London's pioneering political women

English Heritage

Blue plaques commemorating the fight for women's rights

London’s blue plaques scheme celebrates the links between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked.

The scheme was founded in 1866, and since 1986, it has been managed by English Heritage.

There are over 900 official blue plaques in London.

The Pankhursts
Perhaps the best-known campaigners for women’s suffrage – meaning the right to vote – were the Pankhurst family, who spent much of their time in London. Visitors to the capital can pinpoint some of the places they lived and worked, thanks to the official blue plaques erected in their honour. 

Emmeline

Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903.

As militant campaigners for the right to vote, they became known as ‘suffragettes’ – the word was originally used as a term of abuse.

The movement, whose motto was ‘deeds not words’, was known for its strong, often militant tactics. These included marches, civil disobedience – even arson and bombing.

These actions would often result in arrest and even imprisonment.

Christabel

Christabel Pankhurst was known for her organisational abilities.

As the chief organiser of the WSPU, she was paid a salary of two pounds and ten shillings a week. She directed some of the organisation’s most militant direct action campaigns.

After the raid on the WSPU offices in 1912, Christabel fled to Paris to continue her work from there.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the WSPU ended their activity.

Instead, Emmeline turned her attention to supporting the war effort. This was in contrast to her daughter Sylvia, who opposed the war.

Emmeline and Christabel lived here at 50 Clarendon Road, Kensington from 1916 to 1919.

Living with them were four ‘war babies’ – illegitimate children born amid the social upheaval caused by conflict – whom Emmeline had adopted.

After years of travelling the country for her campaigning, Emmeline was ready to settle, and soon came ‘to love this home of mine’ .

A blue plaque to Emmeline and Christabel was erected at 50 Clarendon Road in 2006.

In attendance at the unveiling was Eveline Bennett, the last survivor of Emmeline’s war babies.

Sylvia
Sylvia Pankhurst was Emmeline’s second daughter.

Sylvia was arrested many times and was one of many suffragettes to suffer forcible feeding while in jail.

Sylvia founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes and launched a newspaper called The Dreadnaught.

Unlike her mother and sister Christabel, Sylvia saw the suffrage campaign as part of a wider movement for social justice.

A plaque commemorating the time Sylvia spent at 120 Cheyne Walk was erected in 1985.

Other Political Pioneers
The Pankhursts were not the only figures furthering the political cause for women in the early 20th century. Several other pioneers are also commemorated with official London blue plaques. 

Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett was the leader of the peaceful campaign for women’s suffrage. These campaigners became known as the suffragists.

She founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897 and served as its president from 1907 to 1919.

Her sister was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the pioneering female doctor, who is also honoured with a blue plaque.

Unlike the Pankhursts and the suffragettes, Fawcett took a pragmatic, non-violent, constitutional approach to the campaign for the vote.

Fawcett moved to 2 Gower Street in 1884 after the death of her husband.

She lived here for 45 years. It was while living in this house that, in 1928, she witnessed women finally achieve the right to vote on the same terms as men.

A plaque to Fawcett was erected at 2 Gower Street in 1954.

Nancy Astor

Nancy Astor was born in Virginia, USA, but she would make her name in the UK, as the first woman to sit in Parliament.

She was elected to the House of Commons as the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1919 with 51% of the vote. She would hold her seat for over 25 years.

Astor had a formidable reputation, and championed many causes on behalf of underprivileged women and children.

She was known for heckling, and later said that some other MPs ‘would rather have had a rattlesnake than me’ in the House of Commons.

During her time as an MP, 4 St James’s Square was Astor’s London home.

A plaque to Nancy Astor was unveiled at 4 St James’s Square in 1987 by Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher praised Astor’s courage for going into ‘that totally male-dominated place’.

Eleanor Rathbone

Eleanor Rathbone was a social reformer, suffragist and feminist thinker.

In 1919, she succeeded Millicent Garrett Fawcett as president of National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, the new name for the suffrage organisation that Fawcett had founded.

In 1929, she was elected to Parliament and held her seat until her death in 1946.

Nancy Astor said of Rathbone, ‘It is very difficult, when we look at [Rathbone] to think of her as a revolutionary, but she is.’

While serving as an MP, Rathbone campaigned for women’s rights, refugees and victims of the Holocaust.

She was also a pioneer of family allowances – benefit payments made to tackle child poverty, and later called child benefit.

It was while living in Tufton Court, that Rathbone published The Case for Family Allowance, and in 1945, the Family Allowances Bill was presented to Parliament.

A plaque to Rathbone was erected in 1986.

More women needed
There are more than 900 official blue plaques in London, but only around 15% of those are to women. We need your help to change this.

The London blue plaques scheme is driven by suggestions from the public.

English Heritage needs nominations for new blue plaques dedicated to women who have made a significant contribution to history.

Propose a plaque and help us to commemorate the important work done by women of all classes and all races through the centuries.

Figures proposed must have been deceased for at least 20 years, and must have lived or worked in a surviving building in London.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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