Christabel Pankhurst, born in 1880, is a name that reverberates through the annals of women’s rights history. She was the catalyst that propelled the movement for women’s suffrage in the UK, initiating radical changes that echo to this day. In 1903, Christabel Pankhurst, together with her mother Emmeline, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union with the motto ‘Deeds not Words’. Emmeline and Christabel realised that the women’s suffrage movement under the moderate leadership of Millicent Fawcett was not making any headway and that women needed to stand up and be noticed. The Suffragettes, as they came to be known, had arrived.
A Childhood Shaped by Social Reform
Born in Manchester, Christabel was the eldest daughter of Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst, both ardent advocates for women’s rights. Her father, a prominent Liberal Party member, drafted the law granting property rights to married women in 1882. Her upbringing in such an environment undoubtedly influenced Christabel’s life trajectory.
The family relocated to London in 1886, making their residence at 8 Russell Square a hub for socialists and suffragists. The illustrious list of guests included Keir Hardie and William Morris. This environment exposed Christabel to radical ideas about societal reform that profoundly shaped her political beliefs.
Financial constraints forced the family back to Manchester in 1893. During this period, the Pankhursts joined the Independent Labour Party, a newly formed political entity, frustrated by the Liberals’ lethargic progress on women’s rights.
After her father’s death in 1898, Christabel pursued law at the University of Manchester, earning a first-class honours degree. Although societal norms of the time prevented her from practising law, her academic prowess became instrumental in devising the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) strategies.
The Birth of the Suffragettes
In 1903, a historic moment arrived. Christabel, together with her mother Emmeline, founded the WSPU, with the empowering motto ‘Deeds not Words’. The suffragettes had arrived on the political scene, marking a turning point in the women’s suffrage movement.
Christabel’s leadership saw the WSPU engage in direct action to capture public attention. A notable incident in 1905 saw Christabel and WSPU member Annie Kenney disrupting a Liberal Party meeting, resulting in their arrest. This event brought the suffragettes into the national spotlight and kick-started a series of militant campaigns.
The Height of Militant Activism
Christabel’s organisational skills and staunch belief in militant activism steered the suffragette movement, attracting hundreds of women to join their cause. Women participated in marches, rallies, and even window-smashing campaigns to pressure the government into granting women the vote.
During this tumultuous period, Christabel championed the cause of women enduring force-feeding in prisons, a punitive response to their hunger strikes. She leveraged her position as editor of the WSPU’s publication, the Suffragette, to garner public support against this inhumane practice.
Despite the suffragettes’ efforts, the government remained resistant to change. Post-1912, Christabel escalated the militancy from her exile in France to avoid arrest.
War, Suffrage, and After
The outbreak of World War I brought a temporary halt to the suffragettes’ militant activities. Instead, the WSPU encouraged women to contribute to the war effort. Their efforts played a significant role in changing societal attitudes and were a factor leading to the 1918 Representation Act, granting voting rights to women over 30.
Post-war, Christabel formed the Women’s Party and even contested the 1918 election. After extensive travels and a brief stay in Europe, she finally settled in Santa Monica, California.
In conclusion, Christabel Pankhurst was a dynamic force in the women’s suffrage movement, a powerful advocate for women’s rights
Join my Suffragettes of Westminster Walk to find out more about Christabel and other courageous women that took part in WSPU campaigns.