Pankhurst, Christabel (1880–1958)

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Pankhurst, Christabel (1880–1958)

English co-founder of the Women's Social and Political Union and the strategist behind its increasingly militant policy and violent tactics. Name variations: Dame Christabel Pankhurst. Born Christabel Harriette Pankhurst in Manchester, England, on September 22, 1880; died in Los Angeles, California, on February 13, 1958; eldest of four children of Richard Marsden Pankhurst, LL.D., and Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst (1858–1928); sister of Sylvia (1882–1960), Adela (1885–1961), Henry Francis (Frank), and Francis Henry (Harry) Pankhurst; children: adopted daughter Betty, in 1930.

Death of brother Frank (1888); death of father (1898); attended Victoria University in Manchester and received a first class degree in law, LL.B. (1906); co-founded the Women's Social and Political Union (1903); death of brother Harry (1910); unsuccessfully stood for Parliament (1918); death of her mother (1928); adopted a daughter (1930); was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE, 1936); moved to the United States (1940).

Selected writings:

The Parliamentary Vote for Women (Manchester: A. Haywood & Son, 189?); The Commons Debate on Woman Suffrage with a reply by Christabel Pankhurst (London: The Woman's Press, 1908); The Militant Methods of the NWSPU (London: The Woman's Press, 1908); The Great Scourge and How to End It (London, 1913, reprinted in Jane Marcus, ed., Suffrage and the Pankhursts. London and NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 187–241); The War (NY: Suffrage Pub., 1914); International Militancy (London: WSPU, 1915); No Peace without Victory (Knightsbridge: WSPU, 1917); Industrial Salvation (London: The Woman's Party, 1918); The Lord Commeth! (1922); Pressing Problems of the Closing Age (1922); Some Modern Problems in the Light of Biblical Prophecy (1922); The World Unrest or Visions of the Dawn (1926); Seeing the Future (London: Harper & Brothers, 1929); The Uncurtained Future (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1940); Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote (ed. by Lord Frederick W. Pethick-Lawrence, London: Hutchinson, 1959); editor of The Suffragette (1908–15).

Christabel Pankhurst was born in Manchester, England, in 1880, the daughter of Richard Marsden Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst . Because Richard believed that little girls needed beautiful names he chose Christabel from one of Coleridge's poems:

The lovely lady, Christabel,
Whom her father loves so well.

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. Throughout their lives, a special bond of love and respect existed between Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst which never developed between any of the other Pankhurst children and their mother.

She was educated at home where she learned to read at a remarkably early age. Christabel later attended Manchester High School for Girls until 1896 when she moved to Geneva to learn French in the home of her mother's schoolfriend, Noemie de Rochefort Dufaux . With her father's death in 1898, she returned to Manchester where she helped her mother rear her younger siblings and took a position as her mother's assistant when she was appointed Registrar of Births and Deaths.

Following in the family tradition of radical politics, Christabel joined the Manchester Women's Trade Union Council and began working actively behind the scenes on behalf of women's causes. In 1901, she joined and was made a member of the executive committee of the North of England Society for Women's Suffrage. Through these organizations, she met Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth who had come north to organize female mill workers for both suffrage and socio-economic causes. They encouraged her to devote her oratorical skills to the women's movement because Christabel's dramatic speaking style, beguiling voice, and intelligent repartee made her a speaker in great demand on the topic of women's suffrage. As she later described her commitment to women's emancipation, "Here, then, was an aim in life for me—the liberation of politically fettered womanhood."

In 1903, Christabel joined with her mother in breaking with the Labour Party to form a more radical independent women's suffrage organization, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). From its inception, the WSPU was committed to activism and political independence, but no one who studied its organization carefully could doubt that it was tightly controlled by the Pankhurst women despite the existence of a titular executive board.

Do not beg, do not grovel!

—Christabel Pankhurst

After searching for a metier for some time, Christabel decided to follow in her father's footsteps by reading law at Victoria University in Manchester. In 1904, she applied for admission to Lincoln's Inn where her father had been a member but was refused because of her gender. In 1905, she won a prize for International Law and she took joint first class honors in the LL.B. exam in 1906 despite her heavy speaking schedule and her deep personal commitment to the new WSPU. Soon thereafter, she moved to London to join her family and establish the headquarters of WSPU in Clement's Inn.

