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Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst

Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst Essay - Critical Essays

Pankhurst, Emmeline Goulden

Introduction

Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst 1858-1928

English autobiographer, essayist, and speechwriter.

A feminist and activist during the suffragist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Pankhurst masterminded extreme, often violent, reform protests. Despite her radical behavior, Pankhurst is remembered as an eloquent speaker and talented author who was consumed with the issue of women's rights. My Own Story, Pankhurst's autobiography, is considered a valuable historical document that vividly chronicles her struggle for equality.

Biographical Information

Pankhurst's parents were ardent abolitionists who served as her role models for social involvement. She was born July 14, 1858, and grew up in Manchester, England. Pankhurst attended school in Paris, returning to England at age eighteen. In 1879 she married Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer of liberal leanings. Frustrated by women's inequalities, she embarked on a dual career of child rearing and social activism. The Pankhursts moved to London in 1885, where they attracted a lively group of anarchists who shared their free-thinking philosophy. When her husband died in 1889, Pankhurst became a registrar of births and deaths to support herself and her family. At the same time she and her equally radical daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, became involved in the Independent Labour Party, a left-wing political organization that appeared to support their goals of equality. But upon discovering that the party had no intention of treating men and women equally, the Pankhurst women formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). When the WSPU members learned that a bill supporting women's suffrage had been abandoned in Parliament, the women protested, first with marches and later with hunger strikes, arson, and attacks on property. In 1908 Pankhurst went to prison for the first of many times. My Own Story appeared in 1914. Intended to encourage support of women's rights, the candid, detailed story of Pankhurst's experiences won many admirers. Three years later Pankhurst and her daughters formed the Women's Party, a political organization devoted to women's rights. In 1918 she moved to Canada, where she toured the country as a public speaker. She returned to England in 1926. Just as she died, Parliament granted women the right to vote in England.

Major Works

Pankhurst's primary work is My Own Story, an eloquently told account of her struggles and frustrations in the fight for women's suffrage. The book, published in the middle of her activist career, is a candid diary of the era. Aside from outlining her life as an activist, My Own Story details Pankhurst's conflict between her English middle-class upbringing and the increasingly violent and extreme protests she came to embrace. In the course of her career, Pankhurst also published several speeches and pamphlets that helped further her political causes. A captivating public speaker, Pankhurst inspired many women to seek equality aggressively.

Critical Reception

Since its publication, My Own Story has been consistently praised for its insight into women's struggles in nineteenth-century England. At the end of the twentieth century, critics still praise Pankhurst's importance as a first-hand commentator of the suffrage movement. Her efforts, which included twelve arrests and several life-threatening hunger strikes, are considered pivotal actions in the quest for equality.

Principal Works

“The Importance of the Vote” (essay) 1908

My Own Story (autobiography) 1914

Criticism

Emmeline Pankhurst (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: “Militant Suffragists,” in The World's Greatest Speeches, edited by Lewis Copeland, Garden City Publishing Co., Inc., 1942, pp. 196-8.

[In the following excerpt, originally delivered as an address in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1913, Pankhurst discusses differences between the struggle for women's rights in England and America and expresses her willingness to die for her cause.]

I do not come here as an advocate, because whatever position the suffrage movement may occupy in the United States of America, in England it has passed beyond the realm of advocacy and it has entered into the sphere of practical politics. It has become the subject of revolution and civil war, and so to-night I am not here to advocate woman suffrage. American suffragists can do that very well for themselves. I am here as a soldier who has temporarily left the field of battle in order to explain—it seems strange it should have to be explained—what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women. I am not only here as a soldier temporarily absent from the field of battle; I am here—and that, I think, is the strangest part of my coming—I am here as a person who, according to the law courts of my country, it has been decided, is of no value to the community at all; and I am adjudged because of my life to be a dangerous person, under sentence of penal servitude in a convict prison. So you see there is some special interest in hearing so unusual a person address you. I dare say, in the minds of many of you—you will perhaps forgive me this personal touch—that I do not look either very like a soldier or very like a convict, and yet I am both.

It would take too long to trace the course of militant methods as adopted by women, because it is about eight years since the word militant was first used to describe what we were doing; it is about eight years since the first militant action was taken by women. It was not militant at all, except that it provoked militancy on the part of those who were opposed to it. When women asked questions in political meetings and failed to get answers, they were not doing anything militant. To ask questions at political meetings is an acknowledged right of all people who attend public meetings; certainly in my country, men have always done it, and I hope they do it in America, because it seems to me that if you allow people to enter your legislatures without asking them any questions as to what they are going to do when they get there you are not exercising your citizen rights and your citizen duties as you ought. At any rate in Great Britain it is a custom, a time-honored one, to ask questions of candidates for Parliament and ask questions of members of the government. No man was ever put out of a public meeting for asking a question until Votes for Women came onto the political horizon. The first people who were put out of a political meeting for asking questions, were women; they were brutally ill-used; they found themselves in jail before twenty-four hours had expired. But instead of the newspapers, which are largely inspired by the politicians, putting militancy and the reproach of militancy, if reproach there is, on the people who had assaulted the women, they actually said it was the women who were militant and very much to blame.

