Written by Saima Akhtar (Twitter: @saimathewriter)

Supervised by Dr Charlotte Wildman (Twitter: @TheHistoryGirrl)

Our Twitter: @Ch_Domesticity

As part of our Challenging Domesticity in Britain, 1890-1990 research network, we are dedicating a blog post to the extraordinary suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1910.
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

Read Part One of our blog post below:

Part One

Emmeline Pankhurst, neé Goulden (1858-1928). The Manchester-born leader of the suffragette movement was a wife, a mother, a businesswoman and activist. It was Emmeline’s relentless campaign for women’s suffrage which ultimately paved the way for the passing of The Representation of the People Act in 1918, an important pre-cursor in granting British women the parliamentary vote. But Emmeline’s activism became a source of anxiety and tension within her family. This article examines the ways in which the relationships between Emmeline and her daughters were characterised by political divisions and personal tensions.

Raised in an intellectual family who encouraged newspaper reading and political discussions, this prepared Emmeline well for a life centred on activism. The Gouldens were vocal about their political beliefs: Emmeline’s parents supported women’s voting rights and her grandfather had attended the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Emmeline’s career began in London, where she advocated for women’s rights and allied herself with trade unions and socialists. After a brief hiatus from public activism, Emmeline returned to Manchester, where her passion for women’s rights was soon invigorated.

In 1903, Emmeline co-founded the female-only organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in the parlour of her home at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester. Women in Britain could not vote during this time, so Emmeline spearheaded the WSPU’s campaign for women’s suffrage. Firstly, Emmeline unsuccessfully canvassed for a Bill to be introduced in Parliament that would enfranchise married and unmarried women. [1] The Conservative government of 1885-1906 was divided on the issue of women’s suffrage. Some Conservative politicians understood that extending the vote to women could equate to more votes for their party. But many Members of Parliament did not support the idea of enfranchising women. Some found the idea of changing the status of women personally distasteful. Others ignored the women’s suffrage debate because they prioritised more pressing matters such as nationwide industrial unrest. So the WSPU campaign continued.

A WSPU office, 1913.
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

After her suffrage Bills faced rejection and after rejection in Parliament, Emmeline insisted that militancy would be the only way for the public to take notice of the struggle for women’s rights. The WSPU women began adopting militant tactics, including heckling politicians, chaining themselves to statues and railings, and smashing windows. These activities helped the WSPU garner plenty of press attention, because the women successfully turned their demonstrations into a public spectacle. The women knew that the sight of them protesting in dramatic ways would provoke shock, horror or even support from many readers, which helped them publicise their cause. Most newspaper reports criticised the WSPU’s militant action, especially when some of the women committed arson and bombed buildings. The Manchester Guardian took the most positive approach to covering suffragette campaigns.

At public meetings, Emmeline repeatedly questioned whether government leaders would grant women the vote, which often led to the WSPU women being violently removed from the room. Prepared to face jail sentences and endure hunger strikes for the cause, Emmeline also became subjected to force-feeding in prison.

The arrest of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst at a WSPU office, 1908
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

Outside of suffragism, Emmeline was involved in philanthropy. As a Poor Law Guardian, she arranged for food and provisions to help support the inmates of Manchester workhouses. She also served on the Manchester School Board, where she realised that female teachers were overworked, underpaid and less valued than male teachers were.[2] This inequality in education was another factor which motivated Emmeline to protect the interests of women.

When Emmeline lived in London, she owned and worked at a shop which sold fancy goods such as silk fabrics. Thus, Emmeline’s life was extremely busy and she faced a number of personal and professional challenges that affected the dynamic of her household.

Although Emmeline was in a happy marriage to her husband, the lawyer and socialist Dr Richard Pankhurst, who fully supported her endeavours, their family unit was marked by many personal tragedies. In 1898, Dr Pankhurst died suddenly, just months after the couple lost their infant son, Frank. This left Emmeline as a single mother to her three teenage daughters (Christabel, Sylvia and Adela) and her eight-year-old son, Harry. As a widow, Emmeline had debts to pay off, as well as the responsibility of financially supporting and educating her children. Tragically, Harry later passed away, at the age of twenty.

