an ecumenical and inter-religious step forward – Blanche Smythe-Pigott and the United Religious League

Today, ecumenical and inter-religious relationships flourish in many places, both despite, and also because, of continuing tensions and oppressions of various kinds.  Whilst Women's I'faith Group-1still misunderstood by some, such relationships can do much to heal the wider ills of the world as well bring deeper understanding of one another and the world’s great wisdom traditions.  It has been a great personal delight to be part of such growing life and hope.  Women have been at the forefront all over the world (not least in Australia, through interfaith women’s networks such as that, in Sydney, pictured to the right above).  This was not a great part of first-wave Christian feminism, yet at least one feature took significant shape as a sign for the future…

Christian unity was often assumed by all first-wave Christian feminists on many women’s issues.  For whilst the organised ecumenical movement was still to be born, the ecumenical baby was beginning to stir in the womb, notably reflected in such developments as the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910.  For the missionary and women’s movement had much in common and the obstacles they both encountered strengthened their common purpose. Indeed, the women’s movement for some even pointed to a divine unity which crossed the boundaries if Christianity itself.  This was certainly the view of some of those who gathered for the first great meeting of the United Religious League for Women’s Suffrage (URWSS) at the Caxton Hall on 6 November 1913.  Amidst ‘historic antipathies’, reported the Free Church Suffrage Times (December 1913):

Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Friend, Anglican and Nonconformist declared their sense of union in divine consciousness.  “Have we not all one father”, said the Jewish speaker appropriately, and this was the general sense.

‘Everybody’ was indeed said to be present on this occasion, which acted as a great rallying point for most of the leading Church and Jewish feminists (the latter whom had their own Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage, begun in November 1912, which also helped promote feminism within Judaism).  Such associations helped challenge particular prejudices.  Thus, at an earlier  URWSS meeting for example, the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (CWSS) speaker Blanche Smyth-Pigott made her contribution to much surprise.  She alone:

ventured a criticism of “the clergy of all denominations”, so delivering a shock to Protestant notions of priest-ridden women. (Free Church Suffrage Times, Nov 1913)

The work of the URWSS demonstrated the usual disinterest of the establishment press in the women’s struggle, except where militancy and sensationalism was involved.  The Caxton Hall meeting had not only been ‘historic and unique’, but as The Vote commented (14 Nov 1913), it was ‘one of the most impressive ever held in a hall famous for its suffrage meetings’.  The National Week of Prayer organised by the United League, between 1-8 November, was also warmly taken up.  Yet the wider media coverage was negligible: a further incitement for the militants.   Nonetheless further work continued in 1914, with a particularly impressive joint demonstration of religious suffragists in Hyde Park (cf. favourable review in The Vote 26 June 1914).

ecumenismSuch expression of common purpose was not always possible.  In March 1912 for example, a planned march from the Embankment to Trafalgar Square by the Free Church League and London Ethical Societies fell short of its goal.  The Anglicans and Roman Catholics never joined up:

owing to needless apprehension of disturbance… the former, instead of going to the square, proceeded to Westminster Abbey, and attended Evensong, while the latter withdrew altogether.  (The Vote 23 March 1912)

Fleming Williams, the Free Church leaders, then took the obvious opportunity of proclaiming from the plinth of Nelson’s Column the fearlessness of his Church in the face of any circumstances!  A similar demonstration fell apart too in June 1912 when there was a misunderstanding about which society had agreed to give notice to the police.  On this occasion, the Free Church League held a meeting in Hyde Park regardless, but the Catholic Society retreated to more satisfying communion at the Criterion Restaurant.

Such denominational differences and point-scoring were unusual.  For, despite some clear differences, like the women’s movement as a whole, the chief characteristic of the religious leagues was their remarkable complementarity in unity.  It thus deserves at least a footnote in the history of ecumenism and inter-religious relations, as well as within the women’s movement itself.


