Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) was an English feminist activist. With her mother Emmeline, she was a co-founder of the Women's Social and Political Union and devised strategies for its increasingly militant campaign for votes for women.
Pankhurst was born in 1880, the daughter of feminist activist Emmeline Pankhurst and lawyer Richard Marsden Pankhurst. In Women in World History, Nancy Ellen Rupprecht wrote, "Adored by both her parents, she was almost a textbook illustration of the first child born to a middle-class family. In childhood as well as adulthood, she was beautiful, intelligent, graceful, confident, charming, and charismatic." She was very close to her mother, and they had a special bond that was not shared by any of her siblings. She was also loved by her father; according to Roger Fulford in the Dictionary of National Biography, he named her Christabel after a line by Coleridge: "The lovely lady, Christabel/ Whom her father loves so well."
Her family was educated and progressive, but not wealthy. Early in her childhood, her family moved to London, and her father practiced law there and in Manchester; her mother opened a shop where she sold silks, pottery, lampshades, and other fancy items.
Educated at home, Pankhurst learned to read early, later attending school in Manchester before moving to Geneva to study French while staying in the home of a family friend. When her father died in 1898, she returned to Manchester to help her mother raise her siblings. She also became her mother's assistant when Emmeline became the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Manchester. At the time, it was considered somewhat shameful to be poor, and according to Fulford, "They comforted themselves with the knowledge that they were poor because they were idealists: they preferred causes to comfort."
Encouraged by her progressive family, she joined the Manchester Women's Trade Union Council, which worked to promote women's causes. In 1901 she became a member of the executive committee of the North of England Society for Women's Suffrage. Her compelling speaking style, smooth voice, and intelligent argument led her to become a valued speaker about women's emancipation. According to Rupprecht, she later wrote, "Here, then, was an aim in life for me—the liberation of politically fettered womanhood."
With her mother, in 1903 she founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a more radical offshoot of the British Labour Party. She also followed her father's example by studying law at Victoria University; in 1905 she won a prize for International Law, and in 1906 she won first-class honors in the LL.B. exam. She was not allowed to practice law, however, because she was a woman. That same year, she moved to London to continue her political activities on behalf of the WSPU. When she and fellow activist Annie Kenney resisted arrest after interrupting a Liberal Party meeting with speeches about women's suffrage, they were arrested. The police treated them roughly and Pankhurst spat at one of them because her arms were restrained; this event became the first feminist protest to be covered by a newspaper. According to Rupprecht, Pankhurst later wrote, "Where peaceful means had failed, one act of militancy succeeded and never again was the cause ignored by that or any other newspaper."
Following this publicity success, she became increasingly militant in her quest for votes for women. She justified her militancy with legal arguments, saying that because force is justified when one is acting in self-defense, it is justified for women who are acting in defense of their rights as citizens. Because of her defiant stance and personal charisma, the newspapers nicknamed her "Queen Christabel," and she became one of the first British celebrities who was not from royal or theatrical backgrounds. Although some suffrage workers complained that her arrogant demeanor detracted from the legitimacy of their cause, most found her compelling. Rupprecht noted that Annie Kenney said, "If the world were on one side and Christabel Pankhurst on the other, I would walk straight over to Christabel Pankhurst." Activist Grace Roe said, "I would follow her anywhere."
Pankhurst decided to limit the efforts of the WSPU solely to the cause of obtaining votes for women and to aim her recruitment efforts at middle-and upper-class women. Her sister, Sylvia Pankhurst, was opposed to both of these tactics; she believed they were turning the WPSU into an elitist group that ignored the many other issues that working-class women had to face. Pankhurst argued that wealthier women had the power to change things for all women, and that suffrage was such an important issue that it should not be diluted by other causes. In addition, she noted, if women got the vote, it would give them the ability to change all the other issues.
However, the WPSU did attack the traditional sexual oppression of women, because Pankhurst believed it was the basis for British culture's refusal to allow women to vote. According to Rupprecht, she wrote, "The inferiority of women is a hideous lie which has been enforced by law and woven into the British constitution." She also spoke out against cultural values that held that the actions of sexually active woman should be viewed as prostitution, while those of a sexually active man should be applauded or, at the worst, simply overlooked. Espousing a chaste lifestyle for men and women, she summed up her cause by saying "Votes for women, chastity for men!"
After a demonstration in 1910 in which protesters were beaten, maimed, and in two cases killed, WSPU protests became more violent. Pankhurst and her supporters viewed themselves as fighting in a civil war against the patriarchal British system. So many WSPU leaders were arrested as a result of this increased militancy that Christabel had to flee to Paris in disguise in order not to be imprisoned. While in France, however, she lost touch with what was really going on in Britain and became increasingly dogmatic and visionary rather than practical. While in Paris, she joined the lesbian feminist circle of Princess Edmond de Polignac.
