Never Surrender: 100 Years Since Women Won the Right to Vote

Helen Pankhurst, great granddaughter of the famed English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, honors — and celebrates — the long struggle for voting equality.

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In February 1918, the “Representation of the People Act” granted women over 30 in Great Britain and Ireland the right to vote. Women in the UK had been peacefully campaigning and lobbying for voting rights for years, without success. It took a more active — even revolutionary — form of protest to finally win women the franchise. (Pictured: Suffragettes in the funeral procession for militant campaigner Emily Davison, 1913.)

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The Women’s Social and Political Union (suffragettes), led by the activist Emmeline Pankhurst, was formed in 1903. Pankhurst, seen here leading a march in 1915, called for a campaign of civil disobedience: many suffragettes were imprisoned, and those on hunger strikes were violently force-fed. In an email exchange with FOTO, Emmeline's great granddaughter, Helen Pankhurst, discussed some of the signature photos of that remarkable era.

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"I love this photo of my great-grandmother Emmeline in the crowds of men, women, and children, arms outstretched, not pleading but beckoning or explaining with great passion."

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"So Sylvia. This is my grandmother Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline." Emmeline's daughters Sylvia, Christabel, and Adela joined the fight. Sylvia was an irrepressible campaigner not only for women's suffrage, but also for workers’ rights. She also campaigned against the First World War and poverty and, later in life, against fascism and for Ethiopian independence.

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"Christabel Harriette Pankhurst wanted to be a barrister, but couldn't because women were not allowed to practice [law]."

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"Powerful image of Emmeline being manhandled, picked up like a sack of potatoes or something, her frailty is evident — and yet she is still not being silenced."

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"The image of women being force-fed. Imagine this happening not once but repeatedly and hearing it being done to fellow prisoners before and after they have tortured you."

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"My grandmother Sylvia restrained by two policemen, flanked by many more on horse — all these because women wanted to be treated as citizens, to have the right to vote, incredible really!"

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"Sylvia held on both sides by friends helping her, and yet she is at an angle, they seem to be propping her up after her release from prison. Contrast this image with the previous photo."

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"Sylvia here so weak she couldn’t even stand."

Sylvia and other suffragettes had bodyguards who tried to prevent police from re-arresting them while on release under the terms of the Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for III-Health Act. Suffragettes were allowed to go on hunger strike but once they became ill they were released. When they had recovered, the police re-arrested them and returned them to prison in order to complete their sentences. Among the many who suffered from the experience was Emmeline's sister, Mary Clark, who died in 1910, two days after being released from prison following a hunger strike and force-feeding.

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"I love this this one of Emmeline in Trafalgar Square, with the lions roaring in front of her. On the 4th of March this year, ahead of International Women’s Day, we are going to do an event to recreate some of these speeches with a march from Parliament to Trafalgar Square. #March4Women."

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"Emily Wilding Davison’s Martyrdom, with all the emotional charge it carries with it, and all the questions about whether or not she planned it as a final act of defiance."

Suffragette Emily Davison was hit and killed by King George V's horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby. During her campaigning, Emily had been force-fed 49 times.

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“[Davison’s] funeral showing the numbers, the sheer scale of the suffragette impact. A suffrage rally in Hyde Park drew an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people, figures unheard of at the time and still pretty amazing today."

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"Emmeline and her two daughters together, before the split."

Sylvia formed the East London Federation of Suffragettes when she was expelled from the WSPU by Christabel and Emmeline. The period of militancy ended when the First World War began in 1914 and Emmeline and Christabel supported the war effort. Sylvia, who refused to support the war, continued campaigning in London’s East End. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over 30.

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"Sylvia as a mother with my father."

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"This is me at the house in Manchester where it all started. The Pankhurst Centre was home to Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. It is part museum with a parlour made to look like what the house would have looked like at the time the Pankhursts lived there, but also an active women's centre housing the Manchester Women's Aid, a drop-in centre, a food bank etc."

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"Me and my daughter, providing the link to the past and continuing to talk about ongoing inequalities."

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“When the long struggle for the enfranchisement of women is over, those who read the history of the movement will wonder at the blindness that led the government of the day to obstinately resist so simple and obvious a measure of justice." — Emmeline Pankhurst.

Women were granted equal voting rights with men 10 years later, in 1928, when the Equal Franchise Act extended the right to vote to women over the age of 21." — Emmeline Pankhurst.

Helen Pankhurst is Senior Adviser at CARE International and her book, “Deeds Not Words,” on the changes to women’s lives since 1918 is available as of February 6, 2018.

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