Mrs. Pankhurst Comes to Ottawa

2 March 1916

In 1999, Time Magazine named Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst one of the most influential persons of the twentieth century—and for good reason. She devoted much of her life to obtaining the right to vote for women in her native Britain as well as around the world, including Canada and the United States. To this end, she toiled tirelessly, travelling constantly to spread the word, cajoling often hostile audiences, and raising funds for the cause. She also spent considerable time defending herself against criminal charges, or cooling her heels in prison for rock-throwing, window-breaking and conspiracy as the suffragette movement under her leadership became increasingly militant during the years immediately prior to World War I. Some militant suffragettes went even further, assaulting police and engaging in arson and bombing. One, Emily Davidson, died when she stepped in front of the King’s horse in the middle of a race at the Derby in 1913.

In jail, Mrs. Pankhurst and other militant suffragettes, went on frequent hunger strikes. Many were force-fed by prison officials. When this horrific practice gained the women widespread public sympathy, the British government introduced what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act, officially, the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act of 1913. Under this legislation, women on hunger strike could be released temporarily from jail to recover their health and then re-prisoned.

The effectiveness of the suffragettes’ tactics is subject to debate. Certainly, militant actions turned off many moderate supporters of women’s suffrage. However, progress towards gaining the vote was glacial despite successive legislative changes that broaden male suffrage. Many women were understandably aggrieved by their lack of progress. All this was to change with World War I.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913, Wikipedia.

Emmeline Pankhurst, née Goulden, the heroine of this story, was born in 1858 in Manchester, England to Sophie and Robert Goulden. Her father was a partner and manager of a cotton printing and bleach company. The eldest of ten children, young Emmeline was raised in a loving family and received the education given to a girl of the middle classes of the period, i.e., a bit of everything with a focus on social and “womanly” skills. 

From a very early age, she was politically aware, attending her first suffrage meeting at age fourteen. In 1878, she married Richard Pankhurst, a socialist barrister more than twice her senior who was a supporter of left-wing causes including Home Rule for Ireland, the abolition of the House of Lords, independence for India, and, most importantly, women’s rights. Together, they had five children, Christabel, Sylvia, Francis Henry (who died at the age of four), Adela, and Henry Francis (named in memory of his deceased brother). Their three daughters were later to join Emmeline in the fight for women’s suffrage. Husband Richard died of ulcers in 1898. Their second son, Henry Francis, died in 1910 at the age of nineteen. In 1915, Emmeline Pankhurst was to adopt four “war baby” girls, born to single mothers whose fathers were soldiers.

In 1889, Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst, along with others, founded the Women’s Franchise League. Emmeline also help establish the left-wing Independent Labour Party. In 1903, she and her daughters founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to continue the fight for women’s right to vote when the Women’s Franchise League dissolved.

Prior to World War I, Mrs. Pankhurst made a number of trips to North America to encourage women in Canada and the United States in their fights for women’s suffrage. She was invited to Ottawa by the Ottawa Equal Suffrage Association on several occasions, but to no avail. However, in 1909 Ottawa suffragists travelled to Toronto to hear Mrs. Pankhurst speak first at the Men’s Canadian Club of Toronto, and later that day at Massey Hall. Lady Edgar, the President of the National Council of Women, and Mrs. Falconer, the president of the Women’s Canadian Club, were special guest at the Canadian Club lecture.

While the Ottawa Equal Suffrage Association was supportive of Mrs. Pankhurst objective, the organization did not support militant action in Canada. It contended that “The conditions which have led to extreme measures in the British campaign did not exist here. Our approach is to men’s reason, intelligence, and sense of justice.”

It was slow going; male intelligence seemed to have been in short supply. During a visit to Toronto in 1911, Mrs. Pankhurst was asked by a man “Do women possess the same mental activity as men?” Another argued that “Women were not meant to be on equal footing with men.”

