London's pioneering political women

Blue plaques commemorating the fight for women's rights

Blue plaque: Emmeline and Christabel PankhurstEnglish Heritage

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 arrest of Flora Drummond, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst PhotographOriginal Source: LSE Library

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 Pankhurst Emmeline Pankhurst (c. 1910)Original Source: LSE Library


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.

Pankhurst Blue Plaques: 100 Years of the Suffrage MovementEnglish Heritage

Emmeline Pankhurst Arrested at Buckingham Palace Emmeline Pankhurst Arrested at Buckingham Palace (1914) by Central NewsOriginal Source: LSE Library

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.

Pankhurst Blue Plaques: 100 Years of the Suffrage MovementEnglish Heritage

Christabel Pankhurst (c. 1910)Original Source: LSE Library


Christabel Pankhurst was known for her organisational abilities.

Christabel Pankhurst (1907/1912) by Searjeant, H (printer)Original Source: LSE Library

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.

Emmeline Pankhurst (c. 1914)Original Source: LSE Library

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’ .

Eveline Bennett at the unveiling of a blue plaque to Emmeline and Christabel PankhurstEnglish Heritage

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 Pankhurst Sylvia Pankhurst (c. 1910)Original Source: LSE Library

Sylvia Pankhurst was Emmeline’s second daughter.

LIFE Photo Collection

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

East London Federation of Suffragettes East London Federation of Suffragettes (1912) by East London Federation of the SuffragettesOriginal Source: LSE Library

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.

Pankhurst Blue Plaques: 100 Years of the Suffrage MovementEnglish Heritage

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

Pankhurst Blue Plaques: 100 Years of the Suffrage MovementEnglish Heritage

Frances Balfour, Millicent Fawcett, Ethel Snowden, Emily Davies and Sophie Bryant. (c. 1910)Original Source: LSE Library

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 Fawcett (c. 1913)Original Source: LSE Library

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.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1866)Original Source: LSE Library

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

Millicent Fawcett (1925) by Photopress, Fleet StreetOriginal Source: LSE Library

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.

Blue plaque: Millicent Garett FawcettEnglish Heritage

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

LIFE Photo Collection

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.

A Problem for Women A Problem for Women (1920) by Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor Astor Viscountess, 1879-1964Original Source: LSE Library

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.

Blue plaque: Nancy AstorEnglish Heritage

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 (1925) by Photopress, Fleet StreetOriginal Source: LSE Library

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.

Eleanor Rathbone Campaigning, 1922 Eleanor Rathbone Campaigning, 1922 (1922)Original Source: LSE Library

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.’

The Disinherited Family (1924) by Eleanor F. Rathbone (Eleanor Florence), 1872-1946.Original Source: LSE Library

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.

Blue plaque: Eleanor RathboneEnglish Heritage

A plaque to Rathbone was erected in 1986.

Blue plaque: Mary SeacoleEnglish Heritage

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.

Blue plaque: Susan LawrenceEnglish Heritage

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.

Blue plaque: Vivien LeighEnglish Heritage

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.

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