During the same year, Christabel and Annie Kenney were sent to prison after inaugurating the WSPU policy of militancy by resisting arrest after haranguing a Liberal Party meeting when Sir Edward Grey refused to explain his stand on women's suffrage. They were manhandled and, when a policeman treated Christabel roughly, she spat at him, because her arms were restrained and she had no other way to commit an assault. This incident is significant because, for the first time, it was covered by a newspaper, thus breaking the unofficial boycott against women's suffrage press coverage. As Christabel explained, "Where peaceful means had failed, one act of militancy succeeded and never again was the cause ignored by that or any other newspaper."

When the WSPU was re-formed in the autumn of 1907 after a split in its ranks, Christabel was appointed its chief organizer. From this point on, she followed an almost unwavering course of increasingly militant political action to obtain votes for women, and she managed to convince the majority of WSPU followers that if women observed a course of defiant action, they would prevail in the end. She used her legal training to justify the use of force and violence in the quest for votes for British women. As she explained:

According to a recognized legal principle force may be used in order to preserve property, to save life or to vindicate a right…. On this same principle, those who are claiming the vote are clearly entitled to use such force as is necessary to vindicate this supreme right of citizenship…. The Women's Social and Political Union, believing that "rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God," intend to continue their campaign of protest, using just so much force, and no more, as is necessitated by the action of the Government.

Emmeline Pankhurst provided the moral authority within the WSPU, but it was Christabel's organizing ability, strategy, and policies which charted the increasingly violent direction which radical women's suffrage politics took in Britain.

"Queen Christabel," as the press dubbed her because of her extraordinary charisma and imperious manner, eventually became almost as famous as her mother and, like her mother, became one of the first non-royal, non-theatrical celebrities in Britain. However, some suffrage workers complained that when the press focused its attention on her personality it detracted from the cause of votes for women. They interpreted her legendary "flair" as arrogant egotism. Nonetheless, it was Christabel Pankhurst's undoubted ability to inspire courage and determination in the genteelly brought up middle- and upper-class women who formed the bulk of the WSPU's membership that enabled the suffragists—dubbed by the London Daily Mail, the Suffragettes—to carry out so many spectacular and dangerous acts of political sabotage. Her ability to inspire devotion in her followers was legendary in suffrage circles. As WSPU stalwart Annie Kenney explained, "If the world were on one side and Christabel Pankhurst on the other, I would walk straight over to Christabel Pankhurst." Similarly, suffragist Grace Roe declared, "I would follow her anywhere."

The most crucial decisions Christabel made were the intersecting policies of limiting WSPU efforts solely to the issue of women's suffrage (no matter how worthy other women's causes were) and her determination to direct recruitment propaganda primarily toward middle- and upper-class women. Christabel's sister Sylvia Pankhurst vehemently opposed these policies because she believed they were taking the Pankhursts further away from their socialist

roots and turning the WSPU into an elitist organization which ignored the dire socio-economic issues which faced working-class women. Christabel, however, successfully maintained that by diluting the suffrage issue with others, no material progress would be made for any women. She also contended that upper-class women were much more newsworthy than their proletarian sisters and that most working-class women had neither the time nor the energy to devote their lives to the suffrage cause. Moreover, she argued that the vote gave women of all classes the tool they needed most to fight subsequent battles.

The only other issue which was included on the WSPU agenda was a frontal attack on the sexual oppression of women which Christabel believed was the reverse side of their political oppression. These mirror-image issues had to be fought simultaneously because the misogynistic theory of separate male and female spheres of competence on which both were based was rooted deeply in British life, custom, law, and culture. It provided the justification for male oppression of women and served to camouflage "the doctrine that women is sex and beyond that nothing." Therefore, Christabel Pankhurst argued that the vote:

is the symbol of freedom and equality…. Women's disenfranchisement is to them a perpetual lesson in servility…. The inferiority of women is a hideous lie which has been enforced by law and woven into the British constitution, and it is quite hopeless to expect to reform … the relationship [between] the sexes until women are politically enfranchised.

