She’s Not Just a Hero...
... She's Manchester's Own Hero
Have you heard of the medical term anorexia scholastic? It is a ‘special’ physiological disorder just for females, a debilitating thinness of the body resulting from too much mental stimulus. Because, as history has taught us, too much reading and a woman’s head will explode! It wouldn’t be surprising if Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), had the term thrown at her on more than one occasion. Thankfully, throughout her life, she persevered in her belief that women deserved equal voting rights with men, debunking the myth that women should be seen and not heard. She was a formidable suffragette and a proud Mancunian, beginning her ardent fight for female suffrage right on our doorstep.
June 14 was the 90th Anniversary of the death of Emmeline Pankhurst, matriarch of the Pankhurst family. Next month, July 15, will mark Pankhurst’s 160th birthday. Born in Moss Side, Manchester, Emmeline’s parents were active on the local political scene, campaigning against slavery and for women’s suffrage. From as young as five years old, she accompanied her mother collecting money to support the anti-slavery movement. At 10, she sneaked into her first election to try and influence voters. Clearly her parents’ beliefs and passions gave her a solid grounding in equality but Manchester, always known for its grit and determination, not a ‘sit down and shut up sort of place’, as described by Mancunian born writer Jeanette Winterson, played its part, too.
Industrial cities like Manchester were believed to be made for men. But women, such as Lydia Becker, were working hard to change this idea. She founded the Women’s Suffrage Journal with Jessie Boucherett in 1870, a publication that Emmeline’s mother, Sophia, subscribed to. Becker, a fellow native Mancunian, gave a speech in 1874, which was attended by the 15 year old Emmeline. But Becker, a keen botanist who has botanical specimens which survive in the Manchester Museum today, had already begun to court controversy long before this date. In 1867, she made headlines when a woman named Lily Maxwell found her name on the electoral register by accident, since she happened to be a homeowner. Becker marched Lily to the polling booth to vote, the first woman to do so. This not only motivated Emmeline in her passion for women’s suffrage, it was an early insight into the power of publicity that Emmeline would use to her advantage time and time again.
As a quirk of fate, the court drama that ensued after this unique vote included a certain Dr Richard Pankhurst. Dr Pankhurst was the barrister defending the women’s cause for the vote to be legally recognised, and ten years later, in 1878, he became Emmeline’s husband. Although, Emmeline and her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and, a somewhat forgotten, Adela, were instrumental in the fight for women’s rights, the patriarch of this indomitable family, Dr Richard Pankhurst, shared this passion for equality. At a time when women were seen and not heard, Emmeline was fortunate to marry a man who was not only willing to let her have a voice but was openly supportive of his wife and did not expect her to be just a wife and a mother.
Emmeline’s drive and determination was bestowed on to her daughters. It is here, in Manchester, that the militant behaviour of the WPSU members truly began. Now a Radisson hotel, the Free Trade Hall on Peter Street is possibly most notorious as the site of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. However, in 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, a working-class woman born in Springfield, were ejected from a political meeting after Liberal politician Sir Edward Grey repeatedly refused to answer their questions regarding female suffrage. What ensued not only encouraged the suffragettes to further action, it highlighted the power of publicity. Christabel was all too aware that by assaulting a police officer, the public face of political power, she would be arrested. By spitting in the officers face, she created a situation that called into question what the authorities would do to deal with this new kind of disorder by ‘respectable’ women. When both Christabel and Annie refused to pay their fines, they were sent to prison, the first suffragettes to do so for the cause of women’s suffrage. The media had a field day.
Manchester's Free Trade Hall
The Pankhursts continued to manipulate the media, long after they moved their headquarters to London in order to be closer to Parliament. They continued to refuse to pay fines and created prison badges for those who had been released from jail. They even created a board game called Suffragetto in which 21 green pieces, the suffragettes, had to break through police lines, represented by 21 black pieces, and enter the House of Commons. But it was their choice of dress which was particularly important. Whilst they would march ‘like men’, their dress was feminine and ladylike, clearly demonstrating that to have feminine qualities was not incompatible with having the vote.
Whilst the women grew louder and the focus shifted towards Westminster, Manchester’s part was not forgotten. Without robust and politically minded parents shaped by the industrial city of Manchester, without seeing, for herself, the plight of unmarried mothers and deserted wives, and without any likeminded voices in Parliament, Emmeline is unlikely to have become the most famous figurehead of women’s suffrage this country has ever seen. And women’s suffrage in Manchester continued to make an impact, even after their move to London. In April 1913 three women walked into Manchester Art Gallery and vandalised valuable paintings. They were charged under the Malicious Damage Act 1861, and two of the three women were sentenced to imprisonment.
Today, Manchester is finally recognising its most formidable activist with a statue, by sculptor Hazel Reeves. Depicted standing on a chair so that her words can be heard, the statue will be there to inspire all in St Peter’s Square, on March 8 next year, in time for International Women’s Day. Despite Manchester’s rich, radical history of female warriors, this will be only the second female statue to grace Manchester’s streets, compared with 15 male statues.
I close this piece with a quote by Emmeline Pankhurst, one that succinctly explains the need for equality between the sexes, which is as pertinent now as it has ever been, and which explains perfectly why I am proud to say that I am part of a city that has produced one of the most prominent individuals, irrespective of gender, of the 20thcentury:
“If civilisation is to advance at all in the future it must be through the help of women. Women freed of their political shackle, women with the full power to work their will in society.”
About Our Author: Katie Calvert's background is in fashion and textiles with a first class honours degree in Fashion Communication and Promotion and experience in trend, PR and events. She decided to take the plunge back into education in 2015 to complete a Master of Arts in Multimedia Journalism. Using these newfound skills and her love of fashion and culture, Katie has been freelance writing for over a year.