a Conservative suffragette?
A biographical approach to the writing of history can help us elucidate some of the
issues involved when ‘rewriting’ right-wing women, and offer us a way to understand
the complexities and apparent paradoxes of the human personality, as well as the
process of writing history. The suffragette ChristabelPankhurst (1880–1958) is a
case in point. In her suffrage heyday, she was regarded as a charismatic, radical figure
who, with her mother Emmeline Pankhurst, was the co-leader of the Women’s
Historians and political scientists have deemed the twentieth century 'the Conservative Century', owing to the electoral and cultural dominance of the Conservative Party in Britain. This book traces the relationship among women, gender and the Conservative Party from the 1880s to the present, and thereby seeks to fill that gap. A gender inclusive approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of political machinations, power and the unprecedented popularity of both conservatism and unionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, was regarded as a charismatic, radical figure, who was the co-leader of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a notorious suffrage organization campaigning for the parliamentary vote for women in Edwardian Britain. In 1928 Lady Iveagh, Vice-Chairman of the National Union of Conservative Associations (NUCA), claimed that one million women were members of the Conservative Party. The book focuses on how the Primrose League re-made itself for its female members between 1914 and 1932. It shows that the Conservative Party leadership and male candidates were keen to present themselves as the champions of home interests, playing up their family-man credentials against their rowdy electoral culture of Labour. The book also examines inquires how the deliberate choice of middlebrow rhetoric as well as the language of citizenship enabled Conservative women to construct a cross-class language of democracy. It explores British conservatism, highlighting the history of the Tory Party as part of the study of women and their sectional interest in 'the politics of gender'.
Gore Booth: An image of such politics
11 British Census 1901, RG13, Piece 3748, Folio 131, p. 8.
12 ChristabelPankhurst, Unshackled, pp. 51–2.
13 The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University, box 7: TBG,
Teresa Billington-Greig papers, undated holograph notes.
15 Manchester Central Library, M50/2/1/225, Fawcett Manuscripts, letter
from Margaret Ashton to Millicent Fawcett, 16 January 1906.
16 Daily Mail (10 January 1906).
17 For further discussion see: Sonja Tiernan, ‘Tabloid Sensationalism or
Revolutionary Feminism? The First-wave Feminist Movement
‘At eventide there will be light’:
June 1906–March 19181
Disputes and schisms
Though Elizabeth privately lamented the loss of her husband she seldom
reflected on their lives together in her correspondence after 1906. As
always, she resolutely overcame distress and looked to the future. Ben’s
death afforded her a chance to travel more widely and to ‘make holiday’
– though journeys often combined work with pleasure.2 One such trip
was made to Manchester on 30 June 1906 to witness ChristabelPankhurst’s graduation as a Bachelor of Law at the Whitworth Hall. She
Muriel boarded the passenger ship Persic – and set sail for London.
Twenty-eight-year-old Muriel disembarked on 6 October 1906. It was a
timely arrival. Just a week later, ChristabelPankhurst and Annie Kenney stood
up in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall and demanded: when will the Liberal
government give votes for women? Newspaper headlines followed. ‘Within six
weeks of my landing’, she recalled, ‘I was attending meetings in Caxton Hall,
drinking in all your rebellious sentiments’. Moreover, she brought with her
an introduction to the ‘anarchist prince’ Kropotkin, who
special committee meeting in Manchester. Though not present at
the meeting, Elizabeth had sent Esther Roper ‘a long letter of suggestions’
for discussion, for, as she noted to McIlquham, ‘It is a fatal mistake not
actively to encourage these young, ardent souls.’ Theirs was the future
triumph.68 One likely attendee, though, was twenty-one-year-old law
student ChristabelPankhurst, who had joined the North of England
Society in 1901 after forming a friendship with Roper and Eva GoreBooth. Roper had encouraged Christabel, both to attend at Owen’s
College and to join in
Women . . . will never know how much they owe to her
exceptional cache of letters lodged by Mary
McIlquham in the British Museum. Mary had made a conscious decision
not to inform ChristabelPankhurst of the whereabouts of the letters in
1914, obviously fearful of the archive’s disappearance or fragmentation.8
There is just a hint that Elizabeth herself wished for their return around
this time, but we must be grateful that McIlquham relied on a possible
lapse of memory to hope that a request to copy the material be forgotten.9 Frances Rowe considered the letters ‘relics’ to ‘reverence’ and that
‘true sacredness’ lay in the
because for her the issue of women’s suffrage and emancipation had to be seen
in class terms, she disagreed with her mother and sister over the question of who
should be enfranchised.
It became increasingly clear that, for Emmeline and ChristabelPankhurst (and
for some of the leadership of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies
(NUWSS)), it was enfranchisement of more privileged and educated women
that was the priority, and maybe even the only ultimate objective. In part, this
can be seen as an endorsement of the gradualist, inch-by-inch strategy: one step
she served, and
the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). She was not, as pictures of the
1900s show, a quaint elderly lady, but bitterly determined: and her time
and talents were given to the WSPU in part because she perceived, in the
organisation’s feisty chief strategist, ChristabelPankhurst, a ‘force and
originality’ that mirrored her own.10 The younger woman respected her
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judgement and held her articulation of feminist ideals in high regard.
For instance, when Miss Pankhurst argued that one of the principle
be false to the promises they had made, after which the mere mention of Women’s
Suffrage in the House of Commons was greeted with coarse and ribald jests by
members of Parliament.
The W.S.P.U., founded by Mrs. Pankhurst12 in 1903, pursued constitutional
methods of agitation, and on October 13, 1905, when Sir Edward Grey13 addresses
a great Liberal meeting at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, Miss ChristabelPankhurst L.L.B.14 and Miss Annie Kenney,15 a Trade Union Leader from Oldham
Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), a judge and important legal writer.
A footnote by