My history hero: Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928)

Actor Richard E Grant explains why he admires a pioneer of women's rights

Emmeline Pankhurst

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) was the leader of the suffragette movement that played an important role in helping to win British women the right to vote. Born into a politically active family, in 1903 she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which aimed to achieve women’s suffrage through “deeds, not words”. The organisation’s militant tactics resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of Pankhurst, and some historians have since questioned the effectiveness of the WSPU’s methods. In 1918 women over the age of 30 were given the vote – but it would be another 10 years before women were fully enfranchised. In 2002 she came 27th in the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons poll.

When did you first hear about Emmeline Pankhurst?

I first heard the word ‘suffragette’ in the film Mary Poppins when I was seven years old, and asked my Scottish piano teacher, Bunny Barnes, what it meant. This was in Swaziland, where I grew up. She told me all about Emmeline Pankhurst, her incredible courage in taking on the establishment, and her crusade to change the law to allow women to vote in the early 20th century. On discovering that Pankhurst died in 1928, the year my father was born, I was struck by how tangibly ‘recent’ history could be.

What kind of person was she?

Emmeline was the widow of a much older man, Richard, with whom she had five children. He had always supported the right of women to vote, and she was utterly bereft when he died. But rather than withdraw, she resiliently accelerated all her efforts and determination to fight for the causes she fiercely believed in, most notably votes for women.

To me, she will always be linked with Bunny, who I so loved and admired. They were both feisty, strong and independent thinkers. Bunny described Emmeline’s tactics of protest – arson, hunger strikes and whatever subversive means she could muster – in such a mordantly funny way, that I was ‘on her side’ from the get go.

What was Pankhurst’s finest hour?

Full electoral equality, which she so resolutely fought for, sadly only became law a few weeks after she died.

What made her a hero?

Her heroism lay in challenging the status quo, fighting for equal voting rights with men, having huge compassion for the poor, and for living her life according to her mantra that: “Deeds, not words, are our permanent motto.” She was relentless in her pursuit of justice, even if it meant subverting the laws of the day to achieve her goals.

Emmeline Pankhurst
Emmeline Pankhurst – pictured in 1908 – was a “feisty, strong and independent thinker”, says Richard E Grant. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Pankhurst?

The problem with any form of fanaticism is that it becomes relentless and risks alienating people, no matter how noble its intentions.

However, Pankhurst’s passion and commitment to her cause continue to be an inspiration. Being the only male in a household numbering a wife and daughter, I feel strongly about women having equal pay and rights at every level. It seems completely Jurassic not to.

Can you see any parallels between Pankhurst’s life and your own?

Heroes and heroines are inspiring because they fight for the things that we wish we could fight for but don’t have the courage or determination to pursue. The only parallel with my own life is that living by the motto “Deeds rather than words” is the way I get anything done. When I first mooted the idea of becoming an actor, writer, director or perfume maker, I was always told “You can’t”, or heard the subsequent retort: “I could have done that.” It has been my lifelong goal not to end up singing the blues: “Could have, would have, should have done that, but didn’t.”

If you could meet Pankhurst, what would you ask her?

I would invite her to an enormous party and introduce her to the long list of women who have guided, inspired and loved me, and whom I have loved throughout my life.

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Richard E Grant was talking to York Membery. Richard E Grant is an actor best known for starring in films such as Withnail and I and television dramas like Downton Abbey. He is also the creator of JACK perfume jackperfume.co.uk