God of all peoples, races and cultures,
we give you thanks for the united work of the religious suffragists
and for all who have made a track
to the ecumenical and inter-religious relationships enjoyed by so many today.
Strengthen we pray the bonds of unity between Christians
and the relationships of friendship and generosity between peoples of different faith,
that we may cultivate a culture of peace for everyone throughout our world.
In the generous love and neighbourly wisdom at the heart of our faith, Amen.

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temperance and New Zealand – Kate Sheppard

Tribute_to_the_Suffragettes,_Christchurch,_NZ_-_croppedHail Aotearoa New Zealand!  In 1893, New Zealand was the first independent country to give women the vote in modern times.  Pitcairn Island did in 1838, but was not self-governing; nor was the Isle of Man which enfranchised female ratepayers in 1881, nor the Cook Islands which passed women’s suffrage days after New Zealand but held their election a month earlier. Various American states and territories also enfranchised women before 1893.  Franceville enfranchised women when it declared independence in 1889, but was soon under colonial rule.

See above right: the Suffragettes memorial in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand (the figures from left to right are Meri Te Tai Mangakahia, Amey Daldy, Kate Sheppard, Ada Wells, Harriet Morison and Helen Nicol).

As in Australia, suffrage itself did not lead to immediate huge strides in New Zealand.  Women were not eligible to be elected to the House of Representatives (lower house of Parliament) until 1919, nor eligible to be appointed to the Legislative Council (upper house) until 1941. Meanwhile the first Maori female MP (Iriaka Ratana) had to wait until 1949.   Yet New Zealanders helped break the mould and their experience was drawn on elsewhere.  They highlight both the significance of earlier movements such as temperance and the international character and networking of the women’s movement.

Kate_SheppardKatherine (Kate) Wilson Sheppard (1847-1934) was the most prominent member of New Zealand’s suffragists.  Born in Liverpool to Scottish parents, she received a good education, and was noted for her intellectual ability. For a time she also lived with her uncle, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Nairn.  His influence, and that of her mother, helped shape her active religious conscience.   Then, in 1869, several years after her father’s death, she emigrated her family to Christchurch, where she subsequently married.

Kate Sheppard’s career is an outstanding example of the story of many typical Christian women of her generation.  During the early years of her marriage,  she was active in membership of the Trinity Congregational Church, including church visiting, Bible classes and fund-raising.  Her ministry took a new public form however with the arrival of the women’s temperance movement in New Zealand.  From this, Kate was drawn into political campaigns.

Temperance had been a strong force and an active breeding-ground for the women’s movement as a whole in the United States of America.   Founded in 1873 in the USA, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the major driving force.   When, in Wctu_logo1885, Mary Leavitt, an evangelist delegate from the American WCTU, arrived in New Zealand, a local version quickly came into being, with Kate Sheppard as a founding member.   As in the USA, the New Zealand Union soon recognised that proposed social and legislative reforms concerning temperance and the welfare of women and children would be more effective if women could vote and enter Parliament. In 1887 franchise departments were formed within the local unions and Sheppard was appointed national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department, using her formidable organisation, speaking and writing abilities.   At the heart of all was her humanitarian principles and strong sense of justice, reflected in her credo:

All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.

Kate Sheppard herself thus played a considerable part in securing the vote, building on the mass movement of temperance women.   Indeed the Governor of New Zealand, Lord Glasgow, in the passing of the suffrage, honoured her as a political leader, by symbolically presenting to her the pen with which he had signed off on the suffrage bill.  She then returned to the northern hemisphere for a short time, 2-041798natcouncilwomen_5where she met prominent British and American suffragists and gave a number of speeches, as well as attending the World Conference of Woman’s Christian Temperance Unions.   Back in New Zealand. she was then elected president of a new National Council of Women (NCW) of New Zealand. and later headed up the council’s newspaper, the White Ribbon (an international WCTU name and symbol which has a new dynamic role today in the worldwide, male-led, White Ribbon campaign to end violence against women).  Such work added a new level of dynamism to the New Zealand women’s movement.  For the annual NCW conferences were often called the ‘Women’s Parliament’.  An arena for debate on many public issues, it was widely covered by local and national papers.    As Kate Sheppard put it, in her presidential address in 1897:

In Wellington is every year assembled a National Council of men, which holds a session lasting several months.…From that Council women are excluded.…Under these circumstances a National Council which largely represents the thinking and working women of the colony (and which, it may be remarked, costs the country nothing) becomes a necessity. I trust the day is not far distant…when the necessity for men’s councils and women’s councils, as such, will be swept away.’

