Entrepreneurs made in Manchester: Emily Pankhurst

Emmeline (‘Emily’) Pankhurst was an English political activist, best remembered for organising the Suffragette movement and helping women win the right to vote. She shook society from which there could be no going back. Criticised for her militant tactics, historians disagree about their effectiveness, but her role is recognised as a crucial element in achieving women’s suffrage. She was born and lived most of her life in Manchester – Old Trafford, Chorlton, Victoria Park and finally 62 Nelson Street. The Grade II Victorian villa is now home to the Pankhurst Centre.

She is another in the pantheon of our great Mancunian entrepreneurs who shook the world. Emily an entrepreneur? Surely, she was more of a Joan of Arc or Boudicca figure, or a social activist like Rosa Parks? But what is entrepreneurship? You probably think that the answer is obvious, and it refers to venture capital-backed startups and their kin, but for me ‘entrepreneurship’ is an endeavour, a mindset, a purpose. 

The definition of the word ‘entrepreneurship’ is best served by Professor Howard Stevenson who taught for forty years at Harvard Business School. According to Stevenson, entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.

  • Pursuit implies a singular, relentless focus on an opportunity with a sense of urgency. Emily had this focus.
  • Opportunity may entail a pioneering activity – for me, putting a man on the moon is the greatest act of entrepreneurship, but for sure, Emily was a pioneer.
  • Beyond resources controlled implies resource constraints, many entrepreneurs bootstrap, investing only their own time and personal funds. This is exactly what Emily did.

Does Stevenson’s definition of entrepreneurship matter in practical terms? I’d argue that it does, for two reasons. Firstly, it sees entrepreneurship as a distinctive approach and a specific role for an individual (i.e. a founder), or a constellation of personality attributes (e.g. predisposition for risk taking, innovation mindset and passion).

Secondly, the definition provides a signpost for entrepreneurial action, it points to tactics to achieve your goals and mobilise resources. ‘Pursuing opportunity beyond resources controlled’ sums up perfectly what founders do day-to-day. You need to be inventive, opportunistic, and persuasive, because you rarely have enough resources.

Born Emmeline Goulden on Sloan Street, Moss Side, Manchester to politically active parents on 15 July 1858, she believed her birthday was a day earlier, on Bastille Day (14 July). Feeling a kinship with the female revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille, she said I have always thought that the fact that I was born on that day had some kind of influence over my life.

Emily read the Women’s Suffrage Journal, and grew fond of its editor, Lydia Becker. Aged 14, she returned home from school one day to find her mother on her way to a public meeting about women’s voting rights. After learning that Becker would be speaking, she insisted on attending and was enthralled by Becker’s address and later wrote, I left the meeting a conscious and confirmed suffragist.

In 1879, she married Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer and supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1889, Emily founded the Women’s Franchise League, which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections. In October 1903, she helped found the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – dedicated to deeds, not words. It became known for physical confrontation: its members smashed windows and assaulted police officers. It was an organisation that gained notoriety for its activities and whose members were the first to be christened ‘Suffragettes’.

Her daughters Christabel and Sylvia were both active in the cause. Christabel studied at Manchester University and in 1906 was awarded a first-class law degree. She was the first woman graduate from the university and the only woman studying law throughout her degree. She co-founded the WSPU and played a leading role in the Suffragette movement.

British politicians, press and public were astonished by the demonstrations, window smashing, arson and hunger strikes of the Suffragettes. Like many Suffragettes, Emily was arrested on numerous occasions and went on hunger strike herself. In 1913, in response to the wave of hunger strikes, the government passed what became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. Hunger striking prisoners were released until they grew strong again, and then re-arrested.

On 26 June 1908, 500,000 activists rallied in Hyde Park to demand votes for women, and Pankhurst was arrested. She saw imprisonment as a means to publicise the urgency of women’s suffrage.  At her trial she told the court: We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.

After the Liberal Party losses in the 1910 General Election, a Conciliation Committee for Women’s Suffrage gathered 54 MPs from various parties. The Conciliation Bill looked to achieve the vote for some women, but it failed. As subsequent Conciliation Bills were introduced, hope held for a successful outcome and votes for women, but it too faded and Emily joined a fresh outbreak of window-smashing. Pankhurst was convicted at the Old Bailey of conspiracy to commit property damage. Inside Holloway Prison, she staged her first hunger strike.