Christabel was not exaggerating the depth of misogyny imbedded in the anti-women's suffrage position or the sexual nature of it. The attack against women's suffrage was led by Sir Almoth Wright, a pioneering physician in vaccine therapy, who claimed to speak in the name of science when he argued:

The question of suffrage, and with it the larger question as to the proper sphere of woman, finally turns upon the question to what imprint women's sexual system leaves upon her physical frame, character and intellect…. [Women's character defects] as irremediable as "racial characters" delineated her proper sphere and settled once and for all any nonsense as to women's suffrage.

Although Christabel Pankhurst believed that the separate-spheres ideology which oppressed women was so imbedded in British culture that it pervaded and limited many aspects of women's lives, she chose to focus on the two issues which she believed were the most vital. The vote for women was of primary importance because "through the vote women will gain a new confidence in themselves and a real power to help themselves." The vote, she believed, would enable them to look inward to develop a sense of personal worth rather than to allow themselves to be defined and valued in terms of their relationship to men. The second prong of her attack was directed against prostitution and venereal disease which she believed were a natural result of patriarchal control of society. The double standard which made sex outside of marriage an indelible stain for women but a mere peccadillo for men led the men to seek out the services of prostitutes, many of whom were infected with social diseases. The husbands contracted venereal disease from them and transmitted it to their unsuspecting wives. This led not only to misery for the women involved, but to birth defects and a variety of socio-sexual problems in respectable families. Using extremely separatist language, Christabel urged abstention for men and women alike and argued vehemently against lowering high standards of sexual morality. She insisted that the suffragist's political militancy must be coupled with a lifestyle which was both sexually and morally above reproach. In her book on prostitution and VD, The Great Scourge, she summarized the behavioral mandates inherent in her theories in the slogan, "Votes for women, chastity for men!"

By this time, a trace of racism had crept into Christabel's theories and policies. She began to argue that because male lust would lead to the degeneration of racial strength and the production of half-caste children, this eventually would weaken the British Empire. Therefore, women needed the vote for racial reasons as well as for personal ones because they had "a service to render to the state as well as the home, to the race as well as the family."

After Black Friday (November 18, 1910), when demonstrators were beaten and sexually groped by police officers and rioters for nearly six hours, resulting in broken bones, ripped flesh, and the death of at least two of the demonstrators from injuries suffered during the beatings, WSPU political violence escalated. This attests to the WSPU's unconditional rejection of both women's second-class political status and the "angel in the house" role that Victorian society prescribed for middle-class women. The drastic nature of the measures they were prepared to take to achieve the goals of political, economic, and legal equality lends credence to the suffragists' contention that they considered themselves not merely protestors but guerrilla warriors on the front lines of a civil war undertaken to destroy the patriarchal foundation upon which the British government rested.

Women's increased militancy led to the arrest of so many WSPU leaders that it became imperative that either Emmeline or Christabel Pankhurst find a place of safety from which to direct policy. Because Christabel was the acknowledged theoretician, strategist, and tactician of the WSPU while Emmeline was its anchor and role model, it was Christabel who fled to Paris in disguise in 1912. However, from her continental vantage point she lost touch with the day-to-day realities of the British political arena and her policies became increasingly ephemeral, visionary, and dogmatic. Eventually, she became almost indifferent to the suffrage bills which were introduced into Parliament and to significant changes which were taking place in British politics. While in Paris, Christabel also joined the lesbian feminist circle led by Princess Edmond de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer ), but there is no indication that she ever adopted a gay lifestyle.

After 1912, under Christabel's direction from Paris, a pattern of rapidly increasing violence characterized WSPU political policy. Even when Prime Minister Herbert Asquith appeared to be holding out an olive branch to British women in 1914, because of his government's record of duplicity when dealing with the WSPU, Christabel rejected her sister Sylvia's corresponding call for a universal political truce for all women's suffrage organizations. However, when the Great War broke out in 1914, Christabel was so convinced that the suffrage cause was all but won that she returned to England to transform the WSPU into a patriotic organization. She argued that it was Britain's duty to rescue France and British women's duty to aid in the campaign. On October 15, 1915, she changed the name of the WSPU's official journal The Suffragette to Britannia and offered her services to the government to help in recruiting and organizing women's war work. She believed that by sharing in the war effort the WSPU would put the government in a position in which it would have to extend the right to vote to British women because, if it did not, she wrote, "Mrs. Pankhurst and her Suffragettes would resume militancy as soon as the war was ended, and no government could arrest and imprison women who, in the country's danger, had set aside their campaign to help the national cause." For whatever reason, the Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave the vote to women of 30 and men of 25, an inequity which was removed by the so-called "Flapper Law" of 1928.

