Biography of Dame Christabel Pankhurst
Elizabeth Streatfeild-James, BA History, Durham University
On this day in 1880 Dame Christabel Harriette Pankhurst DBE, a British suffragette and co-founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was born. She was the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, another prominent British suffragette, with whom she founded the WSPU. They co-founded the WSPU because they felt that the passive attempts by the existing National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) would not achieve anything.
In 1905 she was arrested for disrupting a meeting of the Liberal Party by shouting ‘Votes for Women’, along with another suffragist, Annie Kenney. They were fined for disturbing the peace and when they refused to pay the fine they were put in prison. The media played a huge amount of attention to the case raising the profile of the suffragettes and encouraging many more women to join the movement.
In 1913 Christabel took over leadership of the WSPU from her mother and made the tactics of the movement increasingly militant. This led to the polarisation of opinions in the WSPU and many members, including her own sisters Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, left the group. This created a rift within the Pankhurst family which never recovered.
Christabel was supportive of the British government during the First World War and used her campaigning tactics to support the war. She held rallies and made recruitment speeches. Her supporters began the White feather movement and handed out white feathers to young men they encountered in civilian clothing to guilt them into enlisting.
After the war she moved to America where she became a prominent evangelist joining the Second Adventist movement. She returned to England in the 1930s and was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1936 before returning to America at the start of the Second World War. She died in California in 1958 aged 77.
In 2006, a blue plaque for Christabel and her mother was placed by English Heritage at 50 Clarendon Road, Notting Hill, where they had lived. Her name is also included alongside 58 other supporters of women’s suffrage on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett which was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2018.