Sheppard’s social philosophy was expressed in the plethora of articles and pamphlets and she developed.   A variety of issues were taken up, including:  repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1869; the responsibilities of women as citizens; economic independence for married women, education about alcohol; equal wages; reform of government; and the guardianship of children.  In this, the family was seen as the foundation of the state, with the state’s duty therefore being to serve families.   This involved supporting married women’s development.  For, as she remarked:

If the mother is dwarfed, repressed, how can the children grow to their full mental and moral stature?’  (There was) no greater anomaly than the exaltation by men of the vocation of wife and mother on the one hand, while, on the other, the position is by law stripped of all its attractiveness and dignity, and a wife and mother is regarded not only as a “dependent” on her husband’s bounty, but even the children of her own body are regarded as his legal property.

In 1903, Kate Sheppard stepped down from her positions at the National Council of Women due to ill health. She moved to England, intending to retire there, briefly stopping in Canada and the United States.  In London, she was active in promoting women’s suffrage but again began to flag due to failing health.  In 1904 she therefore returned to New Zealand, remaining relatively inactive in political circles, but continuing to write and exercise influence.  Indeed, in 1916, she and a group of other prominent suffragettes were able to revitalise the National Council of Women, which had gone into recess.

34611-rbnzKate Sheppard is a vital element in Aotearoa New Zealand’s progressive heritage.  Her work remains an inspiration, not only there but in the wider world she touched.  She appears on the $10 note in Aotearoa New Zealand, but her better legacy is her continuing feminist challenge:

We are tired of having a ‘sphere’ doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is ‘unwomanly’. We want to be natural just for a change … we must be ourselves at all risks.”


God beyond borders,
we give thanks for Kate Sheppard and the women of New Zealand,
and for all female pioneers who empowered others.
Grant that we may treasure all those who have broken new ground
and opened up pathways for others to tread.
May we, and all who long for freedom today,
be strengthened by the good examples of those who have gone before us.
that you will may be done,
and your kingdom come, in every land.
In the power of that love which unites all that is wrongfully separated, Amen.

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the women’s muse – Olive Schreiner

No one writer can represent, or be the focus, of a whole movement.  This is certainly true for first-wave feminism.  As it moved from what Jane Rendall (in The Origins of Modern Feminism) called ‘dynamic evangelicalism’ into a more ‘secular and cooperative’ creed, a 220px-Day,_Fred_Holland_(1864-1933)_-_Edward_Carpenterwhole range of overlapping influences be traced: including American Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman), British Idealism (especially T.H.Green and also Carlyle and Ruskin), eastern mysticism and theosophy, and the ethical secularism of reformers such as Blatchford and Trevor.  Of all the influences on the women’s suffrage movement however, the two great literary prophets were Edward Carpenter and Olive Schreiner.  Both threw off the full traditional Christian orthodoxy in which they were raised (in Carpenter’s case, as an erstwhile curate to F.D.Maurice).  Yet, in different ways, they strove to articulate a holistic approach to a ‘new life’, drawing on their religious inheritance.  As such, they remained inspirations to Christian, as well as other, first-wave feminists…

imagesOlive Schreiner (1855-1920) was a South African author, anti-war campaigner and radical thinker.  She is best remembered today for her novel The Story of an African Farm (1883).  This handled many of the burning issues of the day, including agnosticism, individualism, the aspirations of women, and life on the colonial frontier.   Yet, although she was a freethinker as opposed to a follower of mainstream Christianity, she always remained true to the spirit of the Christian Bible and developed a secular version of the worldview of her missionary parents, with mystical elements.  As such she connected with a wide spectrum of first-wave feminists.

