We’re celebrating Mother’s Day on the blog, and so I’m going to talk about my favorite historical mother daughter team that changed the world for women in England and inspired women in the United States: the original suffragettes, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.
The Pankhurst family in general was all about equality. Emmeline Goulden (1858-1928) was only 21 when she married Richard Pankhurst, a 44-year-old lawyer. Possessing a rebellious streak, Emmeline said she would have been happy to forego marriage and live with Richard instead. (This is something she must have forgotten when years later she disowned her second daughter, Sylvia, for living with a man instead of marrying.) Emmeline loved politics and was frustrated by the lack of career opportunities for women in 1878 England, but she found a kindred spirit in Richard. They had five children: Christabel, Sylvia, Frank (who died in infancy), Harry, and Adela. Emmeline and Richard fought tirelessly for women’s rights and the socialist movement, and after his death in 1898, she soldiered on with her daughter Christabel, founding the Women’s Social and Political Movement or WSPU. Two years after her death, a statue was put up in Victoria Tower Gardens near Parliament, where it still remains.
Although all Emmeline’s children were involved in the WSPU, Christabel was almost a facsimile of her mother. She was very pretty, very feminine, and had a leader’s way about her. Women would follow her anywhere and do anything for her. She even had a group of women who called themselves the Young Hot Bloods, carrying out her militant directives without question. Christabel had received a law degree from Manchester University but was unable to practice law because she was female. The Bar Council in England forbade women from using their law degrees until 1919 when the government made such exclusions illegal. Christabel directed most of the WSPU operations and was not a foot soldier. She only went to jail three times and fled the country to Paris in 1912 to escape a three-year sentence. She did return to England before World War I but only served a month of that sentence. She became very religious in her later life and moved to the US in 1921, dying in Los Angeles at seventy-one.
Both Christabel and Emmeline could be very demanding and unfaltering in their work. Emmeline often sacrificed her children’s happiness for the movement. They both agreed to cut ties with Sylvia who was spending more time fighting for the rights of working class women and the poor, and Adela who they accused of being useless to the movement, banishing her to Australia. But for all their faults, this mother daughter team did much to ignite the women’s movement, and I, for one, am truly grateful!