Extract from ‘Rise Up Women’ by Diane Atkinson

Extract from ‘Rise Up Women’ by Diane Atkinson

Below is an extract from Rise Up Women by Diane Atkinson, who will be at Denman for two events in February 2018.


‘It was in October, 1903, that I invited a number of women to my house in Nelson Street for purposes of organisation. We voted to call our new society the Women’s Social and Political Union, partly to emphasise its democracy, and partly to define its object as political rather than propagandist. We resolved to limit our membership exclusively to women, to keep ourselves absolutely free from any party affiliation, and to be satisfied with nothing but action on our question. Deeds, not words, was to be our motto.’

Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, a forty- five- year- old widow, was the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Chorlton, and had a shop, Emerson’s and Co., at 30 King Street, Manchester, which sold Liberty- style Arts and Crafts furniture and soft furnishings. Much of the stock had come from an earlier endeavour when she had opened the same kind of shop in various parts of London where the  Pankhurst family had lived from 1886 to 1893, 2 but Mrs Pankhurst had no head for business and the ill- starred venture eventually closed in 1906. She had three daughters, Christabel, aged twenty- three in 1903, Sylvia, twenty- one, Adela, eighteen, and a son, Harry, then fourteen.

Emmeline Pankhurst often said she was born on the same date as the fall of the Bastille; in fact, she was born the day after, but it was too good a story to let a day spoil it. Her grandfather told Emmeline about the Battle of Peterloo, the great franchise demonstration on St Peter’s Fields in 1819, when the Manchester justices had called out the troops to attack the people, and how he had ‘barely escaped alive’.

When she was five Emmeline was taken to her first political meeting by her mother, who was active in the abolition of slavery movement. Emmeline tottered round the room with a ‘lucky bag’ collecting pennies for the newly emancipated slaves. In 1872, when Emmeline was fourteen, her mother took her to a woman’s suffrage meeting to hear Miss Lydia Ernestine Becker speak. Lydia Becker was the secretary of the recently founded Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage and friends with leading radicals, including Dr Richard Pankhurst, whom Emmeline married in 1879 when she was twenty- one.

Red- haired and bearded, Richard Pankhurst, known as ‘the Red Doctor’, was twenty- three years older than his wife. He was the son of an auctioneer, and in 1867 he became a founder member of the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage. He stood for Parliament three times: in Manchester in 1883 as an independent radical Liberal; in Rotherhithe in 1885 as a radical; and in Gorton, Manchester, in 1895 as a candidate for the Independent Labour Party. He failed each time. Lydia Becker described him as ‘a very clever little man with some extraordinary sentiments about life in general and women in particular’.

In 1886 the Pankhursts left Manchester with their four children and moved to London where they hoped Richard’s earnings as a barrister would support them, and that he might get elected to the House of Commons. The Pankhursts moved in Fabian and free- thinking circles, their Liberal views turning pink and then red.

Richard and Emmeline were present at the ‘Bloody Sunday’ riot on 13 November 1887 in Trafalgar Square, a protest against high unemployment and the draconian enforcement of law and order in Ireland. After his experience of being in a peaceful protest policed by 2,000 police constables and 400 troops, Richard Pankhurst joined the Law and Liberty League to defend the right to free speech and demonstration. The couple also joined the Women’s Franchise League when it was founded in 1889.

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