The Victorian Englishwoman marshaled the suffragist movement, which won women the vote

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Not even the noisiest proponents of women's proper place back in the home could seriously suggest today that women should not have the vote. Yet "the mother half of the human family," in Emmeline Pankhurst's phrase, was fully enfranchised only in this century. In Britain, so proud to claim "the Mother of Parliaments," universal suffrage--including women's--was granted only in the year of her death, 1928. Mrs. Pankhurst was born a Victorian Englishwoman, but she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.

The struggle to get votes for women, led by Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel at the head of the militant suffragists, convulsed Britain from 1905 to 1914. The opposition the Liberal government put up looks incomprehensible today, and it provoked, among all classes and conditions of women, furious and passionate protests. The response of the police, the courts and sometimes the crowds of suffragist opponents still makes shocking reading. Women were battered in demonstrations and, on hunger strikes, brutally force-fed in prison. When these measures risked taking lives, the infamous Cat & Mouse Act was passed so that a dangerously weakened hunger striker would be released and then rearrested when strong enough to continue her sentence. Under its terms, Mrs. Pankhurst, age 54 in 1912, went to prison 12 times that year. No wonder she railed, "The militancy of men, through all the centuries, has drenched the world with blood. The militancy of women has harmed no human life save the lives of those who fought the battle of righteousness."

Mrs. Pankhurst's father was a Manchester manufacturer with radical sympathies. When she was small, she was consuming Uncle Tom's Cabin, John Bunyan and abolitionist materials; her earliest memories included hearing Elizabeth Cady Stanton speak. Her father was keen on amateur theatricals in the home; his daughter later enthralled the suffragists with her oratory and her voice. The young Rebecca West described hearing Mrs. Pankhurst in full cry: "Trembling like a reed, she lifted up her hoarse, sweet voice on the platform, but the reed was of steel and it was tremendous."

Richard Pankhurst, whom she married in 1879, when she was 20 and he was 40, was a brilliant lawyer, selflessly dedicated to reform, who drafted pioneering legislation granting women independent control of their finances. Emmeline bore five children but lost two sons, and when Richard died suddenly in 1898, she was left to bring up her children alone, with no private means.

The surviving Pankhurst women formed an intrepid, determined, powerfully gifted band. In 1903 they founded the Women's Social and Political Union. It was, Emmeline Pankhurst wrote later, "simply a suffrage army in the field." The charismatic, dictatorial eldest daughter Christabel emerged in her teens as the W.S.P.U.'s strategist and an indomitable activist, with nerves of tungsten. Mrs. Pankhurst's second daughter Sylvia, the artist, pioneered the corporate logo: as designer and scene painter of the W.S.P.U., she created banners, costumes and badges in the suffragist livery of white, purple and green. Though the family split later over policy, their combined talents powered from the beginning an astonishingly versatile tactical machine.

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