Would you be surprised to learn that Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of England’s suffragette movement did not hate men? I was. It never occurred to me that the militant feminist who set empty buildings on fire had actually been a happily married woman.
I’ll start at the beginning, she was born Emmeline Goulden, in Manchester, England, in 1858. Her family were known for their radical politics openly supporting causes such as women’s suffrage, but they weren’t so forward thinking as to want their daughter to have a man's education or to go into politics.
In 1879 Emmeline met and married Richard Pankhurst, a man twenty years her senior. Richard was a lawyer, barrister and an ardent supporter of women’s rights. He authored the Married Woman’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882. These acts of parliament allowed women to own and control property, keep their earnings, and inherit in their own name.
In her autobiography Emmeline wrote this of her marriage and family life:-
“My home life and relations have been as nearly ideal as possible in this imperfect world. About a year after my marriage my daughter Christabel was born, and in another eighteen months my second daughter Sylvia was to come. Two other children followed, and for some years I was rather deeply immersed in my domestic affairs.
I was never so absorbed with family and children, however, that I lost interest in community affairs. Dr. Pankhurst did not desire that I should turn myself into a household machine. It was his firm belief that society as well as the family stands in need of women’s services. So while my children were still in their cradles I was working on the executive committee of the Women’s Suffrage Society, and also on the executive board of the committee, which was working to secure the Married Women’s Property Act.”
Richard died suddenly from a perforated ulcer in 1898, devastating Emmeline. They had been married for nineteen years. Later that same year, she continued his work by founding the Women's Franchise League, which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections. Not happy with the slow pace of the league, she helped establish the more militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in October 1903. It is as head of the WSPU that she came into her own. Emmeline’s actions and those of her followers were quiet radical and included arson, smashing windows, and heckling politicians. Very unladylike behaviour indeed.
The WSPU suspended their militant activities in 1914 on the outbreak of World War I. They were rewarded in 1918 when women over 30 years of age were given the right to vote. Men at this time had the right to vote at 21. Some say the disparity was because so many men had died in the war they didn`t want women voters to outnumber the men. I`m not sure how true that is, but I find the idea thought provoking.
In 1928 women in England were finally given equal voting rights to men. The years to lecturing, touring, activism and hunger strikes had taken their toll on Emmeline`s health and she died later that same year.
I was struck by two things with Emmeline`s life the first was how profoundly she was influenced by her husband. I suppose the old saying that behind every great man there`s a great woman can be reversed for Emmeline because without Richard’s encouragement and support she might not have achieved her goals.
She did not hate men and her fight was not about taking away the rights of male voters. It was about giving women the freedom and power to choose.