The enfranchisement of women and the end of the war in 1918 enabled Christabel to run for Parliament as a coalition candidate for the industrial constituency of Smethwick. She was narrowly defeated, primarily because she insisted on running on a rather unpopular platform which advocated a visionary future of industrial salvation which would make Britain happy and prosperous through the use of automation tightly controlled by a collective economy. Nonetheless, Christabel polled a vote of 8,614, the most of any woman who ran for office in the first election in which women could participate. It must have been maddening for her to see Nancy Astor , a woman who had not participated in the suffrage campaign and whose wealth and connections eased her political career path, become the first woman to be take a seat in Parliament even though she had polled fewer votes than Christabel had amassed. (Countess Constance Markievicz had won a seat in 1916 but, as a member of the Irish delegation, she did not enter Parliament.) In 1919, Christabel disbanded both the Women's Party and Britannia. She stood once more for Parliament, this time for the Abbey division of Westminster, but did not contest the election and retired from political life soon thereafter.

When the British Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification [Removal] Act in 1919, Christabel's law degree would have permitted her to begin practicing law in British courts, but she showed no interest in a career before the bar. Instead, she accepted an invitation from her friend Lord Northcliffe to write a series of substantive articles on the WSPU suffrage and war campaigns for his Weekly Dispatch under the title "The Confessions of Christabel." In Confession #1, "Why I never Married," she explained that she had remained single in order to demonstrate "my own personal unending unyieldingness as a leader." Another article attacked writers and politicians who argued that it was women's war effort rather than WSPU militancy that secured the vote for women. Christabel countered that women's suffrage would never have been granted if British politicians had not feared a resumption of WSPU guerrilla warfare. Although these articles were well received, she chose not to develop a career in journalism.

In January 1921, she advertised in several newspapers for "lucrative, non-political employment." Although she received many offers, including several from film companies, none of them interested her. (One music-hall entertainer, a Mr. Selbit, offered her the job of "sawing through a woman," an indication that despite women's winning the vote, misogynism had not been exorcised in Britain.)

When Christabel Pankhurst visited her mother in Canada and the United States in 1921, she became increasingly interested in Second Adventism, a movement which proclaimed the Second Coming of Christ. In 1922, she published her first Second Adventist books (The Lord Commeth! and Pressing Problems of the Closing Age) and, in 1926, her monograph The World's Unrest or Visions of the Dawn demonstrated both her increasing political conservatism and her avid millenialism. All three books were so well received in the British and North American evangelical religious communities that she was selected to give a series of prestigious lectures at Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Ontario, which attracted audiences so large that the overflow crowd had to be shut out of the church. In The Fighting Pankhursts, David Mitchell argues that "in the U.S. and Canada, Christabel Pankhurst raised Second Adventism almost single-handedly from its backstreet fundamentalist rut, lending it a dull gleam of intellectual prestige."

In 1926, Emmeline Pankhurst convinced Christabel, against her better judgment, to go the French Riviera where they opened the English Teashop of Good Hope, a British-style tea room in Jean-les-Pins. Like Emmeline's other commercial enterprises, it was a financial failure. The Pankhurst women returned to England in 1926. Two years later, Emmeline died, leaving Christabel to face the largest personal loss of her life.

By 1930, Christabel had recovered enough from her grief to put her life back on track. First she adopted a daughter (Betty); then she reemerged on the British political scene preaching the gospel of Second Adventism and supporting Conservative Party political candidates and ideas. As in North America, she was in great demand as an orator and she wrote a series of bestselling polemical tracts on the Second Advent. Those who heard her speak attested to her commanding and captivating presence on stage. Although her voice was shriller than her mother's had been, she had the same ability to project it to the back of any auditorium without a microphone. Her immense popularity as a public speaker is documented by the fact that several times she was able to fill the Royal Albert Hall (seating capacity, 10,000) to overflowing when discussing the Second Coming.

