british suffrage


July 15th 1858: Emmeline Pankhurst born

On this day in 1858, English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Manchester. Born as Emmeline Goulden, her family had a tradition of radical politics, as did her husband Richard Pankhurst. In 1889, she founded the Women’s Franchise League, and in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union. The latter was far more militant in its demands for female suffrage, resorting to criminal activities like vandalism and arson. The suffragettes were known for their hunger strikes in prison, which resulted in violent force-feeding; Pankhurst herself was subjected to this while in prison on hunger strike. The actions of suffragettes appeared hysterical and fanatical to contemporary observers - especially Emily Wilding Davison’s death upon jumping in front of a horse at the 1913 Derby - and did not lead to female suffrage. Their tactics were more extreme when compared to the moderate suffragists led by Millicent Fawcett, and even divided Pankhurst’s daughters, causing a rift in the family. Upon the outbreak of the First World War, Pankhurst and the suffragettes actively supported the war effort in factories and encouraging enlistment, which resulted in enfranchisement of women over thirty in 1918. This was not on par with men, and Pankhurst continued the struggle for the female voting age to be reduced to 21. Pankhurst, who had devoted her life to the cause of female equality, died soon before this was achieved in 1928.

“The condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do”

MAY 5: Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960)

On this day in 1882, the renowned suffragette and anti-fascist activist Sylvia Pankhurst was born in Manchester, England.

Although Sylvia’s mother and two sisters were dedicated suffragettes as well, Sylvia was the most radical out of the four Pankhurst women. She fought on with the anti-fascist and anti-colonialism movements throughout her life (x).

Born Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst, she dropped her first name later on in life and was simply known as Sylvia. Sylvia’s parents were Dr. Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst (who is played by Meryl Streep in the movie Suffragette), founding members of the Independent Labour Party; social and political activism was baked into their family legacy, and so it is no surprise that Sylvia, along with her two sisters Christabel and Adela, grew up to become big names in the British suffrage movement. Sylvia started out as an art student at the Manchester School of Art and after school she began touring northern England and Scotland, where she painted portraits of working-class women in their daily lives.

It wasn’t until 1906 when Sylvia joined the suffrage movement in earnest and began to work for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She used her artistic skills to help design the WSPU’s logo and to design various leaflets for the organization. Over the years, Sylvia became frustrated with the WSPU’s refusal to align themselves wholeheartedly with the Labour Party or with a strict socialist agenda. Despite her own sisters’ advice, Sylvia eventually splintered off from the WSPU and created the Women’s Socialist Federation, as well as the Workers’ Dreadnought – a newspaper that was instrumental in shielding conscientious objectors from the police during World War I. 

Sylvia protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policy in India, 1932 (x). 

Although Sylvia never married, she did give birth to a son in 1927. She lived with her son’s father and her partner, Silvio Corio, for over thirty years. However, it was her refusal to marry Silvio that resulted in her parents disinheriting her. Both Sylvia’s mother and her sister Christabel had noted relationships with women throughout their lifetimes, which often overshadows speculation about Sylvia’s own sexuality. Her relationship with her “best friend” and fellow radical suffragette, Zelie Emerson, has been described by even the earliest of historians as “very intense, possibly even sexual.” Little has been recorded about Zelie outside of the fact that she was an American girl from Michigan who had serendipitously found herself tangled in the British suffrage movement; her most documented involvement in the movement was in November 1913 when she led “a squad of militants” after the police who were trying to attack Sylvia as she gave a speech in the east end of London. In the mid-1930s, Sylvia began to step aside from British politics (and presumably Zelie as well) and focused her energy on fighting against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Sylvia died in Ethiopia in 1960 at the age of 78. She is the only non-Ethiopian buried in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.  



An Illustrated Ode To Jessie Craigen: A Queer, Ugly, Working-Class Suffragist

Jessie Craigen was a mess. She struggled to support herself financially, inspired snickering comments about her appearance and nursed an embarrassingly unrequited love for another woman. She was vocal in her passions, unrelenting in her judgment and fierce in her loyalty. Today, she’s lucky if she’s mentioned in a footnote about working-class women in the British suffrage movement.

To me, she’s a hero.


April 3rd 1911: Emily Davison found in Parliament

On this day in 1911, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was discovered in a broom cupboard in the chapel crypt of the Houses of Parliament. She hid during the night of April 2nd - the night of the 1911 census - so that she could officially record her place of residence as ‘the House of Commons’. Ths stunt was intended to promote the suffragette cause, and emphasise the fact that disenfranchised women were excluded from participating in the British political system. The former teacher dedicated herself to the campaign for women’s rights and female suffrage, even being subjected to force feeding while on hunger strike in prison. Davison often committed acts of civil disobedience, including hiding in Parliament overnight, burning post boxes, and throwing rocks at the carriage of chancellor David Lloyd George. Two years after the Parliament incident, at the Epsom Derby, Davison ran out in front of King George V’s horse Anmer; she was trampled by the horse, and later died from her injuries. She appears to have been attempting to attach a suffragette flag to the King’s horse, though it has also been suggested she was trying to pull down the horse. Others believed she had been aiming to commit suicide and become a martyr for the suffragette cause, but the fact she had purchased a return rail ticket that day appears to suggest otherwise. Davison’s extraordinary devotion to the suffragette cause demonstrates the lengths to which women would go to fight for their political rights. Her daring foray into Parliament is today commemorated with a plaque in the place she hid overnight.


November 28th 1893: Women first vote in New Zealand

On this day in 1893, New Zealand women voted for the first time in a national election. Women’s suffrage had passed that September following a campaign which was inspired by British and American suffrage activists. The 1893 election saw an impressive turnout of 75.3%, and elected members to the New Zealand Parliament. Also elected was the first female mayor in the British Empire - Elizabeth Yates of Onehunga. The Liberal Party won the election, and Richard Seddon became Prime Minister of New Zealand. With the September suffrage act and subsequent election, New Zealand became the first nation with universal suffrage, as indigenous Māori women were also granted the right to vote. However, women did not gain the right to stand for New Zealand Parliament until 1919. Despite this, this anniversary commemorates New Zealand’s progressive suffrage policies, which were certainly ahead of their time in 1893.

Suffragette is an upcoming British drama film directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan. The film centres on early members of the British women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The film stars Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Whishaw.