On hearing that Mrs. Pankhurst had said that Robert Borden, Canada’s prime minister, “should not be allowed to lead a comfortable life,” the Ottawa Citizen disparagingly opined that the commissioner the of Dominion Police should “recruit a bodyguard of Amazonian police officers” whose duty would be to “deal with militant suffragist demonstrations.” The newspaper also said “it could not imagine Mrs. Pankhurst or any other woman throwing a rock straight, or the chances are it would be some innocent bystander who would get what was not coming to him.” Mrs. Pankhurst and her colleagues were described as the “hysterical sisterhood.”

The first of the Pankhurst family to visit Ottawa to speak on women’s suffrage was actually Sylvia Pankhurst in 1911. Only twenty years of age at the time, Sylvia Pankhurst gave an address at the Russell Theatre in November of that year. At the time, she was the secretary of the WSPU and was a veteran fighter for women’s rights having already served two prison terms.

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst’s first visit to Ottawa occurred on 2 March 1916 when World War I was in full swing. Like her daughter Sylvia four years earlier, she lectured at the Russell Theatre. However, instead of Mrs. Pankhurst, the suffragette, people heard Mrs. Pankhurst, the warrior.

When war began in late July 1914, Mrs. Pankhurst and her eldest daughter Christabel immediately put their campaign for women’s suffrage on hold and directed the energies of the WSPU against the “common foe”—the Central Powers, led by Germany. They campaigned vigorously for not only male conscription but also for women’s conscription, successfully encouraging the employment of women in munitions factories, farms and elsewhere to release able-bodied men for the front. Mrs. Pankhurst also participated in hundreds of recruiting meetings. Members of the WSPU also tried to shame un-uniformed men to join up by giving them white feathers. Emmeline and Christabel’s active support for the British war effort led to a split with Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst who were both socialists and pacifists. Both were later to become involved in anti-war movements and communism.

Emmeline and Christabel’s campaign in favour of the war gained them respectability. It also indirectly did much to further the goal of female suffrage. The fact that women, by their tens of thousands, were making munitions and bringing in the harvest meant that the British government owed them…big time. Even before the war was over, it was clear that women were finally about to get the vote in Britain and elsewhere.

Advertisement, 2 March 1916, Ottawa Citizen

Emmeline’s first visit to Ottawa in 1916 was part of a Serbian mission to North America to raise funds for Serbian refugees and to thank Canadians and Americans for their past support.  She was accompanied by Mr. Cheddo Miyatovich of the Serbia government. They had been invited to Ottawa by the British Committee for Serbian Aid whose offices were located on Laurier Avenue at the headquarters of the King’s Daughters. The pair spoke at the Russell Theatre, with ticket prices set very low “so that even those who have already given so generously” could attend. A luncheon for Mrs. Pankhurst and Mr. Miyatovich was held at the Russell House Hotel under the auspices of the Equal Suffrage Association. At the head table was the Mayor of Ottawa along with the guests of honour. A reception followed at the Chateau Laurier Hotel.

Following her presentation, the once critical Ottawa Citizen opined that it was “abundantly clear that Mrs. Pankhurst, the great suffrage leader, places her country and the welfare and integrity of Empire before all else” and that she was “consumed with deep patriotism.” The Ottawa Journal noted that Mrs. Pankhurst was neither a “raging maenad” nor a “frenzied bacchante,” adding “Whether we share your opinions or not, we admire you Mrs. Pankhurst for your perseverance and skill as a leader.” However, the quest for women’s suffrage was not forgotten, just in abeyance. When asked whether suffragists intended to continue their fight for women’s votes after the war, Mrs. Pankhurst replied that they were “like a dog with a bone. The bone might be buried, but they knew exactly where it was and when they should dig it up.”

Ottawa Citizen, 17 February 1916

While in Ottawa, Mrs. Pankhurst visited Parliament and was given a seat on the floor of the House of Commons to listen to the debates. The Ottawa Journal wryly noted that it was but a few days earlier that a resolution calling for women’s suffrage had been rejected.

