Deeds Not Words

June Purvis explores the career of Emmeline Pankhurst.

Emmeline Pankhurst is remembered as the heroine of  the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU or the Union), the most notorious of the groups campaigning for the parliamentary vote for women on equal terms with men in Edwardian Britain. She founded the WSPU in 1903 as a women-only organisation and under her leadership the deeds of her followers grabbed the imagination of the public.

The popularity of the suffragette movement was evident when Midge Mackenzie’s television series, Shoulder to Shoulder, was shown in 1974. Twenty-five years later, Emmeline Pankhurst topped the polls among Observer and Daily Mirror readers as the woman of the twentieth century. However, most historians have presented her in a negative manner.

The most influential account of the votes for women campaign, The Suffragette Movement (1931) was written by Sylvia Pankhurst, the middle of Emmeline’s three daughters, from whom she was estranged at the time of her death in 1928. Sylvia had often been at odds with the views of her mother and Christabel, her elder sister and the organising secretary of the WSPU – and their mother’s favourite child. Writing not just as an angry socialist but also as a rejected daughter, Sylvia presented her mother as a traitor to the socialist cause, a failed leader and a failed mother, easily swayed by Christabel. Both Emmeline and Christabel were represented as moving further and further to the political right.

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