Spartacus Blog

Why did Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst join the Conservative Party?

On 6th March, 1930, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst was unveiled by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, at the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens, close to the Houses of Parliament. In 1958 the statue was moved from its original position in the south of the gardens to a new site further north, and a profile bust of Christabel Pankhurst, was added to the memorial. However, it recently emerged that over the years the House of Lords have repeatedly blocked proposals for a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst to be placed in the gardens.

Why is it that two women who were described as "terrorists" by newspapers in the period leading up to the First World War are honoured in this way, while, Sylvia, who resigned from the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) because she disagreed with its campaign of violence, is missing? The answer is that Emmeline and Christabel sold out their principles while Sylvia retained her commitment to improve the quality of life of her fellow citizens.

Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst's proposed statue

Emmeline Goulden was not very interested in politics until she met and married Richard Pankhurst. A committed socialist, Richard was also a strong advocate of women's suffrage. Richard had been responsible for drafting an amendment to the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 that had resulted in unmarried women householders being allowed to vote in local elections. Richard had served on the Married Women's Property Committee (1868-1870) and was the main person responsible for the drafting of the women's property bill that was passed by Parliament in 1870.

Emmeline had four children in the first six years of marriage: Christabel (1880), Sylvia (1882), Frank (1884) and Adela (1885). In 1886 the family moved to London where their home in Russell Square became a centre for gatherings of socialists and suffragists. They were also both members of the Fabian Society. At a young age, their children were encouraged to attend these meetings. This had a major impact on their political views.

In 1889 Richard and Emmeline helped form the pressure group, the Women's Franchise League. The organisation's main objective was to secure the vote for women in local elections. In 1893 they returned to Manchester where they formed a branch of the new Independent Labour Party (ILP). In the 1895 General Election, Pankhurst stood as the ILP candidate for Gorton, an industrial suburb of the city, but was defeated.

Richard Pankhurst made several unsuccessful attempts to be elected to the House of Commons but his political career came to an end when he died of a perforated ulcer in 1898. Without her husband's income, Emmeline had to sell their home and move to a cheaper residence. She was also forced to accept the post of registrar of births and deaths.

Emmeline had been a member of National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) for many years. It has been claimed that by the beginning of the 20th century it had over 600 societies and an estimated 100,000 members. Emmeline gradually grew disillusioned with the NUWSS and in 1903 she joined forces with her three daughters, to establish the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).

The main objective of the WSPU was to gain, not universal suffrage, the vote for all women and men over a certain age, but votes for women, "on the same basis as men." This meant winning the vote not for all women but for only the small stratum of women who could meet the property qualification. As one critic claimed, it was "not votes for women", but “votes for ladies.”

The Labour Party refused to support the WSPU as it was policy to campaign for universal suffrage. It was pointed out that in 1903 only a third of men had the vote in parliamentary elections. John Bruce Glasier, a leading figure in the party, recorded in his diary after a meeting with Emmeline and Christabel, that they were guilty of "miserable individualist sexism" and that he was strongly against supporting the organisation.

On the 16th December 1904 The Clarion published a letter from Ada Nield Chew, a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party, attacking WSPU policy: "The entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still, and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into Parliament."

The following month Christabel Pankhurst replied to the points that Ada Nield Chew made: "Some of us are not at all so confident as is Mrs Chew of the average middle class man's anxiety to confer votes upon his female relatives." A week later Ada Nield Chew retorted that she still rejected the policies in favour of "the abolition of all existing anomalies... which would enable a man or woman to vote simply because they are man or woman, not because they are more fortunate financially than their fellow men and women".

Ada Nield's background was very different from that of Emmeline Pankhust. She was the second child in a family of thirteen of William Nield, brickmaker, and his wife, Jane Hammond Nield. Ada was taken from school at the age of eleven to help look after the family, especially her younger sister May, who was an epileptic. As the authors of One Hand Tied Behind Us (1978) have pointed out: "She had to leave school at eleven and take on the heavy responsibility of looking after her seven younger brothers, combining this with various odd jobs."

In 1907 some leading members of the WSPU began to question the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. They also felt that a small group of wealthy women were having too much influence over the organisation.

At a conference in September 1907, Emmeline Pankhurst told members that she intended to run the WSPU without interference. As Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence pointed out: "She called upon those who had faith in her leadership to follow her, and to devote themselves to the sole end of winning the vote. This announcement was met with a dignified protest from Mrs. Despard. These two notable women presented a great contrast, the one aflame with a single idea that had taken complete possession of her, the other upheld by a principle that had actuated a long life spent in the service of the people. Mrs. Despard calmly affirmed her belief in democratic equality and was convinced that it must be maintained at all costs. Mrs. Pankhurst claimed that there was only one meaning to democracy, and that was equal citizenship in a State, which could only be attained by inspired leadership. She challenged all who did not accept the leadership of herself and her daughter to resign from the Union that she had founded, and to form an organisation of their own."

