We need to talk about Emmeline
Author: Zoe Starvi
Published on Jul 11, 2012
Emmeline Pankhurst, London for Democracy’s birthday girl, remains a controversial historical figure. While she is credited and commemorated for her pivotal role in achieving votes for women, there remains an elephant in the room: were Pankhurst alive and campaigning today, she would be labelled a terrorist.
When Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), its ethos was “deeds, not words”, that is, a focus on direct action. It identified as separate to political parties. Comparisons could be made to modern groups such as UK Uncut, though WSPU’s tactics were far more militant.
WSPU started with noise demonstrations and jamming mainstream political events. Pankhurst herself was arrested and imprisoned in 1908 for trying to enter parliament to personally deliver a resolution to the Prime Minister. From their inception, there were tensions between the WSPU and the police: Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel was arrested for spitting at a policeman in 1905.
Soon, WSPU tactics escalated, and their repertoire began to include breaking windows, burning messages on grass with acid, and arson. Pankhurst was again arrested and imprisoned, this time for conspiracy to commit property damage. Inside, Pankhurst orchestrated another tactic of resistance: she went hunger strike, in order to improve conditions for other women in the prison. Pankhurst herself resisted force-feeding by threatening prison officials with a clay jug.
While she was not personally involved in all instances of property damage, Pankhurst never condemned the actions, often speaking out in support.
Groups employing WSPU-style tactics in the modern day would be considered a threat to the state. In Pankhurst’s time, this was no different. The WSPU were subject to surveillance from the contemporary equivalent of police Forward Intelligence Teams, and many members were imprisoned.
And yet, history does not condemn the actions of Pankhurst and her WSPU sisters. Disenfranchised, these women had little other option to make their voices heard: parallels can be made with a famous quote from Martin Luther King: “a riot is the language of the unheard”.
Pankhurst herself defended the diversity of tactics employed by the WSPU similarly: “You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under, if you are really going to... get your reform realized.”
When we think about Emmeline Pankhurst’s legacy, we must remember that she advocated tactics that, throughout history, have been seen by some to be distasteful. Rather than shy away from discussion of this and sweep it under the carpet, we must address the issue and ask ourselves what lessons we can learn.
Please note the views of London for Democracy and guest writers for Unlock Democracy do not necessarily represent those of Unlock Democracy