Emmeline Pankhurst - Legacy

Legacy

News of Emmeline Pankhurst's death was announced around the country, and extensively in North America. Her funeral service on 18 June was filled with her former WSPU colleagues and those who had worked beside her in various capacities. The Daily Mail described the procession as "like a dead general in the midst of a mourning army." Women wore WSPU sashes and ribbons, and the organisation's flag was carried alongside the Union Flag. Christabel and Sylvia appeared together at the service, the latter with her child. Adela did not attend. Press coverage around the world recognised her tireless work on behalf of women's right to vote – even if they didn't agree on the value of her contributions. The New York Herald Tribune' called her "the most remarkable political and social agitator of the early part of the twentieth century and the supreme protagonist of the campaign for the electoral enfranchisement of women."

Shortly after the funeral, one of Pankhurst's bodyguards from her WSPU days, Katherine Marshall, began raising funds for a memorial statue. In spring 1930 her efforts bore fruit, and on 6 March her statue in Victoria Tower Gardens was unveiled. A crowd of radicals, former suffragettes, and national dignitaries gathered as former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin presented the memorial to the public. In his address, Baldwin declared: "I say with no fear of contradiction, that whatever view posterity may take, Mrs. Pankhurst has won for herself a niche in the Temple of Fame which will last for all time." Sylvia was the only Pankhurst daughter in attendance; Christabel, touring North America, sent a telegram which was read aloud. While planning the agenda for the day, Marshall had intentionally excluded Sylvia, who in her opinion had hastened Pankhurst's death.

During the twentieth century Emmeline Pankhurst's value to the movement for women's suffrage was debated passionately, and no consensus was achieved. Her daughters Sylvia and Christabel weighed in with books, scornful and laudatory respectively, about their time in the struggle. Sylvia's 1931 book The Suffrage Movement describes her mother's political shift at the start of the First World War as the beginning of a betrayal of her family (especially her father) and the movement. It set the tone for much of the socialist and activist history written about the WSPU and particularly solidified Emmeline Pankhurst's reputation as an unreasonable autocrat. Christabel's "Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote," released in 1959, paints her mother as generous and selfless to a fault, offering herself completely to the most noble causes. It provided a sympathetic counterpart to Sylvia's attacks and continued the polarised discussion; detached and objective assessment has rarely been a part of Pankhurst scholarship.

Recent biographies show that historians differ about whether Emmeline Pankhurst's militancy helped or hurt the movement; however, there is general agreement that the WSPU raised public awareness of the movement in ways that proved essential. Baldwin compared her to Martin Luther and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: individuals who were not the sum total of the movements in which they took part, but who nevertheless played crucial roles in struggles of social and political reform. In the case of Pankhurst, this reform took place in both intentional and unintentional ways. By defying the roles of wife and mother as the docile companion, Pankhurst paved the way for feminists who would later decry her support for empire and sustainable social values.

Emmeline Pankhurst's importance to the United Kingdom was demonstrated again in 1929, when a portrait of her was added to the National Portrait Gallery. The BBC dramatised her life in the 1974 mini-series Shoulder to Shoulder, with Welsh actress Siân Phillips in the role of Emmeline Pankhurst. In 1987 one of her homes in Manchester was opened as the Pankhurst Centre, an all-women gathering space and museum.

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