An Unboxed blog from Yaiza Canopoli, undergraduate of the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing.
Christabel Pankhurst was born into a family of fighters for women’s rights. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, was the leader of the suffragette movement, and she taught her daughter from early on to fight for her rights. Christabel wrote many letters to fellow suffragettes after 1918, asking for opinions on their legacy and treatment and voicing her own; two particularly interesting letters are addressed to Annie Kenney, with whom she maintained a strong friendship long after the suffragette movement had quieted down and the two world wars were over. The letters are held at the University of East Anglia’s Archives as part of the Kenney Papers.
In a letter from January 1949, Christabel commemorates the death of Flora Drummond, nicknamed ‘the General’ for her habit of leading marches for women’s rights wearing a military uniform. This woman had been a grand figure in the movement, and her death caused sorrow for a lot of women who had been involved at the time.
The idea that the movement is over, that ‘[a] chapter has closed’, and that there is nothing more to be done, seems to be a recurring thought in Christabel’s letters. In 1946 she writes
[t]he vote is ours, and that is what matters,
and then in 1949 she repeats herself, adding that:
it is for the younger women to use it wisely
This is in response to multiple requests for publications focusing on the suffragette movement; in 1946 she was asked to participate in the making of a movie recounting the women’s struggle for the vote, and then in 1949 a similar request was put forward regarding the writing of a book. In both cases, she refused to take part, saying that with the world in such a fragile state as it was left in after the Second World War, showing the way the British government had responded to the women’s rights movement would only put more pressure on Britain and create further tensions:
for foreigners who see the film may get an erroneous impression of what England is today and judge her present case by that blotted page in our history
This awareness of more than just women’s rights is very present throughout most of the suffragettes’ correspondence with one another. When the First World War broke out, the suffragette movement was put on hold to help the government with this international struggle, and even after both wars were over, the women who had been part of the movement were still careful about putting the national and international situation before their own fight. Another example of this is a book that Christabel had written before these requests were voiced; she had already put it in the hands of a publisher when she decided to call off the deal because of the upcoming Second World War.
Ultimately, both letters are about war and memory. As much as they talk about writing books and making movies, the theme of the two world wars is present throughout the correspondence, and the weight these experiences have put on Christabel is palpable. The suffragettes fought for their own rights, but first and foremost they fought for equality and freedom, and the wars of the 20th Century brought these two concepts to their limits, uniting the militant women and the government in what was ultimately a fight for human rights.
The letters exchanged between Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney can be accessed at UEA, alongside other fascinating correspondence between various suffragettes.
[KP/AK/1-2: correspondence with Christabel Pankhurst. Letter from 25/01/1949 + letter from 19/11/1946]
Kenney Papers at UEA Archives
How to access the Archives at UEA: https://portal.uea.ac.uk/library/archives