Deeds, not words

Emmeline Pankhurst, suffragette leader, dragged votes for women on to the national agenda. Her legac

It is now a hundred years since the suffragette movement embarked on the decade that came to define it, the decade of mass rallies, hunger strikes and letter-box fires, of chains and railings and rushes on parliament, and of the tiny, fierce and lovely Emmeline Pankhurst.

It was in October 1903 that Pankhurst, a 45-year-old widow born, bred and married into the tradition of Manchester Liberalism, founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) to campaign for the vote for women. Ever since Gladstone had made clear in 1894 that he would not admit a women's suffrage clause to his reform bill, Pankhurst and her lawyer husband had grown disenchanted. In protest, they joined the new Independent Labour Party, convinced (at least for the time being) of the link between the demands of the working classes for social and political justice and those of all women, whatever their background, for full citizenship.

It was clear that the WSPU would be different from Millicent Fawcett's National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Only women would be allowed to join the WSPU (Richard Pankhurst had died in 1898), and the emphasis would be on direct action rather than the lobbying favoured by Fawcett. "'Deeds, not words', was to be our permanent motto," Pankhurst said.

The first defining deed came in 1905, when Pankhurst's eldest daughter, Christ-abel, and Annie Kenney barracked Sir Edward Grey when he refused to answer whether a Liberal government would support female suffrage. Both women refused to pay a fine and they were sent to prison amid a storm of publicity.

In 1907, Pankhurst took the fight to London and her public profile began to soar. Beautiful and chic, her physical image helped win converts and soften opposition. The struggle for women's votes was the first great political campaign in an age of mass visibility, and Pank-hurst's noble cheekbones and French frocks went a long way to turning her into a latter-day Joan of Arc. (Fawcett, by contrast, had the kind of doughy profile that was unlikely to move anyone to heroism.)

For some WSPU members, however, Pankhurst's charisma was dangerous and damaging. She was accused of bypassing consultation in her belief that the only tactics which would work were those that were sudden and surprising to all but an inner group of confidantes, including her beloved Christabel. The model that Pankhurst worked to was not that of the democratic trade union, but the Irish republican movement, with its occluded hierarchy and unquestioning discipline.

It was only a matter of time before Pankhurst and her daughter resigned from the ILP, in effect turning the WSPU into a single-issue campaign group. This allowed Pankhurst to recruit more from the well-connected middle classes, but according to her second daughter, Sylvia, it also meant that the WSPU abandoned all interest in socialism or improving working-class women's lives.

None the less, there is no doubting Pank-hurst's personal investment in the struggle for suffrage, especially from 1910, when the campaign entered its final, most intense phase. Following her first imprisonment in 1908, she was now in and out of Holloway, starving herself, being force-fed and then being released until she had recovered sufficiently to be taken back into custody.

The last picture from Pankhurst's campaign is also the most memorable. In spring 1914, she sought to petition the king and found herself lifted off her feet by a policeman later identified as Inspector Rolfe. The image of a frail and elegant lady manhandled by a brutish lackey of the establishment did much to solder the gender and class themes in play during the dying moments of the campaign.

It died when war was declared and Pankhurst announced that all campaigning for the vote would cease: "What is the use of fighting for a vote if we have not a country to vote in?" It was now that her political choices, seconded by Christabel, caused the final split with those suffragettes such as Sylvia who remained strongly socialist and pacifist. Devoting herself to patriotic causes, Pankhurst urged men into the army, rushed to Russia to beg the revolutionary government not to pull out of the war effort, and spoke wherever possible on the superiority of the British empire.

After the war, Pankhurst's political conservatism hardened. In 1926, impressed by Stanley Baldwin's deft handling of the General Strike, she even agreed to stand as a Conservative candidate in working-class Whitechapel. By this time, the vote had been granted to women over the age of 30; a few months after Pankhurst's death in 1928, it was extended to all women on the same terms as men.

Pankhurst's legacy will continue to be debated wherever there are two or more historians gathered together. After the drubbing she received in the 1970s and 1980s from socialist feminists, who followed Sylvia's line and saw her as an autocrat who abandoned working-class women, the tide has been turning. Pankhurst's most recent biographer, June Purvis, stresses her continuing involvement in working women's lives, sparked by her early years as a Poor Law guardian in Manchester and confirmed by her later work on venereal disease. And new research on the activities of the WSPU branches during the period 1905-14 looks likely to reveal a high degree of autonomy among the rank and file of the movement, dispelling the idea of Pankhurst as a chilling prefigurement of Oswald Mosley.

But the big question is to what extent Pankhurst and the WSPU were responsible for women getting the vote. When the franchise was first delivered in 1918 to six million women, it was in acknowledgement not of the hunger strikes and letter bombs, but of the contribution made by ordinary women to the home front during the war. It was these deep political and social shifts, rather than the direct action of 1905-14, that had delivered democracy. Pankhurst's efforts started to seem not only unnecessary but divisive, wrecking the relationship between the sexes in such a way that it has never fully healed.

Yet many people think otherwise. In his posthumously published book The Vote: how it was won, and how it was undermined, Paul Foot argued that the symbolic importance of Pankhurst was invaluable in paving the way for granting suffrage after the First World War. For Foot, Pank-hurst's loud and showy tactics brought about a shift not only in the way men thought about women, but in the way women thought about themselves.

Pankhurst's shifting reputation is an object lesson in how history does not run in straight lines, but is endlessly and messily contingent, delivering "results" almost as an afterthought. It is also a reminder that feminism has always been plural, as capable of producing Margaret Thatcher (whom Pankhurst surely would have loved) as it did Southall Black Sisters. That we had to spend the 1970s and 1980s painfully relearning that there was not, and never had been, a complete identity of interest between women of all classes and races suggests just how vital it is to keep Pankhurst's legacy alive as an emblem not of simple-minded heroism, but of complexity, doubt and difference.

Kathryn Hughes's biography of Mrs Beeton will be published by Fourth Estate later this year