For the women’s movement, Olive Schreiner’s collection of short allegories, published in 1890, entitled Dreams, were of great import.  Drawing on the South African landscape, these were often full of biblical images and the visualising of a new world.  For, as she expressed it:

I dreamed a dream.  I dreamed I saw a land.  And on the hills walked brave women and brave men, hand in hand.  And they looked into each other’s eyes, and they were not afraid.  And I saw the women also hold each others hands.  And I said to him beside me, ‘What place is this?’  And he said, ‘This is heaven.’  And I said, ‘Where is it?’  And he answered, ‘On earth.’  And I said, ‘When shall these things be?’  And he answered, ‘In the future’. 

Such writings were frequently read and discussed at suffrage meetings and Schreiner was 9781314274417_p0_v1_s260x420held in great esteem across the movement, and in Co-operative and labour circles (cf. J.K.Jerome, who said, in The Vote 2 Jan 1914, that she, with Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, was one of the three women who had influenced him most).  The most telling reflection of her importance was given by Constance Lytton, recalling a reading of Three Dreams in a Desert by WFL suffragettes in Holloway prison one evening (the inspiration for this blog – see the page ‘why Making a Track’).  No longer an allegory at that moment:

The words hit out a bare literal description of the pilgrimage of women.  It fell on our ears more like an ABC railway guide to our journey than a figurative parable… We dispersed and went back to our hard beds, to the thought of our homes… to the groans and cries of organised women – content.  (Prisons and Prisoners, pp. 156-7)

Schreiner’s writing was of its time and encapsulated many of the cultural contradictions and tensions faced by feminists.  Rebecca West for instance, never afraid to criticise m1nvuLAR31TWUEfxn6xFg6Qmuddled feminist thinking, observed (in The Freewoman 12 October 1912) that Schreiner’s philosophy tended towards a ‘so simple’ attitude and ‘the most undiscriminating asceticism’.  For West, not gainsaking its appeal, Three Dreams in a Desert portrayed an ‘extremely depressing career of Woman… giving their souls up to pain’, and surrendering their personality rather than exploring a more inquiring morality.  Certainly there were ambiguous values in Olive Schreiner’s work and she wrote in a taut, constrained manner.  Yet, as more recent critics such as Laura Chrisman have pointed out, this is consequent on the tight restraints and ambiguities of the culture in which she lived. Edward Carpenter similarly pointed out how realistic Olive Schreiner was:

in her consciousness of the sufferings of Woman the iron has entered her soul.  If she had only be content – like some of the wilder spirits of the movement – to unload on men the vials of her wrath, and to saddle on mankind alone the responsibility for these sufferings, her strain in the cause would have had more delight of battle in it.  But she was too large-minded not to see that if there is to be any blame in such a matter, the blame must be accepted by Woman herself just as much as Man.  (My Days and Dreams, pp.230-1)


God of Holy Dreaming,
we give thanks for Olive Schreiner,
and for all prophets, poets and writers of your new world.
Grant to us a similar spirit of inquiry and imagination,
courage and commitment,
that we too can help inspire one another
to work for the realisation of your true common-wealth,
in which we may walk together hand in hand and not be afraid.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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daring to ask for women’s ordination – Ursula Roberts

Some things, such as sexuality and women’s ordination, were steered clear of by most first-wave Christian feminists.  Even when they supported changes, most held back, in the interests of nurturing more conservative support for issues which were more ‘practical politics’ at the time.  Yet without pioneers prepared to rock the boat Feminismradicalnotion-pinkthere is no progress… 

Ursula Roberts (1887-1971) was born at Meerut in India, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel R J H Wyllie and Emily Titcomb. She broke from her conservative background however and, though she married the Revd. William Corbett Roberts in 1909, she was the not the typical clergy wife of the period.  W.C.Roberts himself was a radical priest, suffragist, pacifist and socialist.  As she related herself with amusement,  when her husband was Rector of Crick, she shocked many people by going hatless, and worse, selling copies of suffrage newspapers in the streets of Rugby.  More seriously, she was a successful poet and writer, pacifist and feminist.

