A prominent feature of first-wave feminism was its spectacle, once it had the courage to break into public space. A striking aspect was the frequent appearance in demonstrations of suffragists dressed as figures such as Joan of Arc, complete with horses and armour. This reflected the 19th century upsurge of interest in medieval themes, not least that of chivalry. It was also part of the dramatic theatre of the suffrage movement, embodied notably in Christabel Pankhurst. When she died, The Catholic Citizen contained an obituary entitled ‘The Girl who slew the Dragon’. It was an appropriate tribute to a remarkable woman who transformed traditional assumptions of women, yet, in many ways, stood in the consecrated tradition of inherited evangelical religion…
The favourite daughter of her mother Emmeline, and co-leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1954) was an outstanding political figure in her own right. She demonstrates the highly religious character and passionate intensity of much first-wave feminism. In her Christmas message of 1913 in The Suffragette for example, Christabel remarked that in her view the Christ story meant more perhaps to suffragettes than to any others living. Only those, she said, who are taking part in the chief crusade of their day could fully understand Christ’s life and death. The struggle Christ had foretold was still in progress: what would he say to the scribes and pharisees ‘who say and do not!?’. It was the suffragettes, she asserted, who ‘have taken up their cross and are ready to pay the penalty.’
The origins of Christabel Pankhurst’s feminism of course lay in her family and Manchester background. It was indeed a strong relationship with Eva Gore Booth and Esther Roper which brought her into active political involvement, including initially with trade union and ILP links. Such powerful female-female attachments within the suffragist movement were also reflected later in her close relationship with fellow militant suffragette Annie Kenney. Unlike her sisters Sylvia and Adela however, and in common with her mother Emmeline, Christabel gradually moved away from her early socialism. This was reflected in the WSPU strategy after Christabel (obtaining a degree but unable to become a barrister due to her gender) became WSPU organiser in 1907. Christabel shifted attention away from working class issues to more prosperous members of society and accepted the possible need for a limited franchise restricted to women of greater means. As time went on, she was also a principal advocate of more violent actions, such as stone-throwing, arson and the destruction of property. This was part of what she saw as the re-working of women’s traditional spirit of ‘sacrifice’. For whilst, she believed, there was futile sacrifice every day by countless women:
our sex is no excuse for submission, for sloth, and for yielding to injustice. The woman who shelters herself behind her sex, and says, ‘I need not come out to fight because I am a womna, and I ought not to’, that woman either has not a woman’s spirit, or has not the right woman’s spirit. (‘Militancy a Virtue’, The Suffragette, 10 January 1913)
Militancy was instead a virtue, for women should possess all human virtues, being able to be fierce as well as mild. It was not right, she affirmed, for women, and more than for men, ‘to be incapable of divine rage’ or ‘to be impotent to resist oppression’.
Christabel Pankhurst’s religious sensibilities contributed to other features of the suffragette movement. Notably, in 1913, she launched a great campaign against sexual corruption and men’s part in it. Welcomed by a range of clergy in a way many of her other actions were not, the campaign against the ‘Great Scourge’ (as Christabel termed it) was in one sense in the line of Victorian social purity campaigns. It was also because of this deep religious commitment that frustration with institutional Christianity grew so strong within the WSPU. This then became deep disillusionment for many who suffered terribly in prison but who received such limited prayer and support from their churches. It culminated in Christabel’s ‘Appeal to God’ against the Churches in 1913, and the consequent vigorous actions directed at churches, bishops, and clergy in the years 1913-1914. This was formally launched by Christabel in the lead article in The Suffragette of 8th August 1913 and subsequently distributed as a broadsheet.
Christabel applauded ‘some of the finest of the clergy’ for their going to Downing Street at that time to petition the Government on the militants’ behalf against force-feeding and coercion of women prisoners. Yet the Church as a whole was not associated with the action:
when the Government are oppressing women and denying their human equality… and when women are being murdered by politicians, then the Church is compliant… At this crisis in our national affairs, when women are offering up their life as the price of other women;s redemption from misery and degradation, the heads of the Church have fallen into every error condemned by Christ… The Church is the heritage of women as well as of men, and if men let the Church fail in her mission, then it is for women to assert themselves. Christ is their Saviour as well as the Saviour of men… Worldly justice is not as yet given to women, but Divine justice is theirs, and if the recognised ministers of religion will not ask it for them, the women will ask it for themselves. The appeal they make is from men to God.
Henceforth, the WSPU was therefore ‘at war’ with the Church. Interruptions of services (mainly Church of England, but also Free Church and one or two synagogues) became commonplace, especially in places where clergy were hostile where women would characteristically offer up prayers for prisoners and the cause which had been refused. In doing so, the suffragettes were very conscious that they were also breaking new ground in not only public, but also sacred, space, There were earlier precedents (for example, in the English Revolution of the 17th century), so it may not have been quite accurate for suffragettes to claim that they were the first women to offer up public prayer from an altar. Yet the scale of their interventions and political weight was certainly new. Not all clergy were unsympathetic to this turn of events. Yet it had an alienating effect on many, especially with serious attacks on church property, including the burning down of a number of churches.
The increasingly millenarian language of Christabel Pankhurst led to her vigorous espousal of the first world war. For, whilst some militants took a pacifist line, Christabel saw the war as a continuation of the suffragette mission, a cause defending the oppressed and purging the world of evil. Her later career followed naturally: evil, once primarily the province of males, and later associated with Germany, was then attributed to human nature as a whole. Leaving England in 1921, she then moved to the United States where she became an evangelist with Plymouth Brethren links and a prominent member of the Seventh Day Adventist movement. For as Christabel saw it, in her book The Lord Cometh! Christ was now the ‘only hope of the world, for , by no human instrumentality can the world be cleansed and healed of its terrible ills.’ She returned to Britain for a period in the 1930s and was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire as a tribute to her contribution to the women’s movement. At the onset of World War II she again however left for California where she lived out the remainder of her charismatic life.
God of many gifts,
We give thanks for Christabel Pankhurst,
and for all who have contributed to justice and human rights
through the courage and imagination of their convictions.
Give grace to your people
that we may be inspired by your love,
and know your strength and wisdom,
to serve you as you call.
In the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.