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Emmeline Pankhurst (née Goulden; 15 July 1858 – 14 June 1928) was the first woman Women’s Social and Political Union founder in 1903 and the first woman Non-royal on British postage stamp in 1968. The composer Ethel Smyth, who contributed the suffrage anthem, The March of the Women, was well known for her attraction to other women and may have had an affair with Emmeline Pankhurst. Her name and picture (and those of 58 other women and men's suffrage supporters) are on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.
She was a British political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote. In 1999 Time named Pankhurst as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating "she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back". There was no law in Britain governing adoption until 1926. Well-known single women adopted babies, including Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst and Elizabeth Robins. Elizabeth Blackwell and Frances Power Cobbe are examples among earlier feminists.
Emmeline Pankhurst was widely criticised for her militant tactics, and historians disagree about their effectiveness, but her work is recognised as a crucial element in achieving women's suffrage in the United Kingdom. Born in Moss Side, Manchester, to politically active parents, Pankhurst was introduced at the age of 14 to the women's suffrage movement. On 18 December 1879, she married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister 24 years older than she was, known for supporting women's rights to vote; they had five children over the next ten years. He supported her activities outside the home, and she founded and became involved with the Women's Franchise League, which advocated suffrage for both married and unmarried women. When that organisation broke apart, she tried to join the left-leaning Independent Labour Party through her friendship with socialist Keir Hardie but was initially refused membership by the local branch on account of her sex. While working as a Poor Law Guardian, she was shocked at the harsh conditions she encountered in Manchester's workhouses.
Flora Drummond with Christabel Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, (unknown), Emmeline Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard and (unknown), 1906–1907
51 Westminster Mansions
Victoria Tower Gardens, statue of Emmeline Pankhurst
In 1903, five years after her husband died, Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), an all-women suffrage advocacy organisation dedicated to "deeds, not words". The group identified as independent from – and often in opposition to – political parties. It became known for physical confrontations: its members smashed windows and assaulted police officers. Pankhurst, her daughters, and other WSPU activists received repeated prison sentences, where they staged hunger strikes to secure better conditions, and were often force fed.
On the night of the Decennial Census in Britain in 1911, enumerators were sent out to collect details of every household in the country; the suffragettes mounted their refusal to participate – ‘If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted’. On that night, the composer Ethel Smyth stood with her friend Emmeline Pankhurst at the window to watch the dawn. In their dressing gowns, they saw the sun rise beyond the river and fight its way through the mist. ‘She was on the eve of some terrible venture that would end in rough usage and prolonged imprisonment,’ recalled Smyth of her friend. It was a collective struggle, a memorable and meaningful one. Their foreheads pressed against the window, they realized that Pankhurst’s championing of downtrodden women, her hope of better things to come, Smyth’s music and their friendship, were all ‘part of the mystery that was holding our eyes. And suddenly it came to us that all was well; for a second we were standing on the spot in a madly spinning world where nothing stirs … Neither of us ever forgot that dawn.’
As Pankhurst's eldest daughter Christabel took leadership of the WSPU, antagonism between the group and the government grew. Eventually the group adopted arson as a tactic, and more moderate organisations spoke out against the Pankhurst family. In 1913 several prominent individuals left the WSPU, among them Pankhurst's daughters Adela and Sylvia. Emmeline was so furious that she "gave [Adela] a ticket, £20, and a letter of introduction to a suffragette in Australia, and firmly insisted that she emigrate". Adela complied and the family rift was never healed. Sylvia became a socialist.
With the advent of the First World War, Emmeline and Christabel called an immediate halt to militant suffrage activism in support of the British government's stand against the "German Peril". They urged women to aid industrial production and encouraged young men to fight, becoming prominent figures in the white feather movement. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act granted votes to all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30. This discrepancy was intended to ensure that men did not become minority voters as a consequence of the huge number of deaths suffered during the First World War. Pankhurst transformed the WSPU machinery into the Women's Party, which was dedicated to promoting women's equality in public life. In her later years, she became concerned with what she perceived as the menace posed by Bolshevism and joined the Conservative Party. She was selected as the Conservative candidate for Whitechapel and St Georges in 1927. She died on 14 June 1928, only weeks before the Conservative government's Representation of the People Act (1928) extended the vote to all women over 21 years of age on 2 July 1928. She was commemorated two years later with a statue in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Houses of Parliament.
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