As an active Christian feminist, Ursula Roberts was certainly a committed suffragist.  The Honorary Treasurer and Honorary Press Secretary of the East Midland Federation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, she was also a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, for whom she wrote The Cause of  Purity and Women’s Suffrage, published in 1912, which taking a tough-minded look at prostitution, confronted low wages and child abuse.

Ursula was also highly active in the peace movement throughout her life.  In the 1920s and 1930s, as part of the Adelphi magazine’s literary circle, she became part of the anti-war cards_warisnothealthy_detailmovement of intellectuals, and maintained her peacemaking commitment during the Cold War when intellectual involvement faded.  Indeed, even in late age, in the 1960s she was a strong supporter of the campaign for nuclear disarmament.  Her social insights showed through in many of her later publications, written under the nom de plume of Susan Miles.  Widely published in many journals and volumes, among her books for example,  was the novel, Lettice Delmer, written in verse.  Published in 1958 when she was already in her seventies, Lettice Delmer tackled illegitimacy, abortion and venereal disease, latent homosexuality, and a stern Christianity.  As a recent review for Persephone Books put it:

To do all of this, and in verse requires a most particular gift, and courage. Susan Miles had both, and the ability to tell a good story. Unexpectedly – no escaping the fact that blank verse may not be immediately attractive to every Persephone reader – Lettice Delmer is a page-turner, so sad that we might sometimes wish we hadn’t turned the page,  but a true page-turner, and the verse form, again unexpectedly, contributes to this…

It was also an expression of her own journey.  For, as the same reviewer put it:

Susan Miles places a cast of complex characters, a large cast for such a short novel, against a background of social upheaval, a new world in which class boundaries are shifting, expectations changing, for which a comfortable and cosseted upbringing may not be the best preparation.

Above all, Ursula Roberts showed her commitment to constructive change in her work for the ordination of women in the Anglican Church.  Calls for this gradually emerged as 1788560women gained more confidence and reflected on women’s roles in all parts of society.  It seems to have begun to have taken concrete form however in early 1913, with a circular letter from Ursula Roberts to leading Church feminists proposing a small society for the study of the question.   Of her 150 or so approaches, she met with thirty or forty favourable replies (cf. the representative sample in Women in the Church, Autograph Collection, (Fawcett) Women’s Library, London).  The characteristic grounds of opposition were all expressed: there was no precedent in dominical or apostolic tradition; the Church of England could/should note take unilateral action; the time was not ‘ripe’.  Even Maude Royden was wary:

Experience has shown me, what no doubt it has proved even more abundantly to you! – that there is no subject which puts people into such a fever and alarm as this one.  The vote is nothing to it!

Due to the war, and such cautious well-wishing, Roberts’ proposal for a conference and a society was not realised until 1917.  Yet it was logical and integral step in the view of many contemporary Christian feminists.  As Gertrude Francis commented approvingly in reply, it was really important that such a movement should come:

from within the Church.  The awakening as it were of the soul of the Church, to a great reality… which could heal some of the overstrained relations which the women’s movement has caused to come to the forefront.

It might thus:

do much to make many women understand better the spiritual impulses underlying this movement of which they are so dimly and so vaguely half-awake…
(for) the limitations within the Church, its lack of vision regarding the present great movements and the very issue involved – all this is very real to us women who are trying to keep a hold on our faith.

The Church League, renamed the League of the Church Militant, did, in April 1919, adopt challenging ‘the custom of the Church of confining the priesthood to men’.  Yet it lost WomenPreach2support in doing so: a signal of the end of the first-wave Christian feminist consensus.  For her part, Ursula Roberts subsequently became one of the key members of the Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women after a call for evidence on women and the ministry in the run up to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in 1930. She was also a member of the interdenominational Society for the Ministry of Women in the Church.  Such work did not lead to the ordination of women in her own lifetime, but considerable advance was made in preaching and recognition and support of deaconesses, whilst the gauntlet had finally been laid down for others to take up.

