In the 1970s Clare Debenham joined her local Women’s Liberation Group and was active in the movement, which contributed to her enduring interest in women’s politics. In 2010, she was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Manchester, Department of Politics, for her thesis which led to the book, Birth Control and the Rights of Women. She is currently writing a book on Marie Stopes.
“…As we go to the polls we must remember with gratitude that women were imprisoned and died for women’s right to vote…”
Deeds not words
Christabel Harriette Pankhurst was born on 22nd September 1880 at 1 Drayton Terrace, Manchester in Lancashire. The motto of the Women’s Social and Political Movement, of which she became a key figure, was “Deeds not words” and this encapsulates her philosophy in women’s struggle for the vote and gives her a significant place in its history.
Christabel was the eldest of five children born to Dr. Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst. Although her sisters Sylvia and Adele were involved in the suffrage struggle, Christabel was her mother’s favourite child and enjoyed a special relationship with her.
She was born into a radical family as her father, Dr Richard Pankhurst, an eminent barrister, was active in supporting women’s suffrage and was a founding member of the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Society formed in 1867. He was a friend of Keir Hardy and the newly formed Independent Labour Party.
Tragically Richard Pankhurst died at a young age in 1898 leaving his wife with no income and debts. Emmeline decided to move the family back to Manchester living in a cheaper house, though elegant, at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester (now the Pankhurst Centre).
In order to support the family Emmeline became a Registrar for Births, Marriages and Deaths as well as opening a shop in which Christabel reluctantly also worked. However, Emmeline, remained active in the cause of women’s suffrage with which she had long been involved.
It was from their home in Nelson Street that on 10th October 1903 that Emmeline, impatient at the established suffrage societies seeming lack of progress, convened a meeting of family and friends and founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to campaign for votes for women on the same terms as they were granted to men.
Rise Up Women
Christabel remembered her mother declaring: “We must do the work ourselves. We must have an independent women’s movement”. The WSPU would have only one aim, ‘Votes for Women’ – it was a women’s only organisation and its motto was “Deeds not words”.
It is therefore appropriate that Emmeline was chosen by the public to be honoured by the first female statue in Manchester since Queen Victoria. The sculpture, Rise Up Women, by Hazel Reeves is due to be seen in St Peter’s Square, in the centre of Manchester, on International Women’s Day 2019.
— Hazel Reeves (@HazelReeves) May 9, 2017
Christabel’s introduction to what is now the University of Manchester appeared to be accidental. Emmeline suggested that Christabel, who had attended Manchester High School for Girls, but was now bored with shop work, attend some lectures at the University – and one of these meetings was to change her life.
In 1901, she went to a lecture on ‘Poets and Politics’ given by the Vice-Chancellor and at the end of the lecture Christabel asked a well-thought out and perceptive question. Christabel wrote in her autobiography, Unshackled, that: “I had not the faintest intention of uttering a word; yet to my surprise, the discourse and the debate stirred a thought in me.”
Esther Roper, who was sitting on the platform next to the Vice-Chancellor, came down to speak to her and took her home to meet her companion Eva Gore-Booth. Eva, who was one of the first women to graduate from the University encouraged Christabel to enroll on a law degree there.
In July 1906, Christabel gained a brilliant first class honours degree, Ll.B. In her autobiography, she wrote about the time before her final examinations, “panic prompted concentration and I withdrew from human society to that of my books.”
However, as a woman, she was unable to practice law professionally as a solicitor or barrister and this remained the case until the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. Intellectually Christabel benefitted from the course as it encouraged critical thinking and a precise use of words.
In her autobiography, she spends little time discussing her time at university, as by then she had other priorities. Her friend Annie Kenney said: “Where she studied, how she studied is a mystery. She was working for the movement all day and practically every night”. At the start of the twentieth century Christabel’s sister Sylvia also studied in Manchester at the Manchester School of Art becoming a prize-winning student.
Focus on women’s rights
Christabel’s meeting with Esther and Eva was to give her a new focus on women’s rights. Christabel had long been aware of her parent’s commitment to women’s suffrage and Emmeline in her autobiography remarked how she had been surprised by her young daughter’s remark, “How long have you women been trying for the vote. For my part I mean to get it.”
Christabel had been part of her mother’s meeting when the WSPU was founded but Esther and Eva were actively involved with suffrage politics. Esther from 1894 was the organising secretary of the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage and Eva from 1900 was joint secretary of Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council. These two women were a significant influence on Christabel and they put her in touch with working class women suffragists.
