The death of Emmeline Pankhurst

14 June 2004 | Faith & Society

Emmeline Pankhurst, leader in the campaign for women’s equality with men, died at a nursing home in Wimpole Street on 14 June 1928.


Humans only build in cemeteries. What we can see today; what we can think today; who we can be today; we know all of it is built of, and upon, the bones of others who went before us.

When Emmeline Pankhurst died aged 69,  something of profound importance to her life’s work and to subsequent British life was achieved. On the day of her funeral, royal assent was given to the bill which gave women in Britain the vote at age 21 on fully equal terms with men. Ten years earlier in 1918, women aged at least 30 and subject to other restrictions had first gained a national vote.

Campaigning and organising, suffering repeated imprisonment and illness, she was not alone. British women gained the right to vote because, among other things, over a thousand women suffragettes went on hunger strike in prison. In twentieth-century Britain, they endured being force-fed by Government order through the nostril, the mouth, the rectum and the vagina.

From 1886 a majority of MPs had been reported to be in favour of votes for women, but no legislation was passed. Different leaders devised different strategies in response. Pankhurst created and put her stamp on a form of militancy, defining its boundaries and directing its use. The groups she led broke windows, poured acid on mail in pillar-boxes, assaulted police officers, went on hunger strikes and committed arson on property.

As it had to be, it was also a struggle of words and concepts. There were arguments on both sides. In 1892 Asquith, who would be Prime Minister at the height of suffragette militancy, set out the four reasons why women should not have the vote: that the vast majority of women did not want it; that they were not fit for it; that women operated by personal influence; and that it would upset the natural order of things.

In the battle of words Pankhurst became a noted orator. She rallied women and men across all classes, and later on both sides of the Atlantic. In vision, in sacrifice, in rhetoric, in devising and pursuing a contentious strategy for change in the midst of partial democracy, in enfranchising millions, Emmeline Pankhurst’s accomplishments rank with those of – say - Martin Luther King. But there is a version of history in which only one of them has a dream. We regard and remember differently the dreams, words and achievements of men and of women.

Is any of this a religious problem? Only if there exists a God who cares as much for the dreams, words and achievements of daughters as for those of sons. Of course if such a God exists, then according to the Christian revelation there is a specifically religious word for so deeply embedded a distortion in humanity. It is sin.

Whether this creation is one in which St Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst will one day meet I do not know (though if they do, perhaps in some heavenly chat show, tickets for the encounter sold out some time ago). But St Paul describes in haunting language what it is to have one’s eyes opened to sin which is not simply individual but structural. And as both postscript and call to action: does either of their lives (Pankhurst’s or St Paul’s) leave room for much doubt as to the difference to things structural which one person’s life can make?

Romans 8: 19-23:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.


Almighty God

We acknowledge before you our historic, deep-rooted and continuing failure – as men and as women – to acknowledge the image of you in women on equal terms with that in men.

Forgive us and transform us – women and men – into angels of your love and light:

Unafraid of systems, principalities or powers

Unafraid of men

Unafraid of women

And unafraid of ourselves.

In Jesus’ name we ask.

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