Bookish Birthdays: Emmeline Pankhurst

13th Jul 2012

Suffragette Emily Pankhurst at London's Trafalgar Square

Emmeline Pankhurst, born 15th July 1858, was not only a notable figure of the Western feminist movement, but one of the most important people of the 20th century as a whole.

Controversial and powerful, her actions and beliefs as part of the suffragette movement still ripple strongly throughout the 21st century.

Born to parents Sophia Jane Craine and Robert Goulden, she came in to the world with parents steeped in political agitation, which lead to her introduction to the suffragette movement from the age of eight.

Despite the support of aggressive political sources by her parents, Pankhurst was never privileged by education, though maintained a strong passion for reading.

Many biographies celebrate the fact she read Odyssey at the age of nine and cited her favourite book as The French Revolution: A History which she said “remained all my life a source of inspiration.”

Pankhurst was raised in a house of hypocrisy as her parents were supporters of women’s equalities yet expected their daughters to marry young and avoid paid work.

Pankhurst marked a moment when she was fourteen years old as the time she found herself in complete alliance with the suffragette movement.

After reading her mother’s Women’s Suffrage Journal, she became enamoured with the editor Lydia Becker; when she discovered that Becker would be speaking at a women’s rights conference, she insisted on attending, and said of the night “I left the meeting a conscious and confirmed suffragist.”

At 20 years old, she began courtship with Richard Pankhurst, a man 24 years her senior, and an advocate of women’s suffrage. During their time together they developed many advanced women’s rights groups, leaving behind many of the larger leagues to form more radical movements that attempted to make the vote free for all women, whether they were married or not.

After her husband’s death in 1898, Pankhurst’s more radical behaviour started to develop and so she began the actions she is famous for today. She founded the Women’s Social and Political Union that was dedicated to “deeds, not words”. They often placed themselves in direct opposition to political parties and began their growingly infamous behaviour.

The members smashed windows and attacked police officers in protest of the suppression of women, actions that landed many of the members in jail, often more than once.

When in jail they staged hunger strikes, leading to brutal force feeding. Pankhurst said of the terrible screams of the women being force fed “I shall never while I live forget the suffering I experienced during the days when those cries were ringing in my ears.”

As the violence of the attacks grew and copy-cat movements developed with even more radical tactics, the Women’s Social and Political Movement lost many significant members, including members of Pankhurst’s family, causing a rift that never fully healed.

Pankhurst was a strong supporter of encouraging men to join the army as the First World War began, creating widely spread propaganda encouraging the men’s fighting.

Once the war had ceased, Pankhurst continued to tour and lecture until she became too ill to carry on, and eventually died 14th June 1928 at the age of 69.

This is an all too brief and surmised history of Pankhurst’s life, so to gain a true picture of her influence, of her controversy, and of her lasting significance on our generation, it’s time to delve into some literature.

Surely the best starting point would be My Own Story, by the woman herself. A personal account and autobiography provides an insight to the mind behind the most controversial and powerful member of the suffragette movement (plus it’s free on Kindle).

There’s tonnes of children’s books for a simple introduction to her life, including Emmeline Pankhurst (Famous People, Famous Lives) by Emma Fischel and Lives and Times Emmeline Pankhurst by Margaret Hudson.

For a deep yet readable analysis and biography of her life, there’s Routledge Historical Biographies of Emmeline Pankhurst by Paula Bartley, while The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family by Martin Pugh will provide an overview to the compelling family as a whole.

Happy Birthday Emmeline Pankhurst; we owe you a lot.

What biographies of Pankhurst’s life can you recommend? Let us know!

Gina Kershaw

(Image via BBC Radio 4)