Soon after, Emily Davison threw herself under the Kings Horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Her funeral drew 55,000 attendees. One WSPU member put a small hatchet into the Prime Minister’s carriage inscribed with the words Votes for Women and other suffragettes used acid to burn the same slogan into gold courses used by MPs.

Finally, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over 30, and Emily transformed the WSPU into the Women’s Party. Alas she died on 14 June 1928, aged 69, only weeks before the Government’s Representations of the People (Equal Franchise) Act extended the vote to all women over 21 years of age.

At her funeral service on 18 June, women wore WSPU sashes and ribbons, and the organisation’s flag was carried. Press coverage around the world recognised her tireless work on behalf of women’s right to vote – even if they did not 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.

A statue of one of Manchester’s bravest and most influential women, designed by Hazel Reeves, was unveiled in St Peter’s Square, making her the first woman to be honoured with a statue in the city since Queen Victoria. This happened on 14 December 2018, one hundred years to the day after British women were first able to vote in the 1918 General Election. The statue was unveiled by Helen Pankhurst, Emily’s great-granddaughter.

Emily created a vision of the future and strategies for effecting what was needed to achieve that vision. She aligned people around the vision and motivated them to overcome barriers to achieve the vision. She was, by any definition, an amazing entrepreneur, albeit with social rather than business and profit aims. Let’s look at some of her qualities that we can all learn from, regardless of the nature of our startup venture.

Passion is critical for any entrepreneur to be successful. You need to have a vision and be excited about achieving it. Passion is what will drive you to succeed when things are not going your way. Passion is what will make you stand out from the crowd. Pursue your dreams with excitement and determination. Let your passion be your guide and you will go far. 

Perseverance is essential for any entrepreneur. Pursuing your goals can be difficult, and there will be times when you want to give up. However, if you persevere, you will achieve success. Female entrepreneurs who persevere don’t give up easily, and this tenacity can help them reach their goals. Set your goals high and don’t give up, even when things get tough. Remember that success is only attainable if you keep working hard.

Self-confidence Self-confident people are more likely to take risks and pursue their goals. They believe in themselves and their abilities, and this confidence allows them to overcome obstacles when others give up. They aren’t afraid to speak up for what they want, and this assertiveness helps them get ahead. Emily showed that with self-confidence and perseverance, you can achieve what you set your mind to.

Empathy & Emotional Intelligence Lead with empathy, not the argument. Emily’s approach was to clearly frame the issues requiring attention allowing people to make sense of what was happening and why. Empathy is traditionally seen as a feminine characteristic. In fact, a study by Google, Project Aristotle, discovered that great ideas came from teams that exhibited characteristics generally considered to be feminine, including generosity, curiosity, empathy and emotional intelligence. 

Empathy is the single most important leadership trait that helps a leader secure trust, loyalty, cooperation and commitment. You’ve probably heard the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. Empathy makes a great leadership quality because it offers everyone the opportunity to feel heard. That creates an open environment where even better work can be done.

Persuasiveness Women tend to be more persuasive than men – Emily had it in spades. In my experience, women tend to be more attuned to situations, which means they are able to accurately take in information on all sides, synthesise it and incorporate it into a larger solution. This skill makes them measurably more persuasive than their male counterparts. Pathos and passion are incredibly compelling, and can help move the needle toward success.

Communication skills Much of Emily’s communication was dedicated to persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems. It’s worked. Again, I’ve found that in general, women are better communicators than men – not only good at speaking, good at listening and hearing as well. Communication goes beyond talking. Women have an innate ability to perceive body language and feelings.  Having a deep understanding of what drives people, knowing both when to listen and when not to talk is powerful. When entrepreneurs talk, they are straightforward, confident and persuasive communicators, able to inspire others and motivate people to help achieve the goals.

A small group of brave and progressive Mancunian women, led by Emily Pankhurst, took up arms to radically challenge the status quo of their time. That uncompromising, free-thinking spirit of the Suffragettes is the very same spirit that exists around every business startup venture in the city today.

From the Peterloo massacre, the Chartist movement, and the Manchester Guardian newspaper, Manchester has always had a distinctive voice. Manchester was the queen bee of the Industrial Revolution’s hive, this city has always echoed to the voices of those seeking progress. This is a city that’s always been fired by a different kind of attitude, so let’s celebrate the spirit of Emily Pankhurst as one of Manchester’s finest social entrepreneurs.

Photo is of the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, entitled ‘Our Emmeline’, in St Peter’s Square, Manchester (Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

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