In Ontario, Premier Hearst also refused to give women the vote in Ontario, saying that such a contentious issue should not be introduced at this time, and that it would lead to division among women and distract them from the splendid work they were doing for their country.

After leaving Ottawa, Mrs. Pankhurst and Mr. Miyatovich continued their Serbian mission tour, visiting next Carleton Place, Smiths Falls and Peterborough. At Carleton Place, she spoke ninety minutes to a spell-bounded audience at a meeting chaired by the President of Carleton Place’s Red Cross. She was introduced as “the greatest woman leader of the world.”

Mrs. Pankhurst returned to Ottawa two years later in September 1918. What a difference two years made! By this time, women had received the vote in six Canadian provinces—Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia. At the federal level, voter equality between men and women had also been legislated, effective at the beginning of 1919. (Other provinces were to follow, with the laggard, Quebec, only giving women the right to vote in 1940.)

Similarly in Britain, the Representation of the People Act had been passed, which enfranchised women over the age of 30. (21 was the voting age for men.) Women were also permitted to run for Parliament. When question by the Ottawa Journal, Mrs. Pankhurst said that war had changed the British government. With a British election imminent, she stood solidly behind Prime Minister David Lloyd George. With women (mostly) having been given the franchise, the WSPU was converted into the Women’s Party. Christabel Pankhurst was to run under the Women’s Party banner in the December 1918 general election in the constituency of Smithwick, but lost narrowly to a Labour Party candidate.

Like during her previous visit to the capital, the focus of Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1918 visit to Ottawa was the allied war effort. Her mission, which was supported by the British government, was “to strengthen the union between the women of the Dominion and the women of the Mother Country.” Her message to Canadian women was “Let the women of the Empire unite to make the Empire strong as the pioneer of civilisation for the world.” She later spoke at Knox Presbyterian Church on the state of affairs in Russia, having recently returned from that country.

Before heading to Toronto to speak at the Canadian Club, Mrs. Pankhurst was entertained at a tea at Murphy-Gamble’s tea room on Sparks Street. Isabel Meighen, the wife of future Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Meighen, was present at the tea.

After the war, Emmeline Pankhurst spoke frequently on empire unity as well as the evils of Bolshevism. She was also very fond of Canada. In an interview with Maclean’s Magazine in 1922, she said that “in Canada there seems to be more equality between men and women than in any other country I know.” For a time, she lived in Toronto, and was active there in combating venereal disease.

After returning to Britain in 1925, she joined the Conservative Party, a move that shocked many of her friends and colleagues given her past association with the Independent Labour Party and other left-wing organizations.

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst died in June 1928 in Hamstead, England at the age of 69.


Chapman, Ethel, 1922. Mrs. Pankhurst–Canadian”, Maclean’s Magazine, 15 January.

Ottawa Citizen, 1909. “Nothing In It,” 28 December.

——————, 1911. “Pankhurst Suffragetism [sic],” 27 October.

——————, 1911. “Men Asked Questions,” 13 December.

——————, 1911. “Comment,” 19 December.

——————, 1916. “Mrs. Pankhurst To Visit Ottawa,” 17 February.

——————, 1916. “Women Placed Service First,” 4 March.

——————, 1916. “Ontario Again Refuses The Women’s Vote,” 18 March.

——————, 1918. “…. The War’s Women’s Aim, Says Mrs. Pankhurst,” 10 September.

——————, 1919, “For Mrs. Pankhurst,” 11 September.

Ottawa Journal, 1911. “ Young, But Is No Tyro,” 6 February.

——————, 1916. “Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst,” 2 March.

——————-, 1916. “Impressions of Mrs. Pankhurst,” 3 March.

——————-, 1916. “On Parliament Hill,” 3 March.

Purvis, June, 2002, Emmeline Pankhurst, A Biography, Routledge, London & New York.

Time Magazine, 1999. “Time 100 Persons of the Century,” 6 June.

Windsor Star, 1916. “No Sacrifice Too Great To Bring Allied Victory,” 2 March.