Emmeline Pankhurst and Harry, c.1890
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

Following Dr Pankhurst’s death, Emmeline took on a paid job as Registrar of Births and Deaths in Manchester. Many poor women were relieved to come to a female Registrar to register the births of their illegitimate children, which Emmeline was deeply touched by. [3] These experiences further fuelled Emmeline to advocate on behalf of women’s rights.

Emmeline faced much emotional upheaval in her home life, which she was forced to process alongside her public work. So, how did  Emmeline’s activism co-exist alongside the expectations placed on her as the mother of four children? In her 1914 book My Own Story, Emmeline recalls that she was, initially, “deeply immersed” in domesticity, but: “I was never so absorbed with home and children, however, that I lost interest in community affairs.”[4] Here, Emmeline may have felt pressured to focus on motherhood, particularly in light of the emphasis placed on maternalism in nineteenth-century constructions of femininity; but she deemed her activism too important to compromise on.

Emmeline’s public work created difficulties for her second daughter, Sylvia. A talented and trained artist, Sylvia was commissioned to create original works of art, including a series of paintings of working-class women in industrial communities. She also designed banners and posters for suffragette campaigns and served as the honorary secretary of the WSPU. In 1906, Emmeline wanted the position of secretary to be transferred from Sylvia to her eldest daughter Christabel, who was studying law at the University of Manchester. But Sylvia decided to rebel by handing in her resignation early. This was because Sylvia did not support Christabel as a political leader, on account of their differing opinions.

Sylvia Pankhurst, 1910. Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

In fact, Sylvia was “not fully in accord with the spirit of (Christabel’s) policy”.[5] Sylvia was unwilling to work alongside Christabel due to their political differences. As a socialist, Sylvia was affiliated with the labour movement, so she was motivated to campaign alongside trade unions and fight for wider social change. In contrast, Emmeline and Christabel believed that the struggle for women’s rights should be the only goal for the WSPU.

Additionally, Sylvia suspected that Christabel, early on, shaped her “hope and policy on the speedy return of a Conservative government”, which turned out to be true.[6] So, politics affected the Pankhurst family dynamic, as Sylvia and Christabel clashed on issues relating to leadership, strategy and political ideology.

Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, 1917.
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

The year 1907 brought unrest within the WSPU, as Emmeline’s leadership faced inside threats. The ways that the Pankhurst women dominated the WSPU made some members, including organiser Teresa Billington-Greig, feel marginalised. So, Teresa intended to gain control as a delegate. This represented a challenge to Emmeline’s authority. So, Emmeline tore up the WSPU constitution, even though Sylvia, who wished to avoid this confrontation, wanted to keep it.[7] This highlights a difference between mother and daughter, as Emmeline acted tactically to curb this threat, even though Sylvia disapproved. Similarly, Sylvia refused to sign a new pledge which required WSPU members to promise not to support candidates of any political party until after women won the vote. [8] Christabel and Emmeline wished to engage with parties across the political spectrum because they wanted to appeal to women of all classes to support their cause.

Meeting of WSPU leaders, c.1906
Credit: LSE Women’s Library Collection

However, this approach prompted Sylvia to break away from her mother and sister. Sylvia formed her own political faction, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS). The ELFS did not attack the Labour Party, advocated mass protest and included men as members; these differences in policy caused Emmeline and Christabel to expel Sylvia and her group from the WSPU in early 1914.[8] These differences suggests political tensions aggravated relations between the Pankhurst women, as Sylvia’s independent path prompted her removal from Emmeline’s inner circle.

Watch out for Part Two of this blog post, coming soon!


[1] The Project Gutenberg EBook of My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst, (London: 1914), University of Toronto Libraries, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34856/34856-h/34856-h.htm> [Accessed 16 October 2020], pp.20-22.

[2] The Project Gutenberg EBook, pp.33-35.

[3] Ibid, pp.32-33.

[4] Ibid, pp. 12-13.

[5] Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire, (London: Pluto Press, 2013), p.25.

[6] Connelly, p.27.

[7] Ibid, p.28.

[8] Ibid.

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