It was not the speakers on the platform who would not answer them, who were to blame, or the ushers at the meeting; it was the poor women who had had their bruises and their knocks and scratches, and who were put into prison for doing precisely nothing but holding a protest meeting in the...

(The entire section is 1485 words.)

The Nation (review date 1914)

A review of “The Arch-Priestess of Militancy: My Own Story,” in The Nation, 99, 2580, December 10, 1914, pp. 688-89.

[In the following review, the critic refutes Pankhurst's arguments in My Own Story.]

Mrs. Pankhurst begins [My Own Story] with the apparently unconscious admission that “those men and women are fortunate who are born at a time when a great struggle for human freedom is in progress”; no one will doubt that when a “struggle” is on she will be eager to be there. The reader who sets out to take her good-naturedly will find the story amusing and entertaining. Mrs. Pankhurst is clever and writes with a facile pen, and she...

(The entire section is 1546 words.)

The Dial (review date 1915)

A review of My Own Story, in The Dial, LVIII, 686, January 16, 1915, p. 57.

[In the following review, critic praises My Own Story for its vivid depiction of Pankhurst's life and the women's movement.]

This breathing spell in the woman suffrage agitation in England is a good time to review what that agitation has effected and to consider briefly its hopes for the future. Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst's book, My Own Story gives an excellent even though warmly partisan account of the movement, especially of that part in which she has been concerned, and closes with hopeful prophecies of the future. Addressing herself to American readers and appealing for...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

The Nation & Atheneum (essay date 1928)

The Nation & Atheneum (essay date 1928)

“The Triumph of Mrs. Pankhurst,” in The Nation and the Athenaeum, Vol. XLIII, No. 12, June 23, 1928, pp. 388-89.

[In the following essay, the critic praises Pankhurst's role in the women's movement at the turn of the century]

Most poets are cradled into poetry by wrong,
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

Something of the kind might be said of Social Reformers, and it might be said of Mrs. Pankhurst. Along with her barrister husband—an expansive and generous man—she had plunged while still young into Socialism, much to the surprise of Manchester Socialists, who...

(The entire section is 1358 words.)

Hugh B. Chapman (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: “Mrs. Pankhurst,” in The English Review, Vol. XLVII, July to December 1928, pp. 184-88.

[In the following essay, Chapman eulogizes Pankhurst and points to her virtue and compassion for her fellow women.]

When I received a telegram asking me to take part in Mrs. Pankhurst's funeral, I felt diffident, having endured nothing for the Suffrage Movement compared with those likely to be present. Dr. Cobb, in an eloquent address at the ceremony, pointed out how Mrs. Pankhurst, whom he eulogized in strong but unexaggerated terms, had foregone her war for the enfranchisement and the social liberty of woman in favour of the greater War, to which she and her troops...

(The entire section is 1762 words.)

Rebecca West (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: “Mrs. Pankhurst,” in The Post-Victorians, Ivor Nicholson & Watson, LTD., September, 1933, pp. 477-500.

[In the following essay, West offers a detailed overview of Pankhurst's life and her role as a suffragette.]

There has been no other woman like Emmeline Pankhurst. She was beautiful; her pale face, with its delicate square jaw and rounded temples, recalled the pansy by its shape and a kind of velvety bloom on the expression. She dressed her taut little body with a cross between the elegance of a Frenchwoman and the neatness of a nun. She was courageous; small and fragile and no longer young, she put herself in the way of horses' hooves, she stood up on...

(The entire section is 8875 words.)

Piers Brendon (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Mrs. Pankhurst,” in Eminent Edwardians, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980, pp. 131-94.

[In the following essay, Brendon offers a historical overview of Pankhurst's life and discusses the role of violence in her life and work.]

I

Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst became the most famous and the most notorious woman of her day by means of violence. Violence, after all, was a male prerogative. Its employment by this new Joan of Arc and her Suffragette minions was at once a castrating threat to the lords of humankind and a vile outrage against all notions of feminine propriety. But Mrs Pankhurst's own violence was less striking as a form of political...

(The entire section is 18694 words.)