As a result of this speech, Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Anne Cobden Sanderson, Margaret Nevinson and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL). Like the WSPU, the WFL was a militant organisation that was willing the break the law. As a result, over 100 of their members were sent to prison after being arrested on demonstrations or refusing to pay taxes. However, members of the WFL was a completely non-violent organisation and opposed the WSPU campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. The WFL were especially critical of the WSPU arson campaign. The WFL soon had a membership of 4,000 people, twice the size of the WSPU.

Sylvia Pankhurst became concerned about the increase in the violence used by the WSPU. This view was shared by her younger sister, Adela Pankhurst. She later told fellow member, Helen Fraser: "I knew all too well that after 1910 we were rapidly losing ground. I even tried to tell Christabel this was the case, but unfortunately she took it amiss." Sylvia was unhappy that the WSPU had abandoned its earlier commitment to socialism and disagreed with the WSPU's attempts to gain middle class support by arguing in favour of a limited franchise. After arguing with her mother about this issue she left the WSPU.

In 1913, Sylvia Pankhurst, with the help of Keir Hardie, Julia Scurr, Mary Phillips, Millie Lansbury, Eveline Haverfield, Maud Joachim, Lilian Dove-Wilcox, Jessie Stephen, Nellie Cressall and George Lansbury, established the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF). An organisation that combined socialism with a demand for women's suffrage, it worked closely with the Independent Labour Party. Pankhurst also began production of a weekly paper for working-class women called The Women's Dreadnought.

As June Hannam has pointed out: "The ELF was successful in gaining support from working women and also from dock workers. The ELF organized suffrage demonstrations and its members carried out acts of militancy. Between February 1913 and August 1914 Sylvia was arrested eight times. After the passing of the Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act of 1913 (known as the Cat and Mouse Act) she was frequently released for short periods to recuperate from hunger striking and was carried on a stretcher by supporters in the East End so that she could attend meetings and processions. When the police came to re-arrest her this usually led to fights with members of the community which encouraged Sylvia to organize a people's army to defend suffragettes and dock workers. She also drew on East End traditions by calling for rent strikes to support the demand for the vote."

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."

Annie Kenney reported that orders came from Christabel Pankhurst: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Kenney later wrote: "Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war."

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

Most members of the suffrage movement rejected the logic of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Ada Nield Chew pointed out: "The militant section of the movement... would without doubt place itself in the trenches quite cheerfully, if allowed. It is now ... demanding, with all its usual pomp and circumstance of banner and procession, its share in the war. This is an entirely logical attitude and strictly in line with its attitude before the war. It always glorified the power of the primitive knock on the nose in preference to the more humane appeal to reason.... What of the others? The non-militants - so-called - though bitterly repudiating militancy for women, are as ardent in their support of militancy for men as their more consistent and logical militant sisters."

Sylvia Pankhurst was a pacifist and disagreed with the WSPU's strong support for the war. In 1915 she joined with Charlotte Despard, Helena Swanwick, Olive Schreiner, Helen Crawfurd, Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Chrystal Macmillan to form the Women's Peace Army, an organisation that demanded a negotiated peace.

In October 1915, the WSPU changed its newspaper's name from The Suffragette to Britannia. Emmeline's patriotic view of the war was reflected in the paper's new slogan: "For King, For Country, for Freedom'. In the newspaper anti-war activists such as Ramsay MacDonald were attacked as being "more German than the Germans". Another article on the Union of Democratic Control and Norman Angell carried the headline: "Norman Angell: Is He Working for Germany?" Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield were described as "Bolshevik women trade union leaders" and Arthur Henderson, who was in favour of a negotiated peace with Germany, was accused of being in the pay of the Central Powers.

On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities. Soon afterwards Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst established the The Women's Party. Its twelve-point programme included: (1) A fight to the finish with Germany. (2) More vigorous war measures to include drastic food rationing, more communal kitchens to reduce waste, and the closing down of nonessential industries to release labour for work on the land and in the factories. (3) A clean sweep of all officials of enemy blood or connections from Government departments. Stringent peace terms to include the dismemberment of the Hapsburg Empire." The party also supported: "equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, the same rights over children for both parents, equality of rights and opportunities in public service, and a system of maternity benefits." Christabel and Emmeline had now completely abandoned their earlier socialist beliefs and advocated policies such as the abolition of the trade unions.

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act the first opportunity for women to vote was in the General Election in December, 1918. Seventeen women candidates that stood in the post-war election. Christabel Pankhurst represented the The Women's Party in Smethwick. Despite the fact that the Conservative Party candidate agreed to stand down, she lost a straight fight with the representative of the Labour Party by 775 votes.

On 23rd February, 1918, the WSPU sent out a letter to all members on 23rd February, 1918: "Votes for Women has been won because the WSPU was blessed with marvellous leadership, which drew to itself loyal and enthusiastic followers... Under its new name of the Women's Party, the WSPU has now even greater work to do."

