June Purvis Routledge, 2002



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