Single Parent History: Emmeline Pankhurst – civil disobedience and political activism

Posted 7 March 2022

By Dr Sue Jones. Sue has taught at Birkbeck, University of London and University of Plymouth. She lives a double life, researching seventeenth century piracy and working in the Gingerbread advice team.

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) is remembered for her role in founding the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which fought to gain equal voting rights for women.

Throughout her life she campaigned for equal rights for women, organising demonstrations and direct action. She was arrested many times and spent time in prison where, along with other imprisoned suffragettes, she went on hunger strike.

But Emmeline Pankhurst was also a single parent to four children and her fight for social justice was driven by her own experiences, and those of other single parents.

Born Emmeline Goulden in Moss Side, Manchester, she was the eldest of ten children. Although clever and nicknamed ‘The Dictionary’ by her brothers, Emmeline soon realised intelligence was seen as no advantage in a girl when she heard her father say it was a “pity she wasn’t born a lad”.

She went to a girls’ school which taught pupils how to make a comfortable home for their future husbands. At the age of 14 she attended a meeting about women’s suffrage– the right for women to vote. She was appalled women were disenfranchised and could not vote, and from then on became a passionate campaigner.

Aged 21, Emmeline married the radical lawyer, Richard Marsden Pankhurst, an advocate of women’s suffrage, and they had five children one of whom, Frank, died aged 4. Tragedy struck again when her husband died suddenly leaving her the sole parent of their four children. He also left many debts and little money.

Emmeline volunteered for the Chorlton Board of Guardians where she worked to improve the horrifying conditions in workhouses for single mothers and their children. She was forced to give this up to find paid work and the family moved into a much smaller and cheaper home.

Emmeline started her own business which failed but was then offered paid employment as the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Chorlton. This again brought her into contact with many single parents who came to register the births of their children and further convinced her that women should be treated as equals with men and given the vote.

Seeing they were struggling financially, friends of the family set up a fund to support them. Emmeline suggested that the money should be used to build a meeting hall in her husband’s memory. When the building was complete in 1903, she was shocked to discover that women were not allowed as members.

That same year, Emmeline Pankhurst invited a group of women to her home where they formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to fight for votes for women. With the motto ‘Deeds not Words’ it launched a campaign of civil disobedience. By 1909 they had branches all over the country and became more militant in their methods of campaign, smashing windows, attacking the Prime Minister and taking part in hunger strikes.

During this time, Emmeline did her best as a single parent to support her children, not always an easy task as the movement grew, and she gave up her job to work full time for the WSPU. Her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela were all involved in the WSPU but her much younger son, Harry, was in poor health and needed care.

Finally, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed which allowed women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification to vote. This allowed 8.5 million women to vote, but still this was only two-thirds of women in the UK. Emmeline Pankhurst died in June 1928, just one month before the Equal Franchise Act was passed, finally giving all women over the age of 21 the same voting rights as men.