In 1936, as part of His Majesty's New Year's Honors, Christabel Pankhurst was proclaimed a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE), an honor which she prized for the remainder of her life. Nonetheless, in 1940 she moved permanently to the United States where her adopted daughter had emigrated. She finally settled in Santa Monica, California, where she was considered something of a personality, 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, she was one of the keynote speakers selected to address an important Christian Fellowship Bible Conference in Los Angeles. This appearance made her an even more popular orator on the religious circuit, a career choice which also enabled her to speak on political and women's issues when she wished to do so. With the advent of regular television broadcasting in the post-World War II era, Christabel Pankhurst became a frequent panelist on California public affairs telecasts.

One of the strangest episodes of her later life helped to alleviate her economic difficulties and allowed her to pick and choose only those public lectures she wished to deliver. This was the substantial legacy that she received under quasighoulish circumstances. Olivia Durand-Deacon , an aged but wealthy British widow, was brutally murdered by her companion John George Haigh who then carefully dissolved her corpse in a bath of acid. For reasons which she apparently did not disclose, Durand-Deacon bequeathed an annuity of £250 to Christabel.

Not long after she received this bizarre legacy, Christabel was involved in an automobile accident in which her friend, the driver, was killed. Although she was seriously injured, she recovered completely and resumed her active life. It was, therefore, quite unexpected when Christabel Pankhurst died suddenly. On February 13, 1958, her housekeeper found her dead, sitting bolt upright in a straight-backed chair in her Santa Monica living room. Unlike her mother, her body had not been seriously weakened through forcible feeding and, unlike Sylvia and Adela, she had not been plagued with headaches, neuralgia, and a host of minor physical complaints. Indeed, except for a few minor colds and an occasional bout of influenza, Christabel had not known sickness and had not been ill before her death.

At her crowded memorial service at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Trafalgar Square, London), her former WSPU comrade Lord Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (husband of Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence ) praised Christabel Pankhurst as the most brilliant political tactician of her time and a woman who had "changed the course of human history and changed it for the better."

In 1959, a bronze medallion honoring Christabel struck by Peter Hills was added to the memorial statue of her mother in Victoria Tower Gardens. An excellent oil painting of her by Ethel Wright is in the possession of Mrs. Victor Duval, and the National Gallery owns a chalk drawing of her by Jessie Holliday .


Castle, Barbara . Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. NY: Penguin, 1987.

Garner, Les. Stepping Stones to Women's Liberty: Feminist Ideas in the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1900–1918. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984.

Kent, Susan Kingsley. Sex and Suffrage in Britain, 1860–1914. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Liddington, Jill, and Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women's Suffrage Movement. London: Virago, 1984.

Marcus, Jane, ed. Suffrage and the Pankhursts. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

Mitchell, David. The Fighting Pankhursts. NY: Macmillan, 1967.

——. Queen Christabel: A Biography of Christabel Pankhurst. London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1977.

——. Women on the Warpath. London: Jonathan Cape, 1966.

Pankhurst, Christabel. Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote. Ed. by Frederick W. Pethick-Lawrence. London: Hutchinson, 1959.

Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. NY: Hearst's International, 1914 (London: Virago, reprint, 1979).

Pankhurst, Estelle Sylvia. The Suffragette: The History of the Women's Militant Suffrage Movement 1905–1910. London: Gay and Hancock, 1911.

——. The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals. London: Longmans, Green, 1932.

suggested reading:

Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910–1914, c. 1935 (NY: Capricorn Books, reprint, 1961 [Dangerfield's interpretation of the British Women's Suffrage movement, based upon Sylvia's interpretation of it, became the standard source on the movement for at least a generation]).

Rosen, Andrew. Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women's Social and Political Union 1903–1914. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

Strachey, Ray. "The Cause": A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1969.

related media:

"Shoulder to Shoulder," produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), based on the documentary book of the same name compiled and edited by Midge MacKenzie , was shown in the U.S. as a 6-part series on "Masterpiece Theater," 1988; the episodes are titled, "The Pankhurst Family," "Annie Kenney," "Lady Constance Lytton," "Christabel Pankhurst," "Outrage," and "Sylvia Pankhurst." While Christabel Pankhurst is included in all 6 parts, and is featured in Episodes 1 and 4, the series is based on Sylvia Pankhurst's interpretation of the WSPU suffrage campaign and, therefore, is slanted against Christabel's interpretation of it.

Nancy Ellen Ellen , Associate Professor of History and Director of Women's Studies, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee