Photograph courtesy of Mark Harvey of ID8 photography and not to be reproduced without permission
Unveiled in December 2018
Pankhurst is the name most associated with the struggle for women’s right to vote and the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 was held at the family home of 62 Nelson Street, Manchester and where a blue plaque was mounted by Manchester City Council on 1 January 1987.
Emmeline was born in 1858 in Manchester. Her grandfather had been present at the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and her grandmother had worked to repeal the Corn Laws. Both her parents backed the movement for women’s suffrage. She married Dr Richard Pankhurst, a radical barrister. They had five children and of which three girls survived. Living in London from 1889 to 1893, Emmeline helped to form the radical Women’s Franchise League, which supported equal rights for women in areas of divorce and inheritance.
Richard died in 1898, leaving his wife in considerable debt. In 1903 her daughter, Cristabel, frustrated by the peaceful tactics of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, founded 1897, persuaded Emmeline to join her in advocating more direct action. The first WSPU meeting was held and the motto ‘Deeds not words’ was adopted. Those involved became known as The SUFFRAGETTES and they increasingly used militant tactics to raise awareness of their demands. Emmeline was arrested on many occasions. There were attacks on Churches after the Church of England had voiced its opposition to the concept of suffrage. MPs’ windows were smashed and politicians were harassed and their meetings disrupted. Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey were assaulted when speaking in Manchester.
When many of those arrested refused to pay their fines they were imprisoned they continued their struggle by going on hunger strike and were force-fed.
Many suffragettes died following periods of incarceration, probably as a result of the horrific process of enforced nourishment that took place. In June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison, a WSPU activist, threw herself beneath the King’s horse as it took part in the Derby of that year. She was killed. The arson campaign continued to gain momentum but in August 1914, Britain was plunged into WWI.
The conflict resulted in Emmeline and Cristabel agreeing a truce with the government and WSPU militant suffrage activities were suspended for the following four years. Emmeline advocated for men to join the armed forces and encouraged employers to fill their vacant factory spaces by recruiting women to work in industry. She was a prominent figure in the white feather movement that was aimed at embarrassing men who had not already enlisted.
As the war progressed the vital part that women were playing was grudgingly acknowledged. It became more and more obvious that arguments that women were not fit or clever enough to vote was a total misrepresentation.
Following the end of the carnage across Europe, the dissenters to suffrage were swept aside and the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over 30. This was nine years older than rights for men. It was to be another decade before women were – under the Equal Franchise Act – granted equal voting rights at aged 21 with men. Emmeline, who died on 14 June 1928, lived just long enough to see a bill passed that achieved her lifetime ambition.
Cristabel, who later spent many years in the USA, lived till 1958. As a young woman she obtained a law degree from the University of Manchester. Her sex meant she was unable to practise as a lawyer and she thus applied her legal expertise to highlight the inequalities and injustices experienced by women as well as organising large scale demonstrations.
Sylvia Pankhurst was the second oldest daughter of the Pankhurst’s and proved to be the most militant. In 1906 she started working full-time for the WSPU. In the years leading up to WWI she was imprisoned on numerous occasions and when she moved to East London, she came to see that the struggle for women to have the vote was part of a larger struggle for equality. This was not something the WSPU, including her mother and elder sister Cristabel, were prepared to agree with. In 1914, Sylvia broke from the WSPU to form the socialist East London Federation of Suffragettes. (ELFS) As a pacifist, Sylvia opposed the war, during which she also organised several practical initiatives such as a baby milk distribution centre and a cost-price restaurant chain.
She later joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) but quit when she was asked to give the party the paper she had established, the Workers Dreadnought. In the lead up to WWII she became involved in the fight against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and where she died aged 78 in 1960.
There was also Adela Pankhurst, who was also active within the WSPU. She was imprisoned on many occasions. Concerned that her daughter might criticise the WSPU during WWI, Emmeline provided Adela with a one-way boat ticket to Australia. They never saw each other again. In 1920 Adela and her husband, Tom Walsh, set up the Australian Communist Party but she later became disillusioned with communism and abandoned left-wing politics altogether. Adele expressed some sympathy for fascism during WWII and was imprisoned for a year. She died in 1961.