As May the 6th approaches I increasingly remember how fortunate I am, that as a woman, I have the right to make my vote count for the party that is elected on Election Day. I feel an enormous sense of respect and gratitude to the women who fought tooth and nail, and even lost their lives, at the start of the twentieth century for women to have the right to vote.
Emmeline Pankhurst, personal hero of mine, was born 1859 in Manchester. She lived in Russell Square, Bloomsbury according to the 1891 Census. Her husband, Richard Pankhurst, was a Barrister and MP and together they had five children. An Art Finisher by profession, she became an important figure in the Suffragette movement highlighting the civil right for women to have their say on political matters via the vote. She founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 which later became more commonly referred to as the Suffragettes, helping to raise awareness of their oppression.
In order to gain political equality, women refused to be silenced and launched a campaign to show that they were prepared to fight back – actively if necessary. Whilst it started peacefully, in 1905 Emmeline’s daughter, Christabel, and Annie Kenney interrupted a political meeting in Manchester to ask Liberal politicians Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey, if they thought women should have the right to vote. When they refused to answer, the two women got out a banner saying “Votes for Women” and demanded that the politicians respond. At a time when most public speeches were listened to in complete silence, the two women were fired from the meeting and subsequently arrested. Both women refused to pay a fine, preferring to go to prison and highlight the injustice of the system as it was.
Fellow suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, famously threw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby on the 4th June 1913 and was killed. The British government responded by introducing the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913 – this was to prevent public alliance and also deflected responsibility if any of the imprisoned women were injured or died because they were too weak from hunger strike. Once released, they could be imprisoned at any time for causing any minor offence and would be subjected to the same mistreatment.
This event became a milestone and turning point, after which the Suffragettes became more active in their fight to win the right to vote. In the name of equality they would tie themselves to the railings at Buckingham Palace, cause damage to public property, verbally abuse Policemen and go on hunger strikes whilst imprisoned for their offences.
Illustrating the lengths to which these women would go to, Emmeline later wrote in her autobiography, “this was the beginning of a campaign the like of which was never known in England, or for that matter in any other country…..we interrupted a great many meetings……and we were violently thrown out and insulted. Often we were painfully bruised and hurt.”
At the ripe old age of 53, Emmeline was still pioneering protests and jailed a total of 13 times during her lifetime. In an account from the Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, 3 May 2010), April 1913, the trial of Emmeline Pankhurst (t19130401-67) gives a good insight into her crime, describing her as “feloniously procuring and inciting a person or persons unknown to commit felony; unlawfully soliciting and inciting persons unknown to commit felony and certain misdemeanours.” The judge ordered her to serve three years hard labour in gaol as punishment.
After a relentless battle from women fighting for a right that would change life for British women for the rest of time, Parliament introduced the Representation of the Peoples Act in 1918. This gave some women over the age of 30 the right to vote – finally in 1928 it was granted to all women, irrespective of their age. 82 years on, the resilience and bravery of these remarkable women still inspires me to make the most of my civil liberties and exercise my right to vote.
Have you discovered links in your family history to any of these inspirational women? If so then we would love to hear about it.