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The Pankhursts: Politics, protest and passion


More than any other name, Pankhurst is associated with the struggle for women’s right to vote. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the leading militant organisation campaigning for Women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, was founded at the Pankhurst family home in Manchester on 10 October 1903 by six women, including Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, who soon emerged as the group’s leaders. Sylvia and Adela, Christabel’s sisters, were also committed members of the women-only group initially, but this later gave way to family rifts and discord. Here we take a closer look at these two generations of Pankhurst women.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline was born in 1858 in Manchester, which, in the nineteenth century, was a hot-bed of radical and liberal thinking, to a politically active family, The Gouldens. Her father, Robert, was keenly interested in reform, her grandfather had been present at the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and her grandmother had worked with the Anti-Corn League. Her parents were supporters of movement for women’s suffrage and in her early teens her mother took her along to her first women’s suffrage meeting, where Emmeline was enthralled by the speaker, suffragist Lydia Becker.

In 1879, at the age of 21, Emmeline married the older Dr Richard Pankhurst, a barrister who advocated women’s suffrage, educational reform and freedom of speech. She served with her husband on the committee which promoted the Married Women’s Property Act and at the same time was a member of the Manchester Suffrage Committee. Between 1880 and 1889 the Pankhursts had five children; three girls - Christabel, Estelle Sylvia and Adela – and two boys – Francis Henry who died in 1888 from diphtheria and Henry Francis, named in honour of his deceased brother, who also later died.

In 1889, by now living in the more affluent Russell Square, London, Emmeline helped in forming the radical Women’s Franchise League. In addition to women’s suffrage it supported equal rights for women in the areas of divorce and inheritance. It also advocated trade unionism and sought alliances with socialist organisations. Although the league was discontinued after a few years, Emmeline remained a liberal until 1892 when she joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

In 1893 the Pankhursts returned to Manchester and Emmeline began to work with several political organisations, distinguishing herself for the first time as an activist in her own right and gaining respect in the community. As a Poor Law Guardian she was appalled by the conditions she witnessed first-hand in the Manchester workhouse and immediately set about improving them.

When her husband died in 1898, Emmeline was left with a significant amount of debt, but in 1903 her interest in women’s suffrage was reawakened by the enthusiasm of her daughter, Christabel. Frustrated by the lack of progress from other organisations, Emmeline decided more direct action was required and held the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organisation dedicated to ‘deeds, not words’ at her house at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester. 

By 1906 Emmeline and her union were turning to increasingly militant tactics in order to raise awareness. Acts of disobedience continued and more arrests followed, including Emmeline who was imprisoned several times. The Suffragettes, as they had now become known, were becoming increasingly extreme and their campaigning more widespread. Churches and MPs’ homes were burnt down, windows were smashed in Oxford Street and Oxted Station was even bombed. Many of those arrested began going on hunger strike to protest at not being given political prisoner status and faced the indignity of being force-fed.

With the outbreak of the First World War Emmeline and Christabel called a halt to all WSPU militant suffrage activities and a truce with the government was established, with all WSPU prisoners being released. Emmeline put the same energy and determination she had previously applied to women’s suffrage into patriotic advocacy of the war effort. She organised rallies, toured constantly delivering speeches, and lobbied the government to help women enter the work force while men were overseas fighting, even organising a parade of 30,000 women to encourage employers to take them on in industry. A supporter of conscription, she also became a prominent figure in the white feather movement (which handed white feathers, a sign of cowardice, to men in civilian dress to shame them into enlisting). Another issue which concerned her greatly at the time was the plight of so-called war babies, children born to single mothers whose fathers were on the front lines. Emmeline established an adoption home at Campden Hill designed to employ the Montessori method of childhood education. Although this was turned over to Princess Alice due to lack of funds, Emmeline adopted four children herself. 

Pankhurst transformed the structure of the WSPU 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 In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over 30. Emmeline died on 14 June 1928, just weeks before women were granted equal voting rights with men (at 21).

Christabel Pankhurst

Christabel was the oldest child of Emmeline and Richard and from an early age was absorbed in politics. Educated at home until the age of 13, she was sent to complete her education in Switzerland following a spell at Manchester High School for Girls. When her father died in 1898 she returned home to assist her mother with looking after her brothers and sisters and help with work. 

In 1903 Christabel co-founded the WSPU with her mother, Emmeline, with whom she enjoyed a special relationship. She obtained a law degree from the University of Manchester, but as a woman was unable to practise as a lawyer, an issue against which she entered an impassioned protest. She very effectively applied her legal knowledge in speeches and pamphlets to highlight inequality and injustice experienced by women and she also organised large-scale processions and demonstrations in favour of ‘Votes for Women’, attracting thousands of supporters to the cause. 

The Suffragettes were established in 1905 when the WSPU’s militant movement was formally inaugurated when Christabel and Annie Kenney achieved widespread publicity and were imprisoned following their disruption of speeches being made by Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey at a political meeting in Manchester. From this point on Christabel advocated a campaign of civil disobedience which, by the outbreak of the First World War had escalated to include arson, bombing and attacks on works of art in public galleries. In 1906 Christabel moved to the London headquarters of the WSPU, where she was appointed its organising secretary and from 1912 to 1914 she directed the union’s militant actions from exile in Paris, where she was living to escape imprisonment under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. Compelled to return to England with the outbreak of World War One, Christabel was again arrested and engaged in a hunger strike, ultimately serving only 30 days of a three-year sentence.

