Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 My Own Story, Pankhurst's autobiography, is considered a valuable historical document that vividly chronicles her struggle for equality.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.