Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 after accusing current women’s suffrage groups of not having enough commitment to the cause.
Her daughter, Christabel, was to become a key member of the union.
Christabel attended Manchester High School for Girls and obtained a law degree from the University of Manchester. However, despite receiving honours in her exams, as a woman she was not allowed to practice law.
After graduating, Christabel was appointed organising secretary of the WSPU and moved to the organisation’s headquarters in London.
In 1905, together with Annie Kenney, Christabel interrupted a Liberal Party meeting by unfurling a WSPU banner and shouting demands for women’s suffrage. Their actions were designed to shock; only by acting out would their cause make the headlines.
Both women were arrested for technical assault on a policeman and, rather than pay a fine as punishment, they went to prison.
This was the first but not the final time Christabel would spend time behind bars.
In 1908, Christabel, her mother Emmeline, and Flora Drummond organised a rush on the House of Commons.
Police learned of their plans and served the three women with a summons instructing them to attend Bow Street police station. They refused the summons and instead attended a WSPU meeting.
They were arrested the day of the rush on the House of Commons. 60,000 people gathered in Parliament Square but none succeeded in breaking through the 5,000 strong police cordon to rush the House.
The following day Emmeline, Flora and Christabel appeared at Bow Street court. Their trial lasted two days and garnered much attention from the press.
As Christabel was a trained lawyer, she undertook their defence, but they were found guilty and imprisoned.
Between 1913 and 1914 Christabel lived in Paris to escape imprisonment under the terms of the Cat and Mouse Act. This Act allowed the release of prisoners who were so weakened by hunger strike that they were likely to die. The prisoners were recalled to prison once they had recovered, and the process would begin over again.
Christabel returned to England after World War I broke out, and was again arrested. However, she was released after just 30 days of her three-year sentence after beginning a hunger strike.
Though women’s suffrage was the Pankhurst family’s business, they often disagreed about their methods.
In particular, Christabel did not get along with her sister, Sylvia. While Sylvia was against turning the WSPU towards upper and middle class women, Christabel thought this was essential. She believed that suffrage should not be dragged down by any causes trying to help working class women.
Christabel also worked on a newspaper called The Suffragette, later known as Britannia. In its pages she called for the military conscription of men and the industrial conscription of women into national service. She also called for the internment of all people of enemy nationality found in England. Her supporters gathered for meetings in Hyde Park with placards bearing the message: ‘Intern Them All’.
After World War I, women over 30 were given the vote, and Christabel stood in the 1918 general election as a Women’s Party candidate. She was narrowly defeated.
She left England in 1921 for the United States, where she became a prominent member of the Second Adventist movement.
While she was living in America, women over the age of 21 were finally given the right to vote.
She returned to Britain in the 1930s, and it was in 1938 that she came to Hertfordshire. She gave a lecture at the Memorial Hall, Chorleywood, on the subject of ‘The Bible in the Modern World’.
This was not the first time Suffragettes had come to Chorleywood. Around 1910, Roughwood House in Chorleywood was set ablaze by militant Suffragettes.
At the onset of World War II Christabel left again for the United States, where she adopted a daughter, Betty.
She lectured and wrote books on the Second Coming, and was a frequent guest on TV shows in the 1950s.
She died in California in 1958, at the age of 77.