For more information on Ursula Roberts/Susan Miles, check out the Women’s Library records and Online Archive of California


God of new beginnings,
we give thanks for Ursula Roberts,
and for all who have been pioneers in promoting women’s issues in church and world.
Strengthen we pray all who write and work for peace and equality today.
Give courage to those who break new ground for justice,
and help us sow the seeds of love for others to water.
Through the Holy Spirit who creates new life in the depths of the womb, Amen.

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overcoming ‘the sin of self-sacrifice’ – Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

Ever been told that you need to be less concerned for your own issues, more patient and gentle or that your call for justice or freedom needs to be subsumed beneath ‘unity’ and  ‘peace’?  Join the long line of others in history…

Until October 1912, Emmeline_Pethick-Lawrencewhen she was excluded over tactics, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) was the third element in the ‘Triumvirate’ leadership of the WSPU, alongside Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.  With the support of her husband Fred, she indeed personally contributed a great fortune to the WSPU coffers, was a very effective Treasurer, and an able editor of Votes for Women, as well as being imprisoned several times.  She was also one of the most eloquent speakers in the entire women’s movement.  Her history and words thus illuminate the suffragette spirit.

For Emmeline’s story reflects the path of many women of her day, moving from one form of evangelical mission to another.  Like many others, she started her public career in Christian social work, as a ‘Sister of the People’ at the West London Mission and then establishing her own Esperance Girls Club.  Her change of attitude, which she saw as a ‘conversion’, was related in her article ‘Why I am in Prison’ (in Votes for Women, 12 March 1909).  As a child at school, she said, she had been moved by George Eliot’s story of poor Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede.  She had thus been:

moved by that instinct for chivalry which belongs essentially to the childhood of the individual and the race.  I made a passionate resolve that when I grew up I would put myself between the helpless and the wronged and the wicked and the cruel world.

Her experience had left her increasingly overwhelmed however, until Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney’s first militancy.  Then:

Gone for ever was the last vestige of the child’s idea.  To stand between ‘Hetty Sorrel’ and the cruel world… was inadequate now… For you cannot save women one by one from an evil fate.  You must put into the hand of woman the power to break the bonds that hold her down. 

This ‘conversion’ she saw guided by a greater hand:

I went to prison because the power that has shaped my whole life has led me there step by step… I went to prison because… for every new emancipation of the human race, for every possession of truth, a great price has to be paid.

Women therefore, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence asserted, were, through the women’s movement, overcoming the ‘sin of self-sacrifice’ to which they were so prone.  As she stc321049reflected in her pamphlet The Sin of Self-Sacrifice, efforts were always being made to break up the movement by appealing to women’s spirit of self-sacrifice.  There was always something which, it was urged, had to come first, such as the unity or welfare of this or that group to which many women belonged.  Such self-sacrifice could then become a ‘suicidal vice’.  Instead, in the somewhat high-flown language to which she was sometimes prone, the women’s movement:

means the release into the world of a new Soul – the Soul of women hitherto held in subjection and captivity…  The Woman’s Movement means a new religion, or rather a return to its source – to the sacred Altar of the hearth; to the fount of birth and being.  It means the beginning of a new morality, especially of that morality between women and men hitherto determined by the immediate convenience and interest of one sex only.  (‘What the Vote mean to those who are fighting the battle’ Votes for Women Jan 1908)

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence’s insight into ‘self-sacrific10.21 pethick-lawrencee’ has been one which women and supportive men have had to learn again and again, not least when feminism has been out aside for ‘higher causes’.   During the first world war, she herself refused to put this aside. She also worked with others on peace-making, notably being present at the Women’s Peace Congress in the Hague in 1915, and later helping to found the Women’s Peace Party and the long-lasting Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) which is still active today.


