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An outstanding account of a major British suffragist

Christabel Pankhurst: A Biography - June Purvis

The Pankhurst family is indelibly associated with the British suffragist movement, thanks in no small part to their tireless activism on behalf of women's rights. Yet while the matriarch Emmeline is commemorated with a statue at Westminster and her second daughter Sylvia has been the focus of numerous printed works (including her own 1931 book The Suffragette Movement) Emmeline's eldest daughter Christabel has not received the same degree of recognition for her efforts. Part of the reason for this, as June Purvis explains in her superb biography of the orator and activist, is because of the sibling rivalry that existed between the two sisters and the role that Sylvia's history-cum-memoir played in shaping our perception of their roles in the suffrage movement -- a role that has overshadowed the vital role Christabel played in winning British women the right to vote.

 

In many ways Christabel's activism was a product of her upbringing. A barrister and activist, Richard raised his children to advocate for social and political reform. Even before completing university Christabel was doing just that, as she joined with her mother in forming the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Breaking away from the mannered and respectable agitation of older women's rights organizations, the WSPU disrupted speeches, vandalized property, and engaged in hunger strikes and other activities in prison to promote their cause.  Christabel was a leading figure of this effort, thanks to her abilities as an orator and her commitment to her cause.

 

Exiled to France in 1912, Christabel returned to Britain with the start of the First World War. Unlike her pacifist sisters she joined with her mother in championing the war effort, renaming the WSPU's newspaper Britannia and calling for a more vigorous prosecution of the conflict. Though her conviction that such efforts would be rewarded with the vote were partially vindicated in 1918, she shared the despair many of her contemporaries felt at the loss of so many lives, A chance encounter in a bookstore led Christabel to embrace the Second Adventist movement, and in the early 1920s she moved to Los Angeles, where she spent her later years as a preacher and author of religious books.

 

Exhaustively researched and well-written, Purvis's book is a model of what a biography should be. Her efforts serve to rehabilitate Christabel's image from the diminishment of it that her sister and other scholars have so often unjustly inflicted. It is a book that everyone interested in the suffrage movement should read, both for its celebration of Christabel's achievements and the insight it provides into how she and other activists fought for and won the right for millions of women to be heard.