Christabel increasingly used direct action to differentiate WSPU from the more traditional suffrage societies and publicise the cause. It was the Daily Mail who christened them suffragettes to distinguish them from the more traditional constitutional campaigners.
In 1904, Christabel heckled Winston Churchill at a Free Trade Rally in Manchester to highlight the cause and on 13th October 1905 Christabel and her friend Annie Kenney attended a Liberal Party meeting in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester.
Annie, born in a Pennine village was a working-class factory worker who became devoted to Christabel and offered continued support. As a mill-hand Annie was told to introduce herself as “factory girl and trade unionist”. She, her relatives and friends therefore widened the appeal of the WSPU from being an elite middle class organisation to reach working class women.
Annie asked the question “Will the Liberal Government give votes for to women?” The question was not answered so Christabel, unfurling a WSPU forcibly repeated the question. The two women were then dragged outside when Christabel, determined to be arrested in spite of her arms being pinioned to her side, deliberately spat at a policeman.
The two women were then charged with causing an obstruction and both chose to go to prison rather than pay a fine. This action bought the desired publicity and set the course for other direct action and hundreds came to welcome them from Strangeways Prison in Manchester.
As Emmeline was increasingly away on speaking engagements, Christabel became involved in the daily administration of the WSPU and formation of its policies. Christabel’s concentration on women’s franchise led to her eventually breaking all ties with the existing political parties, which was particularly painful in the case members of the Independent Labour Party.
The Independent Labour Party leadership feared that votes for women, on the same terms as men, would only enfranchise middle-class women who would vote Conservative and so weaken their party. Therefore, although there were many sympathetic socialist men, the leadership opposed the extension of the vote on a property qualification. In 1907 both Emmeline and Christabel resigned from the ILP. They also decided that the WSPU was too dependent for demonstrations on ILP women from the East End who Sylvia continued to support.
In 1908 Emmeline and her daughters moved to London where they set up the headquarters of the WSPU and it became a mass organisation. Christabel became Chief Organiser at £2.10s a week and on WSPU literature, proudly cited her qualification of LL.B.
Christabel lived for the next six years with the husband and wife team Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, whose home was also the headquarters of the WSPU. Frederick was a wealthy barrister who was also treasurer of the WSPU.
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence had been attracted to the movement by the actions of Annie Kenney who they viewed as an adoptive daughter. As well as fundraising Frederick and Emmeline used their own resources to promote the WSPU and were influential in policy making.
Christabel planned “The Trojan Horse” raid when, in February 1908, between twenty and thirty women jumped out of a pantechnicon van in an attempt to gain entry to the House of Commons. Emmeline, Christabel and Flora Drummond were charged with conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace.
Using her legal training Christabel subpoenaed two cabinet ministers, Herbert Gladstone and Lloyd George, as witnesses in the Bow Street court which gave the WSPU added publicity and Christabel became high profile in the national press. She was then nicknamed the “Suffragette Portia” by the popular press. Christabel continued to publicise the policy of the WSPU by writing in the weekly paper Votes for Women edited by Frederick and Emmeline Pethick –Lawrence which had a circulation of 16,000.
Eleven regional offices had been set up, including Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester, as well as branches in Preston and Rochdale. The Monday afternoon “At Homes” had been moved to the Queens Hall with attendances of up to a thousand. Several hundred women had chosen to go to prison for the cause.
Green, white, violet – Give Women the Vote
The WSPU was one of the first movements to be visually aware and involve their supporters in creating publicity. The WSPU colours – green, white, violet (Give Women the Vote) – were incorporated into their literature and actions.
In 1907, they organised their first mass demonstration in Hyde Park, known as the “mud march” because of the conditions. The leaders saw the impact of mass processions with women in their long white dresses proudly wearing WSPU coloured sashes.
In response to Government claims that women’s suffrage was only a minority cause, they hired a steam launch and sailed it on the Thames to the House of Commons and members of parliament, taking tea on the terrace were challenged by suffragettes waving banners and a brass band.
In 1911, posters advertising the five-mile long Women’s Coronation procession promised 70 bands and 1,000 banners. Set-backs were turned into triumphs with released WSPU prisoners met on their release by suitably dressed WSPU members. The accidental death of a suffragette Emily Wilding in 1912 at Epson, under the hooves of the King George V’s horse while trying to affix a banner resulted in in a spectacular funeral procession through the streets of London.
