Born in Moss Side, Manchester to politically active parents, Pankhurst was introduced at the age of 14 to the women's suffrage movement. On 18 December 1879, she married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister 24 years older than she was, known for supporting women's rights to vote; they had five children over the next ten years. He supported her activities outside the home, and she founded and became involved with the Women's Franchise League, which advocated suffrage for both married and unmarried women. When that organisation broke apart, she tried to join the left-leaning Independent Labour Party through her friendship with socialist Keir Hardie but was initially refused membership by the local branch on account of her gender. While working as a Poor Law Guardian, she was shocked at the harsh conditions she encountered in Manchester's workhouses.
In 1903, five years after her husband died, Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), an all-women suffrage advocacy organisation dedicated to "deeds, not words". The group identified as independent from – and often in opposition to – political parties. It became known for physical confrontations: its members smashed windows and assaulted police officers. Pankhurst, her daughters, and other WSPU activists received repeated prison sentences, where they staged hunger strikes to secure better conditions. As Pankhurst's eldest daughter Christabel took leadership of the WSPU, antagonism between the group and the government grew. Eventually the group adopted arson as a tactic, and more moderate organisations spoke out against the Pankhurst family. In 1913 several prominent individuals left the WSPU, among them Pankhurst's daughters Adela and Sylvia. Emmeline was so furious that she "gave a ticket, £20, and a letter of introduction to a suffragette in Australia, and firmly insisted that she emigrate". Adela complied and the family rift was never healed. Sylvia became a socialist.
With the advent of the First World War, Emmeline and Christabel called an immediate halt to militant suffrage activism in support of the British government's stand against the "German Peril". They urged women to aid industrial production and encouraged young men to fight, becoming prominent figures in the white feather movement. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act granted votes to all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30. This discrepancy was intended to ensure that men did not become minority voters as a consequence of the huge number of deaths suffered during the First World War. Pankhurst transformed the WSPU machinery into the Women's Party, which was dedicated to promoting women's equality in public life. In her later years, she became concerned with what she perceived as the menace posed by Bolshevism and joined the Conservative Party. She was selected as the Conservative candidate for Whitechapel and St Georges in 1927. She died on 14 June 1928, only weeks before the Conservative government's Representation of the People Act (1928) extended the vote to all women over 21 years of age on 2 July 1928. She was commemorated two years later with a statue in London's Victoria Tower Gardens.
Emmeline Pankhurst was born on 15 July 1858 in the Manchester suburb of Moss Side. Although her birth certificate states otherwise, she believed that her birthday was a day earlier, on Bastille Day – 14 July. Most biographies, including those written by her daughters, repeat this claim. Feeling a kinship with the female revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille, she said in 1908: "I have always thought that the fact that I was born on that day had some kind of influence over my life." The reason for the discrepancy remains unclear.
The family into which she was born had been steeped in political agitation for generations. Her mother, Sophia Jane Craine, was a Manx woman from the Isle of Man and counted among her ancestors men charged with social unrest and slander. In 1881 the Isle of Man was the first country to grant women the right to vote in national elections. Her father, Robert Goulden, came from a modest Manchester merchant family with its own background of political activity. His mother worked with the Anti-Corn Law League, and his father was present at the Peterloo massacre, when cavalry charged and broke up a crowd demanding parliamentary reform.