Emmeline Pankhurst: Our Emmeline

As Manchester undertakes a review of its public art this year, read about the subject of one of the city's most famous statues, Emmeline Pankhurst. This blogpost is written by MA Student Gemma (Manchester Metropolitan University).

By Karen Shannon · July 20, 2021

Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst
loc: St Peters Square / artist: Hazel Reeves / date: 14 Dec 2018 / material: bronze


Emmeline Pankhurst (nee Goulden) was born in Moss Side, Manchester, on the 15th July 1858. The eldest daughter of ten children born to Robert and Sophie Goulden, she was described as a lively and precocious girl with a rebellious streak, but also intelligent and musically inclined. The seeds of protesting social injustices were planted in the tale of her grandfather’s near-death experience at Peterloo in 1819 and his continued protest of the Corn Laws into the 1840s. Her parents were also strong abolitionists, and Emmeline (who was only a girl at the time) worked with her mother to raise funds for impoverished emancipated slaves. The fight for social injustice was instilled within Emmeline from an early age, the reformist passions and natures of her parents and grandparents shaping her into the champion of women’s suffrage we remember to this day.


From a young age, Emmeline was exposed to women’s suffrage through her mother, and at fourteen years old, Emmeline attended her first meeting of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage(MNSWS). Yet, it was not until her marriage to Richard Pankhurst – a strong advocate for women’s suffrage in his own right – that Emmeline thoroughly immersed herself into political suffrage. By 1880, she was a member of the Executive Committee for the MNSWS and also became involved with the Manchester Married Women’s Property Committee – organisations that her husband was already part of. Following the split of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in the late 1880s, the Pankhurst’s became members of the newly formed Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage, or the ‘Parliament Street Society’ as it was more commonly known. By the mid 1890s, Emmeline and Richard had turned their attentions toward a newly formed suffragist movement called the Women’s Franchise League (WFL). Deemed a ‘radical’ group, the WFL championed all women, whether they be married, unmarried or widowed, and endeavoured not only to gain the vote, but also to attain equal rights.


Following the death of her husband in 1898, Emmeline became the main bread-winner and key decision maker within her family, and whilst she had always been a strong advocate and supporter of women’s suffrage, her new role as the head of the family emphasised the importance of advancement more than ever. Having been a member of the Independent Labour Party, her frustrations over not being taken seriously in male-dominated politics came to fruition in October 1903, when she and her eldest daughter Christabel gathered a group of ladies together at her home on Nelson Street, Manchester – The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed on the 10th October 1903. The women-only organisation vowed to be politically active, free from class and political allegiances and most pressingly, they vowed to use “deeds, not words.”


The most distinguishing feature of the Pankhurst’s WSPU movement was their militant tactics, which defined them from the peaceful suffragist movements of the time.  It has been estimated that from 1905 until the outbreak of war in 1914, some 1000 women were arrested for various deeds in the name of the suffragette movement. These ‘deeds’ included, heckling politicians, breaking windows, arson attacks, hunger strikes and even public suicides – infamously Emily Davison in 1913, who jumped in front of the king’s horse at the Derby (though speculation still remains regarding her motives). Emmeline herself was arrested seven times over the course of the suffragette movement and the WSPU’s militancy continued until the outbreak of the war. It was decided that the organisation would turn their attentions towards supporting the war effort, determined once and for all to prove that women were just as worthy as the vote as men were.


In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed in parliament, granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property requirement (this was around 8.5 million women). Additionally, the act enfranchised all men over the age of 21, growing the electoral register from eight to 21 million. However, it was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, that all women over the age of 21 were granted equal voting rights of men – Emmeline had passed away just a few weeks before the act was passed.


Emmeline Pankhurst is heralded by many as the figurehead behind the women’s equal rights movement of the early twentieth century, accredited and idolised across the UK for enfranchising women. Whilst she was one of many brave women whom deserve such accolades, she remains a dominant presence within the hearts and minds of Mancunians. It is perhaps not so surprising then, that in 2015 she was selected as one of twenty inspirational Manchester women, as part of the WoManchester statue project, led by City Councillor, Andrew Simcock. Of the twenty inspirational women identified, Emmeline was chosen by thousands of votes cast from all over the world to become only the second female statue in Manchester. Hazel Reeves’ design of Emmeline standing on a kitchen chair, gesticulating as she tirelessly champions for the rights of women, was ultimately chosen by panellists in 2016. The funds for the statue were privately sourced through fundraising and donations from Manchester Airport Group and Property Alliance Group, as well as a contribution from the Government’s Centenary Fund.  On the 14th December 2018, the statue was unveiled to crowds of thousands, celebrating not only the life of Emmeline, but also the 100th anniversary of when she, and over 8 million other women, were first allowed to cast their vote.


Despite being recognised nationally as a significant contributor to the success of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK, Emmeline Pankhurst is not without her own controversy. During WW1, Emmeline and daughter Christabel Pankhurst famously abandoned their militant tactics to support the government – with whom they had been engaging in a quasi-guerrilla war for some years –  and war effort. They produced anti-German propaganda, encouraged women to volunteer for military services and take up the jobs the men had left behind. Most notoriously, however, they actively engaged in the ‘white feather’ campaign, which targeted men who were not in uniform and publicly shamed them for not enlisting. Some brand Emmeline a reactionary and imperialistic figure, and even claim that she all but abandoned suffrage entirely during the war, ultimately becoming politically self-serving instead of focusing on the collective needs of the suffrage movement.