Christabel, whose critical biographer David Mitchell termed her “Queen Christabel”, directed the WSPU in a new phase of its militant career which involved force feeding. In 1909, the imprisoned suffragette Marion Wallace Duncan refused to eat food until her demand to be treated as a political prisoner was acknowledged. After fasting for ninety-one hours she was released but then this tactic was adopted by other imprisoned suffragettes.
The Government responded two months later by using brutal methods of force feeding the suffragettes, and in 1913 the Liberal Government introduced the ‘Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge and Ill Health Act’, widely known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. This allowed the suffragettes home only to be arrested again on recovery.
Suffragettes such as Constance Lytton, who disguised herself as a poor seamstress to endure force feeding, were recognised as martyrs and met on release by important WSPU members and awarded a special badge. Women died as a result of force feeding, and others such as Lady Lytton had their health permanently harmed.
The gravest of risks
The physical bravery of the WSPU prisoners gained widespread admiration and a number of the medical practitioners protested. Dr H. Roberts wrote to The Manchester Guardian that: “this method of feeding, when the patient resists, is attended by the gravest of risks”. The paper’s editor admitted that if the facts were correct the treatment was “properly described as torture”.
In 1910, there was brief optimism in the WSPU when the Liberal government won the election and there was formed a Conciliation Committee for Women’s Suffrage. Emmeline Pankhurst, though doubting the proposed Bill would have enfranchised many more women, called off the violence. She was furious when the Bill, having passed its second reading, was opposed by the Home Secretary, David Lloyd George and by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.
When Parliament re assembled, no reference was made to the Bill. This resulted in the so-called “Black Friday” in 1910 when the police and crowd use extreme violence against the demonstrators. About three hundred women joined the protest and 119 were arrested. Many protesters were attacked by the police and two women later died of their injuries.
Four days later Emmeline organised another demonstration to Downing Street in which she and her sister Mary were arrested. No evidence was offered against Emmeline but her sister later died of injuries she received at the hands of the police.
On 7th November 1911, Asquith announced that in the next session the Government would introduce a Manhood Suffrage Bill that could be amended to include women. Christabel denounced this as unviable and called for one thousand women to march to Westminster. While this was taking place groups of women broke the windows of businesses and government buildings.
These extreme actions escalated as they smashed windows in Oxford Street and, disguised as servants, regularly set fire to letter boxes and empty buildings. Chalking parties would write messages in green, white and purple on pavements. There was a real risk to life as in 1913 Edith Rigby burnt down Lord Leverhulme’s bungalow at Rivington, near Bolton and although no one was injured, her actions were highly dangerous.
The Pethick-Lawrences disagreed with this policy of increased militancy in the WSPU and Emmeline and Christabel virtually banished them from the WSPU. A number of leading militants also left the movement.
Escape to Paris
As the violence continued and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the WSPU leaders. Christabel had been forewarned and escaped to Paris where she could safely continue to direct the movement. She felt that his would not be possible if she was imprisoned. Christabel wrote: “I did not sleep all night for thinking. Suddenly, in the small hours I saw what I must do! Escape! My law studies had not been in vain. They had impressed indelibly on my mind the fact that a political offender is not liable for extradition.”
She disguised herself in a black coat and black hat and took the train to France. Emmeline had endured ten hunger strikes in one eighteen-month period and Christabel had never shied away from physical danger, but nevertheless her re-location abroad posed its own dangers in terms of the organisation’s morale. The Pethick-Lawrences criticised her decision and were then side-lined from the movement.
Outbreak of the First World War
However, the outbreak of the First World War altered the situation for Emmeline and Christabel. All suffragette prisoners were released in August 1914 and Emmeline announced a temporary suspension of WSPU activities and instead fully supported the Government in its struggle against Germany.
The WSPU urged women to become involved in the war effort and helped the Government to overcome trade union opposition to the use of female labour. In 1917, Christabel returned from France to England. In later years, the WSPU remoulded itself as the Women’s Party.
After the end of the war neither Christabel or Emmeline took a large role in the negotiations in 1918 that granted a partial enfranchisement to women if they were over thirty years old, householder or wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5.00 or more, or graduates of British universities.
Standing for Parliament
Christabel satisfied these criteria and it would have been fitting for her to have been elected the country’s first woman member of parliament. In the general election of 1918 she stood as the parliamentary candidate for the Women’s Party for the constituency of Smethwick, with the support of the coalition government. However, Christabel lost by 775 votes. She wanted to stand again for Parliament in the Westminster Abbey division but this did not happen as the Women’s Party had folded by the Autumn. This was the end of Christabel’s parliamentary political ambitions and her energy turned elsewhere.