Source of true unity and compassion,
We give thanks for Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence
and for all who have sought to cultivate a proper sense of self-sacrifice.
Help us distinguish between what is self-regarding
and what is a refusal to act and give of our true self.
Enable us to seek genuine unity, based on mutual love and respect,
and lead us towards a realisation of your Spirit in us.
In the name of Jesus who gave himself as a true sacrifice for our redemption, Amen.

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the girl who slew the dragon – Christabel Pankhurst

A prominent feature of first-wave feminism was its spectacle, once itspectacle of women1 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 daughtsuffragette1er 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 NPG x45194; Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence; Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Unknown photographersuffragette 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 suffraget315234f77e06c58db60e12adebc349c3003b2d0175470b9e6fd9448f9f1eb58ates 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.

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salvos of the spirit – Emmeline Pankhurst

Sometimes a circuit breaker is needed to change the course of history, even in a great movement full of an immense variety of courage, intelligence and virtues.  For the women’s suffrage movement, such a catalyst was Emmeline Pankhurst.  If the ‘suffragette myth’ has sometimes been overblown, not for nothing did Time magazine name her as one of the ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century’…

Emmeline_Pankhurst2It is not always that radical thought is effectively aligned with dynamic organisation.  This was the greatest achievement of Emmeline Pankhurst nee Goulden (1858 -1928).  Although her parents did not give her the same educational opportunities as her brothers, her family had been politically active for generations, and as a child she was therefore introduced to a variety of campaigns, including anti-slavery and women’s suffrage.  Notably, her mother received and read the Women’s Suffrage Journal, and Emmeline grew fond of its editor, Lydia Becker.  At the age of 14, she returned home from school one day to find her mother on her way to a public meeting about women’s voting rights. After learning that Becker would be speaking, she insisted on attending. She was enthralled and wrote later: ‘I left the meeting a conscious and confirmed suffragist.’  In 1878, she then married Richard Pankhurst, twenty four years her senior, who was a supporter of women’s rights as well as other radical issues.  Until his death in 1898, they worked together supportively, linked closely to a network of radicals both in Britain and overseas. 

Emmeline Pankhurst’s genius was to create new forms of strategy, organisation, and tactics.  In 1889 for instance, she helped create the Women’s Franchise League, which not only broke with the old patterns of allegiance to parties but was dedicated to voting rights for all women, both married and unmarried.  It also worked on a far wider range of women’s issues, supporting equal rights for women in divorce and inheritance, advocating trade unionism and making links with emerging socialists.  For, although Emmeline also began political work with the Women’s Liberal Federation, she quickly became  disenchanted with its conservatism and eventually joined the Independent Labour Party.  She also worked as Poor Law Guardian, appalled by the conditions she witnessed first-hand in the Manchester workhouse.  As she later wrote in her autobiography Unshackled:

The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years old on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors … bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time … I found that there were pregnant women in that workhouse, scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their babies came into the world … Of course the babies are very badly protected … These poor, unprotected mothers and their babies I am sure were potent factors in my education as a militant.

With the death of her husband, she was given a paid position as Registrar of Births and Deaths in Chorlton, which provided more insight into the conditions of poor women:

They used to tell me their stories, dreadful stories some of them, and all of them pathetic with that patient and uncomplaining pathos of poverty.

Similarly, in 1900, she was elected to the Manchester School Board and saw new examples Social History. London, England 13th February 1908. Emily Pankhurst, a member of the Suffragette movement, is arrested by police officiers.of women suffering unequal treatment and limited opportunities.  All of this gave further fuel to the need for a new political way forward and, in 1903, this came about with the launch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).  A long succession of suffrage bills had been presented, talked out or defeated.  All means of ‘constitutional’ agitation had been tried and consequently new, militant, means were needed.    As Emmeline once put it:

The condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do.

Deeds, she wrote, not words, was to be our permanent motto.

The group’s early militancy was non-violent and effective in gaining publicity.  Gradually however, this was heightened in new ways in the light of continued Parliamentary resistance, heavy policing and the constant need for media attention.  Emmeline’s daughter Christabel’s arrest after spitting at a policeman during a meeting of the Liberal Party in October 1905 was a key turning point.  Emmeline herself was arrested for the first time in February 1908, when she tried to enter Parliament to deliver a protest resolution to Prime Minister Asquith.  She was then arrested six more times before women’s suffrage was approved.  For arrest and prison had become a new tactic.  As she told the court during her trial on 21 October 1908:

We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.