The NUWSS still advocated universal suffrage and therefore continued the fight under the new name, National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC). Eleanor Rathbone succeeded Millicent Fawcett as president of the new body. Later that year Rathbone persuaded the organization to accept a six point reform programme. (1) Equal pay for equal work, involving an open field for women in industry and the professions. (2) An equal standard of sex morals as between men and women, involving a reform of the existing divorce law which condoned adultery by the husband, as well as reform of the laws dealing with solicitation and prostitution. (3) The introduction of legislation to provide pensions for civilian widows with dependent children. (4) The equalization of the franchise and the return to Parliament of women candidates pledged to the equality programme. (5) The legal recognition of mothers as equal guardians with fathers of their children. (6) The opening of the legal profession and the magistracy to women.

Meanwhile, the former leaders of the WSPU, such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst, joined the Conservative Party. Others such as Mary Richardson and Mary Allen became active in the British Union of Fascists. None of these women showed any interest at all in getting the franchise for women still denied the vote.

It is therefore no surprise that the House of Lords were willing to give permission for the statutes of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst to be placed in Victoria Tower Gardens. Although they had been "terrorists" they were now members of the establishment.

Sylvia Pankhurst remained active in left-wing politics. After all women over 21 were given the vote in 1928, Sylvia campaigned on issues such as maternity pay, equal pay and improved childcare facilities. In the 1930s she supported the republicans in Spain, helped Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and led the campaign against the Italian occupation of Ethiopia.The British secret service had held a file on Sylvia Pankhurst since her early days in the suffrage movement. However as late as 1948 MI5 was considering various strategies for "muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst."

After her death in 1960 attempts were made to persuade Parliament to allow her statue to appear alongside that of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. This idea has been repeatedly been blocked. The Observer reported on 6th March, 2016, that the TUC and City of London Corporation are to launch a joint campaign to erect a statue of Sylvia on Clerkenwell Green in Islington in time for the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which first gave the vote to some women.

The City of London Corporation is providing a grant of £10,000 and has set the TUC the challenge of finding £70,000 to get the project off the ground. Megan Dobney, a founder member of the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee and a TUC official, said the Clerkenwell statue would constitute welcome recognition. “Sylvia would not have liked a memorial, but as a symbol of the unsung heroism of thousands of working-class women who fought for the franchise some kind of recognition is long overdue.”

John Simkin

Mikhail him.


(1) Paul Preston, We Saw Spain Die (2008) page 179

(2) Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian (4th October, 2008)

(3) Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography (1980) pages 326-27

(4) Workers' Opposition, statement (27th February, 1921)

(5) Isaac Deutscher, Stalin (1949) page 227

(6) Paul Preston, We Saw Spain Die (2008) page 193

(7) Claud Cockburn, A Discord of Trumpets (1956) page 304

(8) Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his Hangmen (2004) page 251

(9) Boris Efimov, interviewed on PBS (1999)

(10) Stephen Norris, Daily Telegraph (13th April, 2010)

(11) Tim Benson, Boris Efimov: Stalin's favourite cartoonist (2015)

(12) Mikhail Koltsov, The Man in Uniform (1933) pages 43-45

(13) Jonathan Haslam, The Soviet Union and the Struggle for Collective Security in Europe (1984) page 262

(14) Roman Karmen, No Pasaran! (1976) pages 272-278

(15) Douglas Martin, New York Times (4th October, 2008)

(16) Claud Cockburn, A Discord of Trumpets (1956) page 304

(17) Sefton Delmer, Trail Sinister (1961) page 387

(18) Kevin McNeer, Passport Magazine (June, 2009)

(19) Boris Efimov, interviewed on PBS (1999)

(20) Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian (4th October, 2008)

(21) Kevin McNeer, Passport Magazine (June, 2009)

(22) Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (1971) page 402

(23) Mikhail Koltsov, Pravda (19th December, 1937)

(24) Robert Conquest, The Great Terror (1990) page 63

(25) Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003) page 239

(26) Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his Hangmen (2004) page 251

(27) Marc Jansen, Stalin's Loyal Executioner (2002) page 185

(28) Paul Preston, We Saw Spain Die (2008) page 205

(29) Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his Hangmen (2004) pages 352-353

(30) Boris Efimov, interviewed on PBS (1999)

(31) Mark Bryant, World War II in Cartoons (1982) page 28

(32) Joseph Stalin, radio speech (June, 1941)

(33) Mark Bryant, World War II in Cartoons (1982) page 72

(34) Douglas Martin, New York Times (4th October, 2008)

(35) Boris Efimov, interviewed on PBS (1999)

(36) Kevin McNeer, Passport Magazine (June, 2009)

(37) Tim Benson, Boris Efimov: Stalin's favourite cartoonist (2015)

(38) Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian (4th October, 2008)

(39) Kevin McNeer, Passport Magazine (June, 2009)

(40) Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian (4th October, 2008)

(41) Douglas Martin, New York Times (4th October, 2008)

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