Some of Christabel’s later biographers have argued that her extraordinary career was overshadowed by her later actions. From 1913 Christabel had written in The Suffragette contentious articles on the double sexual standard of men including the spread of the scourge of venereal disease and these raised fears of a sex war.
In 1921, she went to the United States where she joined the Seventh Adventist movement and for a number of years lectured there on the Second Coming. Although she returned to England 1931-39 she then lived in the United States until her death in 1958.
Recognition as a Dame of the British Empire
Christabel was rightly created a Dame of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honours List in 1936 for her services to the enfranchisement of women. However, while recognising Christabel’s important legacy it is not uncontroversial and two aspects in particular are important: the role of militancy and the relationship with established political parties.
There had been suffrage societies in existence before the WSPU and in 1907 the National Union of Suffrage Societies was reorganised under the Presidency of Millicent Fawcett and remained committed to constitutional reform. It has been suggested that this non-militant organisation was more attractive to working class women than the WSPU and certainly members of parliament thought the WSPU militancy set back their cause.
The WSPU had a fraught relationship with political parties but Sylvia Pankhurst, at one time a staunch ally of Christabel, never rejected her membership of the Independent Labour Party. Sylvia worked to involve working-class women from the East End in the WSPU so widening the base of the suffrage movement, and produced a weekly paper, The Dreadnought.
“…women must work out their own salvation…”
In January 1914 Christabel, becoming increasingly autocratic, asked Sylvia to travel to Paris where she told her, in Emmeline’s presence, that her East London Federation must be separate from the WSPU since it was allied to the socialist movement and so Sylvia was ousted and enstranged. Christabel wrote in The Suffragette, 14th April 1914: “For suffragettes to put their faith in any men’s party, whatever it may call itself, is reckless … The truth is that women must work out their own salvation. Men will not do it for them.”
In the 1960s with the arrival of Women’s Liberation, New Left militants dismissed Christabel for having a hopelessly prim idea of emancipation. Feminist writer Juliet Mitchell critically remarked that “the most prominent of them never submerged their class interest to their feminist struggle”. I believe that this is a misunderstanding of Christabel’s work which had the more limited objective of concentrating on the suffrage and did not envisage a complete feminist revolution in society. Christabel saw enfranchisement as a first step to female equality.
As we go to the polls we must remember with gratitude that women were imprisoned and died for women’s right to vote.
I welcome feedback on this article at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pankhurst, Christabel. Unshackled. The Story of How We Won the Vote, Hutchinson 1959.
Banks, Olive. Pankhurst, Christabel 1880-1958. The Biographical Dictionary of British Feminists – Vol.1. 1800-1930, Wheatsheaf Books, 1985.
Castle, Barbara. Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst, Penguin Books Ltd, 1987.
Mitchell, David. Queen Christabel: A Biography of Christabel Pankhurst, Museum of London, 1977.
Pugh, Martin. The Pankhursts. The History of One Radical Family, Vintage, 2008.
Purvis, June. Pankhurst, Dame Christabel Harriette, (1880-1958) Suffragette. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004-16.
Atkinson, Diane. The Suffragettes in Pictures, The History Press, 1996.
Liddington, Jill and Norris. The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Virago, 1978
Murray, Jenni. A History of Britain in 21 Women, One World Publications, 2016.
Mitchell, Juliet, Woman’s Estate, Penguin, 1971.
(As these are voluntary organisations always check opening hours.)
Pankhurst Centre: 60-62 Nelson Street, Chorlton on Medlock, Manchester M13 9WP. (Opposite Manchester Royal Infirmary.) Tel: 0161 273 5693
The Museum is in the house where the Pankhurst family lived and you can see the actual furnished room where the WSPU was founded.
Working Class Movement Library: 51, The Crescent Salford M5 4WX. Tel: 0161 736 3601
An interesting collection of suffragette pamphlets as well as written material on Christabel.
Main Dame Christabel Pankhurst image credit: By The Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Christabel Pankhurst (1910) image credit: By LSE Library [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Women’s Social and Political Union meeting image credit: By LSE Library [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
The Suffragette image credit: By The original uploader was Lordprice at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
English Heritage, 50 Clarendon Road, London, blue plaque image credit: By Edwardx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons