The Pankhursts: united in beliefs, torn apart by rows
One hundred years this week after women got the vote, Dr Helen Pankhurst describes the diverging fortunes of those in her family who were to change so many lives
In the history of social change it is almost unheard of to have a mother and her daughters lead a movement in the way the Pankhursts did. They were brought together by their feminist beliefs, but they were, over time, torn apart: by arguments such as whether leadership should be democratic or authoritarian; whether to campaign only on the vote or bring in wider women’s rights considerations; how closely to link with other social reform agendas; whether to have a political affiliation.
They were also split by how to respond to other events, including the world wars. Their story highlights the complexity of the intersection between gender, party and global politics, religion, sexual rights and family structure.
Once the First World War was declared, Emmeline mmeline and Christabel stopped overtly rtly campaigning for the vote, believing ng they could further the cause by supporting the war effort. They became staunch nationalists, making friends of old political cal foes including David Lloyd George, campaigned for women to play a full part art – not on the front line, but ut in the factories and on the land, and, sustaining the nation through hrough the war effort. They became involved olved in shaming men n into enlisting to prove their masculinity linity and commitment ment to king and country, untry, partly by giving ving out white feathers athers to men who had not signed up. p.
For a while e Emmeline also lso adopted four r orphaned “war war babies” and campaigned for other families to do the same. At the end of
1917, Emmeline and Christabel formed the Women’s Party, the first attempt at an independent women’s parliamentary party. It espoused patriotism, practical solutions to the war such as reducing food wastage, introducing kitchens and cooperative housing, abolishing trade unions, and adopting progressive feminist policies. These included equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, maternity benefits, equal rights for parents and equality in public service. Emmeline went on to travel extensively in the US and became a Canadian citizen. She came back to England and joined the Conservative Party, planning to stand for elections. However, she fell ill and died on June 14 1928, the final stage for the Equal Franchise Bill of 1928 taking place on the day of her funeral. Emmeline is regularly named in lists of the most influential people p p of the 20th century. On July 14 each year, her official birthday, the Suffragette Suffra Fellowship – whi which had raised funds for fo a statue of her in Victori Victoria Tower Gardens beside besid the Houses of Par Parliament – started the tradition tra of putting purple, purple green and white flowers by b her statue. The tradition is c continued by the Conservativ Conservative Women’s Association. In 1968, Emmelin Emmeline was the first no non-royal female to be comm commemorated on a stam stamp, as part of the 50-year 5 anniv anniversary of 1918.
Chr Christabel, Emm Emmeline’s eldest daughter, daug was the s strategist and the f family member mem most committed com to militancy. milit In 1912, she escaped e imprisonment impr for suffragette suffrag activities, acti fleeing to France. She also campaigned on “purity for men”, chastity outside marriage, given the dangers from sexually transmitted diseases. After her failure to get into Parliament, she moved to California in 1921 and became a prominent member of the Protestant Second Adventist movement. She returned to the UK in the Thirties and, in a complete reversal, was honoured by George V as a “Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire” before returning to the US where she died on Feb 13 1958.
Adela, Emmeline’s youngest daughter, had been a tireless Northern activist of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was shipped off to Australia by Emmeline in 1914 for health reasons and because Emmeline was fearful of emerging political differences between them. There she married, and, with her husband Tom Walsh, was active in the militant Seamen’s Union and, in 1920, became a founding member of the Australian Communist Party. Although she remained a lifelong pacifist, her political views moved from the far Left to the far Right. She became involved in the Australian Women’s Guild of Empire in 1927, to campaign against Communism, safeguard family and Christian values, and provide support to working-class women in the face of the economic depression.
My grandmother, Sylvia, was Emmeline’s middle daughter. She was the artist behind many suffragette designs and campaigned in the East End of London, including by editing a series of newspapers. At the same time she looked for solutions to the practical needs of impoverished women. She was also expelled from the WSPU by Christabel and Emmeline, but continued the work regardless, under the new name of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. She was a pacifist in the First World War, sympathetic to the Easter Rising in Ireland and was quick to speak out about the danger of fascism before the Second World War. By then, Sylvia had become increasingly involved in domestic and international Left-wing politics.
To walk through the archives with Helen, go to www.telegraph.co.uk/ women
In tomorrow’s 100 years on, there is still some way to go
Emmeline’s daughters, from top, Christabel, Sylvia, grandmother to Helen, left, and Adela, were all politically active and had very different views Extracted from by Helen Pankhurst, published on Feb 8 by Sceptre (£25). To order your copy for £19.99 plus p & p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk