Emmeline Pankhurst: Trailblazer for Women's Right To Vote

Another day, another arrest: Emmeline Pankhurst is manhandled away from Buckingham Palace by a burly police officer
Another day, another arrest: Emmeline Pankhurst is manhandled away from Buckingham Palace by a burly police officer

by Ray Setterfield


July 15, 1858 — Stop the average early twentieth century man in a London street and ask him what “suffrage” meant and he would probably have said it meant having to wait for his wife to cook the evening meal.

Those who knew it meant the right to vote would mostly have been aghast at the suggestion this should include women. At the time it was argued that the female mind simply could not understand how Parliament worked and therefore women should not take part in the electoral process.

Emmeline Pankhurst, who was born on this day, was at the forefront of the movement that set out to change this thinking. Emmeline, known as the champion of women’s rights, was the founder in 1903 of the Women’s Social and Political Union – the Suffragettes – a militant group that included her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, and believed in the use of violence to get what they wanted.

As Emmeline told one meeting: “There is something that governments care for more than human life, and that is the security of property. And so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy... Those of you who can break windows, break them. Those of you who can still further attack the secret idol of property, do so. And my last word is to the Government: I incite this meeting to rebellion!”

In 1905 a pivotal political meeting was held in Manchester where those on the platform included two prominent members of the Liberal Party – Winston Churchill, shortly to become Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, and Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary.

In those days heckling at public meetings was almost unknown and speakers were usually heard courteously and in silence. So there were gasps when two women shouted out to Churchill and Grey, questioning whether they believed women should have the right to vote.

Neither man answered. Then, to the amazement of those in the hall, the women – later identified as Christabel Pankhurst and fellow Suffragette Annie Kenney – produced a banner proclaiming “Votes for Women” and shouted at the two politicians to answer their questions.

They were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for causing an obstruction and a technical assault on a police officer. Both refused to pay a fine and were sent to prison.

Emmeline later wrote in her autobiography: “This was the beginning of a campaign the like of which was never known in England, or for that matter in any other country . . . we interrupted a great many meetings . . . and we were violently thrown out and insulted. Often we were painfully bruised and hurt.”

In pursuit of their aims the Suffragettes took to smashing windows, cutting electricity wires, chaining themselves to railings and blowing up post boxes. They frequently assaulted police officers. Works of art in public galleries were damaged and in 1913 they even bombed a house being built for David Lloyd George, the future Prime Minister.

But most dramatically, in the same year, Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison stepped in front of the King’s horse during a race meeting and died after being trampled. It is believed she was trying to pin a banner of Suffragette colours on the King’s racehorse.

This approach was a far cry from that adopted by the unsung Millicent Fawcett who in 1897 had first held aloft the torch of women’s rights and founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage. Millicent believed in peaceful protest and sought to persuade with patience and logical arguments.

From the sidelines she said later of Mrs Pankhurst’s Suffragettes: “I can never feel that setting fire to houses and churches and letter boxes and destroying valuable pictures really helps to convince people that women ought to be enfranchised.”

Suffragettes who went to prison frequently went on hunger strike, posing yet another problem for the Government: it was concerned that they might die in prison, thus giving the movement martyrs. And force-feeding of these (mostly) middle-class women was considered unacceptable and had already caused a public outcry.

So a new law was passed – the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act. It allowed for the early release of prisoners who were so weakened by hunger-striking that they were at risk of death. But they were to be recalled to prison once their health was recovered, where the process would begin again.

When war was declared against Germany in 1914, leading Suffragettes called an end to militant tactics, redirecting their energies into the war effort.

And when the war ended, in a changed British society, the Representation of the People Act (1918) gave the vote to 8.4 million women over the age of 30.

Emmeline Pankhurst did not live to see full equal voting rights for women: she died 18 days before the Representation of the People Act (1928) extended the vote to all women over 21.

The dedicated campaigner, who had been jailed eleven times for her cause, was 69.

Published: June 19, 2019


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