Pankhurst, Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia

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PANKHURST, EMMELINE, CHRIS-TABEL, AND SYLVIA. Emmeline Goulden (1858–1928), born in Manchester, England, into a middle-class family, married Dr. Richard Pankhurst, a radical barrister, in 1879. Their children were brought up in a household where their parents supported advanced causes of the day, especially women's suffrage and socialism. Christabel Harriette (1880–1958), the eldest child and their mother's favorite, was the brightest and prettiest of the three daughters, which caused considerable rivalry with her two younger sisters, Estelle Sylvia (1882–1960) and Adela Constantia Mary (1885–1961).

When Richard died in 1898, the family was left in straitened circumstances. Further, Emmeline became increasingly disillusioned with the lukewarm attitude of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) toward women's suffrage. When she heard, some five years later, that the hall built in her husband's name was to be used by a branch of the ILP that would not admit women, she was so indignant that she founded, on 10 October 1903, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) as a women-only organization that would campaign for the parliamentary vote for women on the same terms as men. Thus was born what has been termed a "militant" suffrage society that was to influence the Edwardian political landscape for the next eleven years until militancy was called to a halt on the outbreak of World War I. The daring deeds of the suffragettes involved not only constitutional protest, such as deputations to parliament and the assertive questioning of members of the government, but also, from 1912, activities that involved public disorder, such as setting fire to empty buildings and the large-scale smashing of plate glass windows in London's West End. Over one thousand suffragettes were imprisoned for their activism and, from 1909, forcibly fed when they went on hunger strike.

Throughout these years, the WSPU was led by the charismatic Emmeline, a powerful orator and a woman of enormous courage, and the clever, witty Christabel, the WSPU's chief organizer and key strategist. The artistic Sylvia never held any formal position, although she was an active WSPU member as well as a designer for many of its artifacts. In 1907, much to Sylvia's dismay, Emmeline and Christabel resigned from the ILP since they wished to unite all women as one independent force, free from any formal allegiance to any one political party. As a socialist feminist, Sylvia was often at odds with such women-centered policies. Emmeline and Christabel, who leaned much more to a radical feminist analysis, emphasized gender rather than class solidarity, the importance of a women-only movement, the power of men (even socialist men) over women in a male-defined world, and the commonalities that all women shared despite their class differences. Disillusioned, in 1912 Sylvia with her mother's agreement set up her own East London Federation of the Suffragettes, which functioned as a semi-independent grouping within the WSPU. However, contrary to WSPU policy, Sylvia sought to tie her Federation to socialism and worked with the socialist Herald League. The move angered Christabel and their mother, who expelled Sylvia from the WSPU in January 1914.

The tensions between the Pankhurst women deepened during World War I, which Emmeline and Christabel supported and Sylvia opposed. The later careers of the Pankhurst women followed divergent paths too. Christabel converted to Second Adventism in late 1918 and then, in the 1920s, moved to America, where she became a well-known preacher and successful writer about the Second Coming of Christ. For Sylvia, an agnostic like her father, such a religious turn was incomprehensible. Emmeline visited Russia in 1917, just before the revolution, and became very critical of Bolshevism, which she argued was undemocratic and nonrepresentative of the working class as a whole. She then went to North America, where she lectured for the Canadian National Council

for Combating Venereal Diseases, and returned to England just before Christmas 1925.

Sylvia, on the other hand, supported the Russian Revolution and moved further and further to the left, becoming a founding member of the British Communist Party. However, her constant criticisms of the Party led, in 1921, to her expulsion from its membership. When she heard, late in 1926, that her mother would be standing as a Conservative candidate in the next general election, Sylvia interpreted this change in political allegiance as the final betrayal of her father's ideals. Estranged from her mother and sister and now living with her Italian lover, Silvio Corio, she gave birth to a son in December 1927, an event known only to a few trusted friends and certainly not Emmeline. The "wayward" daughter made the news public through the press, however, in April 1928, when her mother was campaigning in her constituency. The aging and frail Emmeline never recovered from the shock and died a few months later, on 14 June 1928.

After Emmeline's death, Christabel continued to live in the United States, where in addition to her religious work she tended to the sick and dying. Sylvia took up the cause of antifascism, settling in Ethiopia, where she died in 1960. In 1953, after almost forty years of estrangement, Christabel initiated an affectionate correspondence with Sylvia that continued intermittently until her death in 1958.

See alsoFeminism; Great Britain; Suffragism.


Crawford, Elizabeth. The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866–1928. London, 1999.

Pankhurst, Christabel. Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote. London, 1959.

Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London, 1914.

Pankhurst, Estelle Sylvia. The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals. London, 1931.

Pugh, Martin. The Pankhursts. London, 2001.

Purvis, June. Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. London and New York, 2002.

June Purvis