Friday, 27 April 2012

Emmeline Pankhurst and the Right to Vote

Women everywhere now take the right to vote for granted, and some are not even bothered to exercise that hard-won right. Emmeline Goulden came into the world on 14th July 1858, when women’s suffrage was hardly known. The daughter of a radical father who campaigned against slavery and the Corn Laws, and a passionate feminist mother who took her young daughter to women’s suffrage meetings in the early 1870s, Emmeline soon became a leading suffragette in the women’s right to vote movement.

Although receiving a conventional education, Emmeline inherited her mother’s political passion, and a charismatic, courageous personality. Marriage to the older radical barrister, Richard Marsden Pankhurst, in 1879, encouraged her enthusiasm for women’s rights. Her husband was author of the first women’s suffrage bill in Britain and instigator of the married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882.

By October 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst became frustrated at the lack of success in the Manchester branch of the National Union of Suffrage Societies. With the help of her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester. Their revolutionary motto was ‘Deeds not Words’ and it aimed to recruit working class women into fighting for the right to vote.

Because of the suffragists’ determination to remain in the public eye, events took a more militant direction in 1905. As the media began to lose interest in their struggle, members of the WSPU stepped up their publicity campaign to attract attention. When government minister Sir Edward Grey spoke at a meeting in London, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney began shouting, “Will you give votes to women?”, until evicted by police. The women kicked and spat so much they were finally charged with assault and fined. On refusing to pay the fine, the women were imprisoned. Thus began the cycle of violence, imprisonment and hunger strikes that continued for many years.

During this time, the women of the WSPU became known as Suffragettes. In 1906, they moved their offices to London to lobby Parliament and newspapers more effectively. Over the next few years, the suffragettes increased their militant campaigns, breaking government windows and throwing stones at the Prime Minister’s house, culminating in the large WSPU demonstration in London in 1908.

Because of the increasing violence and militancy, many break-away women’s groups began forming. When war broke out in 1914, there was wide-spread hostility to the women’s movement. Over 1,000 British suffragettes had been imprisoned by this time, with most of the leaders in prison, ill health, or in exile.

When they finally received a £2000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London, attended by 30,000 people, where they carried banners declaring: ‘We demand the Right to Serve’, and ‘For men must Fight and Women must Work’. At their meeting Emmeline Pankhurst called for the right for women to work in industries traditionally dominated by men.

By 1918, women over 30 finally won the right to vote, although it was not until 1928 that women over twenty one had the same rights, and equality with men. A right that should never be taken for granted.



Jenny Allworthy said...

Great post. I think very few women know how recent the vote was gained in North America and in the UK.

Mrs. Pankhurst's story is one that we need to remember. AND we need to vote. Just imagine what she would think of the poor voter turnout these days!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Hi Jenny - many thanks for coming over to comment! I think we do tend to take it for granted sometimes.

Paula Martin said...

I enjoyed this account, Rosemary, and agree that these brave women earned us a right which we should never take for granted. Emmeline's home in Manchester is now known as The Pankhurst Centre, and is a community centre for women.

Joan Fleming said...

A timely reminder, Rosemary, of the debt we owe to these courageous women who took on the fight and won our right to vote today. As we approach elections next week in the UK, we should make sure we use that right.

Gilli Allan said...

What heroines they were. We'd do well to keep their struggle and their victory in our minds. These days, sadly, it seems young women are more interested in gaining celebrity. But perhaps I'm being harsh. There has probably always been a spectrum of interest and awareness, amongst women.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Hi Paula - that's great about the community centre for women!

Thanks, Joan - you're absolutely right about using our vote!

Hi Gilli - thanks for that. I'm sure there's an element of truth in what you say about the seeking after celebrity status!

Teresa Ashby said...

I loved this post, Rosemary. I have never been able to walk into a polling station without giving a thought to those brave women. If I didn't vote, it would feel like a betrayal x

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Hi Teresa - thanks for that lovely comment. You're quite right about it being a betrayal.

Jenny Twist said...

Fascinating piece, Rosemary. Well-researched and beautifully written as usual.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Hi Jenny - thanks a lot for such a lovely comment!

Carolb said...

A very interesting post, Rosemary, thank you.

I did a project on the Suffragettes in secondary school and it had a big influence on my views about voting.

When I go to vote I always remember all those women who campaigned and suffered to gain that right, and to whom I owe a responsibility to vote.