Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst: A Force for Social change

By Melanie Brown, Solicitor, Family Law Department

In 1918, the Representation of the People Act came into force, the first UK law which gave some women the right to vote. One hundred years after Women’s Suffrage, people across the UK have been celebrating this major turning point for women’s rights and recognising those who helped drive the change. In this blog, our Melanie Brown looks at the lives of Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst, a Victorian-era political “power couple” whose campaigning was instrumental in changing the law.

Born in 1853, Emmeline Pankhurst (née Goulden), the elder of 10 siblings, was born in the suburb of Moss Side, Manchester, into a family of political activists. Her mother was involved with the suffragist movement, taking Pankhurst to her first suffrage meeting when she was just 14. Her father, a Manchester born merchant, also had an interest in political reform having attended the mass gathering for parliamentary change at St Peter’s field, Manchester in 1819. Emmeline’s own political views developed during this time and as she matured into adulthood her passion for change began the transition from that of a bystander, to a more hands-on approach to take action.

Barrister Richard Pankhurst, 24 years Emmeline’s senior, was born in Stoke, but spent much of his life in Manchester. Richard was also unafraid of speaking out against perceived injustices, and he campaigned for multiple causes including free speech, free education and independence for India. They met in the autumn of 1878, when Richard was aged 44 and Emmeline was aged 20. The pair courted for about a year when tragedy struck with the death of Richard’s mother. This brought the couple closer together, and Richard relented on his previous resolution to ‘remain a bachelor to better serve the public’. They married in Pendleton on 18 December 1879, which created a union of two politically active individuals whom together began their journey as a force for social and political change in Britain.

The pair became a power couple in the political circles of the late 19th and early 20th Century, where they jointly worked on the creation of the Women’s Franchise League (WFL) in 1889. This group was significant as it was dedicated to voting rights for all women – married and unmarried. Furthermore, the WFL in addition to women’s suffrage, also supported equal rights for women in the areas of divorce and inheritance. The pair worked tirelessly to create change from inside the political sphere and were instrumental in establishing the Independent Labour Party in 1893. Richard wrote the bill which later became the Married Women’s Property Act 1882, giving wives absolute control over their property and earnings – an act still enforced today – and continued to support his wife in her political endeavours until his death in 1898.

Emmeline, coping with grief and raising their four children, retained her passion for promoting women’s rights. In October 1903, she and several colleagues founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a new woman-only organisation focused on direct action to win the vote. The group began pursuing peaceful forms of protest including speeches, petitions and the distribution of the Votes for women newsletter. Emmeline’s three daughters – Christabel, Adela and Sylvia – joined their mother in the cause, and all four Pankhurst girls were arrested over a four-year period, beginning in 1905, as the demonstrations became more heated and interactions with police became commonplace.

By 1908, the movement had picked up significant pace culminating in a 500,000-string activist rally in Hyde Park demanding votes for women. Hunger strikes in 1909 and further civil disobedience caused a storm to which parliament had to pay attention. The outbreak of the war in 1914 forced a break in proceedings, when Emmeline decided to call for a halt to militancy and demonstrations and appealed for women to join the war effort. This did not mean the campaigning fell silent – unbeknown to the women, their contribution in factory jobs and munition workshops during the war helped convince the British government to pass the Representation of the People Act in 1918, giving voting rights to women over 30. Emmeline died at the age of 69 on 14 June 1928, the same year women were granted equal voting rights with men.

Melanie Brown is a Family Law Solicitor based in Huddersfield. Melanie is experienced in helping couples deal with the legal aspects of separating, including advising on disputes relating to children and finances. To find out more, visit Melanie’s profile, or contact the family law team on 0800 138 0458.