Like her mother, Christabel supported the war effort against Germany, particularly advocating the military conscription of men and the industrial conscription of women into national service, and was a prominent figure in the white feather movement. She also wrote a book called The Great Scourge and How to End It arguing that sexually transmitted diseases could be combated by equality between the sexes. 

In 1918 Christabel was narrowly defeated in the general election when she stood as a candidate for the Women’s Party in alliance with David Lloyd George’s Conservation Party coalition. She moved to the United States in 1921 where she worked as an evangelist for the Second Adventist movement, before returning to the UK in the 1930s. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1936 before leaving for the United States again at the start of the Second World War. She died in 1958 at the age of 77.

Sylvia Pankhurst

The second eldest daughter of Emmeline and Richard, Sylvia (born Estelle Sylvia), like her sisters, attended  Manchester High School for Girls and was active within the WSPU. She trained at the Manchester School of Art, before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington in 1900. 

In 1906 she began working full-time for the WSPU, eventually becoming honorary secretary and channelling her gift for art into designing posters, banners and badges.

In the years before the break out of war, Sylvia was one of the chief figures among the militant suffragettes and was imprisoned numerous times, but ended up following a different trajectory which eventually caused a deep rift with her mother and Christabel. Moved by the plight of the poverty-stricken women she encountered in Bow when she moved there in 1912 to lead the WSPU’s East London campaign, she came to see the struggle for women to have the vote as just one strand in a larger struggle for equality. When she began to connect women’s suffrage to other issues, the WSPU refused to tolerate it. 

In contrast to Emmeline and Christabel, Sylvia had also retained an affiliation with the labour movement, so in 1914, she broke away from the WSPU to set up the socialist East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). Over the years the organisation evolved politically and changed its name accordingly, first to Women’s Suffrage Federation and then to the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF). Unlike the WSPU, the ELFS was built on Sylvia's own principles and, believing in universal suffrage, men were allowed to join. In direct contrast to her mother and sister, Sylvia was a pacifist and opposed to the war and she was horrified to see her family members actively support compulsory conscription. She was, however, extremely active during the war, opening mother and baby clinics and organising practical assistance and education in the East End. She established a milk distribution centre for babies, many of whom were too ill to digest their food and opened a clinic, staffed by a doctor, who treated patients without charge. As wartime food shortages took hold the ELFS also opened a chain of cost-price restaurants - in 1915 they were serving about 400 meals daily - and a toy factory was established as an alternative to tiny failing workshops where women were paid a pittance. Toys were no longer being imported from Germany, so Sylvia’s factory employed 59 women to fill the gap. She also worked to defend soldiers’ wives rights to decent allowances while their husbands were away, both practically by setting up legal advice centres and politically by running campaigns to oblige the government to take into account the poverty of soldiers’ wives.

Attaching herself to the extreme left, she continued to find herself in trouble with the police upon occasion, and hosted the inaugural meeting of the Communist Party. However, she was later expelled from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) when she revolted after being asked to hand over the Workers Dreadnought, the newspaper she had founded, to the party. In later years Sylvia drifted away from communist politics, but remained involved in movements connected with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism. In 1936 she became involved in the fight against the Italian evasion of Ethiopia, and moved there in 1956 on the invitation of its Emperor, Haile Selassie. She died in Addis Ababa in 1960 at the age of 78 and was given a full state funeral as an ‘honorary Ethiopian’.

Adela Pankhurst

The youngest of the Pankhurst daughters, Adela also threw herself into the suffragette cause. As a militant suffragette and an organiser for the WSPU, Adela was imprisoned several times and went on hunger strike, but eventually withdrew from the campaign exhausted.  

Like Sylvia, she made no secret of her socialist views and, as a pacifist, was not keen on the WSPU's militant strategies. After becoming estranged from her mother and Christabel, Adela left the WSPU but Emmeline was concerned that she might publicly criticise the organisation, so she bought her daughter a one-way ticket to Australia. Adela was given £20, some warm clothes, a letter of introduction to Melbourne feminist Vida Goldstein and a one-way boat ticket. She never saw her mother or sisters again.

Having settled in Australia in 1920 she founded the Australian Communist Party with her husband, trade unionist Tom Walsh. Later, however, she became disillusioned with communism and abandoned left-wing politics altogether – even expressing some sympathy for the fascist movements in Nazi Germany and Italy. She founded the Women’s Guild of Empire, a Christian organisation against Communism and in favour of preserving Australia’s place in the British Empire. Continuing to drift more to the political right, on the outbreak of the Second World War she was asked to resign from the Women’s Guild. The following month she caused a stir when she and her husband went on a goodwill mission to Japan and in March 1942 she was interned for her pro-Japanese views. She was released after more than a year in custody, just before her husband’s death in April 1943. After the war Adela did not play an active role in politics. She died in Australia in 1961.

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