When World War I began in 1914, she was convinced that the suffrage cause was almost won and returned to England to turn the WSPU into a patriotic group that would rescue women from their own patriarchy. She believed that if the British government took her up on this offer to help, it would have to give the vote to women; if it did not, she warned, she and her group would resume their militant action as soon as the war was over. In 1918, the British Representation of the People Act allowed women over 30 and men over 25 to vote. This inequality of age was made equal in 1928.
Once women gained voting rights, Pankhurst was free to work for other causes. She ran for Parliament as a coalition candidate for Smethwick, an industrial area. She was defeated by a tight margin, winning 8,614 votes, the most of any woman who ran in the election, which incidentally was the first English election that women were allowed to participate in. She was galled by the fact that Nancy Astor, who had won far fewer votes and who had done nothing for the cause of women, nevertheless won a seat in Parliament because of her personal and social connections. Pankhurst ran for election to Parliament again but did not win. Soon after, she retired from politics.
In 1919, the Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification Act in 1919, which would allow Pankhurst and other female lawyers to practice law, but she was no longer interested in this career. Instead, she began writing The Confessions of Christabel, a series of articles on the WSPU published in the Weekly Dispatch. Confession#1 explained that she had never married because of her "personal unending unyieldingness as a leader." Another confession was an attack on journalists who claimed that it was not the WSPU that had gained votes for women, but the effect of women's work during the war, which had changed attitudes toward women.
In 1921, she placed advertisements in various newspapers, asking for "non-personal employment." She received many offers, including some from film companies, but found none interesting. In the same year, she visited her mother in Canada and the United States, where she became interested in Second Adventism, a religious movement that proclaimed the Second Coming of Christ. Between 1922 and 1926 she published three Second Adventist books, The Lord Cometh!, Pressing Problems of the Closing Age, and The World's Unrest of Visions of the Dawn. The books, which expressed her shift toward political conservatism as well as her belief that the end of the world was near, were quite popular in religious circles in both Britain and the United States, and when she gave a series of lectures at Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Ontario, huge crowds gathered to hear her.
In 1926, at the urging of Emmeline Pankhurst, she went to the French Riviera, where together they opened a tea shop, but it soon failed, and they returned to England together. In 1928, Emmeline died; it was a great loss for Christabel, and she spent the next two years in deep grief.
By 1930 she was feeling better enough to adopt a daughter, Betty, and then resumed preaching the Second Adventist gospel in Britain, as well as supporting candidates for the Conservative Party. She was still a compelling and popular speaker, and she was able to fill the 10,000-seat Royal Albert Hall to overflowing several times when speaking on the Second Coming.
In 1936 she was proclaimed a Dame Commander of the British Empire, an honor she was proud of for the rest of her life. In 1940 she moved to the United States, where her daughter Betty had previously emigrated. She settled in Santa Monica, California, where, Rupprecht reported, she was viewed as "a strange combination of former suffragist revolutionary, evangelical Christian and almost stereotypically proper 'English lady' who always was in demand as a lecturer. During World War II her popularity on the religious speaking circuit increased, and when television became widespread, she was a frequent guest on California public affairs broadcasts.
Pankhurst's financial security in later life was assured when an aged British widow, Olivia Durand-Deacon, was brutally murdered and her body dissolved in an acid bath by her male companion. For unknown reasons, she had bequeathed the sum of 250 pounds per year to Pankhurst.
Although Pankhurst was involved in a car accident not long after this, she survived her serious injuries and completely recovered. Thus, her housekeeper was shocked on February 13, 1958, to find her dead, sitting upright in a straight-backed chair with no indication of how she had died. With the exception of the automobile accident, she had never been sick and was never ill before her death.
Of her career as a feminist, Fulford noted, "Christabel Pankhurst, at a time when women were still excluded from whole regions of the national life, made forcibly plain to all the world that this exclusion could no longer be maintained." According to Marina Warner in Time, at the start of her activist career, she said, "We are driven to this. We are determined to go on with this agitation. It is our duty to make this world a better place for women."
Commaire, Anne, and Deborah Klezner, Women in World History, Volume 12, Yorkin Publishers, 2001.
Raven, Susan, and Alison Weir, Women of Achievement, Harmony Books, 1981.
Williams, E. T., and Helen M. Palmer, editors, Dictionary of National Biography, 1951-1960, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Time, June 14, 1999, p. 176.