By its militancy the WSPU gained recognition for the women’s movement as a whole. Yet it came at a cost.  For the WSPU’s single-minded focus on the vote and its autocratic structure was not to everyone’s taste.   Emmeline Pankhurst dismissed such criticism directly:

if at any time a member, or a group of members, loses faith in our policy; if any one begins to suggest that some other policy ought to be substituted, or if she tries to confuse the issue by adding other policies, she ceases at once to be a member. Autocratic? Quite so. But, you may object, a suffrage organisation ought to be democratic. Well the members of the WSPU. do not agree with you. We do not believe in the effectiveness of the ordinary suffrage organisation. The WSPU. is not hampered by a complexity of rules. We have no constitution and by-laws; nothing to be amended or tinkered with or quarrelled over at an annual meeting…  The WSPU. is simply a suffrage army in the field.  (in her autobiography, 1914)

In this sense, the WSPU was thus like the Salvation Army, but with a different focus.  Indeed it directly borrowed some of the Salvation Army’s tactics, such as recruiting at fairgrounds, as well as ethos and leadership approach.

In 1909 the WSPU began hunger strikes as part of its strategy.   The response was gruesome, as prison authorities frequently force-fed the women, using tubes inserted through the nose or mouth often requiring steel gags.   When, in 1910, another, narrowly defined, (Conciliation) Bill for women’s suffrage was defeated, Emmeline Pankhurst led a cat and mouse act1protest march of of 300 women to Parliament Square on what became known as Black Friday.  The women met with aggressive police responses, directed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill.  Officers punched the marchers, twisted arms, and pulled on women’s breasts.  Two women died, one of whom was Emmeline Pankhurt’s own sister.  It was thus an example which, together with political stalemate, enflamed militancy further.   The government responded with equal severity, including the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which, to avoid public horror at possible deaths, allowed releases for  suffragettes facing ill-health due to hunger strikes, subject always to recall.

The cost of the struggle to Emmeline Pankhurst herself was immense.  Apart from the suffering of herself and others in prison and force-feeding and with constant harassment outside of prison, her relationships came under strain.  As the WSPU began to condone property destruction, several important colleagues, notably the Pethick-Lawrences  objected to the tactics and were cast aside.  Such figures also included Emmeline’s two younger daughters Sylvia Pankhurst and Adele Pankhurst: the first of whom, despite her remarkable suffrage and socialist work in east London, became largely estranged; the second of whom left for Australia never to see her mother again.  Perhaps, as Mary Stocks later commented, the outbreak of the first world war may have saved the WSPU and Emmeline from an ‘ignominious end.  It had shot its bolt’.   Yet, as she also remarked, ‘what an effective bolt it had been!’

Ironically, for someone raised on the left of politics, in later life Emmeline became a conservative.  This began with the first world war where she ended WSPU activity in order to serve the greater purposes of the nation in opposing what she called ‘the German Peril’.  She urged women to aid industrial production and encouraged young men to fight, becoming a prominent figure in the White Feather movement.  This was much to pacifist suffragists’ chagrin, although arguably such support may thereby have further strengthened conservative support for women’s suffrage.  After the war her conservative  trajectory continued however, as she became a strong anti-communist and imperialist, and even a Conservative party candidate in the late 1920s.  A complex character therefore, but always a fearsome advocate of what she believed, Emmeline Pankhurst made a formidable contribution to the advance of women.   Little wonder, in 2002, she was placed at number 27 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.


God of Salvation,
we give thanks for the life and work of Emmeline Pankhurst
and for all who have given leadership to the women’s movement.
Grant that we may develop similar insight, personal strength and skills of organisation,
to enable the good of all.
In the name of the Suffering Servant, who laid down his life for others, Amen.

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