Christabel Pankhurst: Fundamentalism and Feminism in Coalition
Jeffrey McDonald, The Layman Online, many feminists invoke Christabel Pankhurst’s (1880-1958) name without realizing, or perhaps ignoring, the fact that she became a committed fundamentalist teacher and preacher.
Early in the book, author Timothy Larsen establishes Pankhurst’s feminist credentials – she was a founding member and chief strategist for the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.), the leading suffragette organization in England during the first two decades of the 20th century. Christabel’s mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, also was a famous feminst and served as the “titular” head of the W.S.P.U.
Larsen – who teaches historical theology at Wheaton College, is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and is the editor of the Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals – writes about how the W.S.P.U. fought vigorously for the right of women to vote, pursuing aggressive tactics of civil disobedience and vandalism in a effort to persuade British government officials that women be given the vote. They poured acid on golf courses, hurled rocks through government windows, and had old women register for guns in order to terrify authorities and win their civil rights. Larsen makes it clear that Christabel Pankhurst was one of the foremost feminist leaders and thinkers of the era, noting that she received a law degree with honors from Victoria University in Manchester in 1906. She used her excellent legal skills to defend herself in court when imprisoned for feminist agitation.
In 1912, because of government persecution, Pankhurst fled to Paris, where she continued to lead the W.S.P.U. movement. An enthusiastic supporter of Britain, she returned to England in 1914 at the start of World War I, which caused the W.S.P.U. to cease its militant activity and prompted the release of all suffragettes then imprisoned.
It wasn’t until 1918 that some women – those over 30 or married – were given the right to vote after Prime Minister H.H. Asquith argued that, because they were helpful in the war effort, women should be allowed to vote.
Prior to her conversion, she wrote a book titled The Great Scourge and How to End It (1913), which deals with the topic of venereal diseases and calls on men not to be promiscuous. Pankhurst believed that venereal diseases were the result of “sexual immorality,” and she condemned the idea that “sexual freedom” was the way of the future for women. Larsen writes, “The whole book is a tirade against the ‘double standard of morality’ and the solution is certainly not free love for women, but rather virtuous women.”
Larsen writes that Pankhurst’s views on the importance of sexual purity were in the same tradition as that of British social reformer and evangelical feminist Josephine Butler (1826-1906). Pankhurst never married, which has led some historians to speculate that she was a lesbian. According to Larsen, however, the evidence for this claim is “absent” and “non-existent.” He says that even if Pankhurst had same-sex inclinations, her “sexual morality conformed to conservative Christian mores.”
Larsen’s book is important is because it rescues Pankhurst from historians who care little about or ignore her evangelical faith and church activity. Larsen points out that various scholars have claimed she was a Seventh-day Adventist, but she associated herself with the Church of England and traveled in circles that considered Seventh-day Adventists heretical.
Regarding her conversion in 1918, The Manchester Guardian wrote, “It would be almost impossible, I think, to cite a stranger conversion in our time than that of Christabel Pankhurst.” Larsen notes that the facts surrounding her conversion in 1918 are obscure, but the fact she had one is clear. After her transition to the Christian faith, her beliefs remained private. Soon, however, Pankhurst came into contact with Baptist minister F.B. Meyer, who at the time was one of the most famous English conservative evangelical pastors. Larsen writes that Meyer helped Pankhurst into the world of “transatlantic conservative evangelicalism,” and her first speaking invitation did not come from a liberal Protestant church, but rather from Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto, “a large, powerful, flagship evangelical church.” Her speech was so well received that she was invited back to give seven Sunday night addresses. Pankhurst went on to become a well-known figure on the fundamentalist speaking circuit.
Larsen carefully examines her theology and interest in eschatology, writing that her messages were “Christocentric” and adhered to orthodox Christology. She would “berate modernists or theologically liberal ministers for not holding their ground on traditional Christian views of the person and work of Christ,” Larsen says.
In The World’s Unrest (1926), Pankhurst wrote that there are “sceptical elements in Christendom itself … who profess themselves unable to accept what has, since the first days of the Christian Church, been taught of Jesus as to his deity, his atoning death, his resurrection and return.” She dismissed theological liberalism for its rejection of the “real” resurrection, and believed that liberal theology was responsible for a decline in Biblical literacy because it held that Christ’s death was not a propitiation for sin.
“Pankhurst serves as a reminder of the kind of fundamentalist leader who kept up with the latest learning in a wide variety of fields, and who did not handle it with fear or suspicion,” Larsen writes, adding that, even though she rejected theological liberalism, she was appreciative of some aspects of Reinhold Neibuhr’s thought, believing that he was on the right track and hoping that he would become more conservative in his theology.
The book discusses in detail Pankhurst’s speaking activities at Moody Bible Institute, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University), Westmont College, the Winona Lake Bible Conference, and numerous other fundamentalist institutions, conferences and events. She was even a main speaker at the 1931 World’s Christian Fundamentals Association annual conference.
Larsen argues that the point of his study is not to show that fundamentalism did not discriminate against women but, rather, to show that fundamentalism provided more ministry opportunities for women than other parts of the church taken over by liberal Protestantism. While it is known that holiness and Pentecostal traditions did allow for some women in ministry, Larsen writes Pankhurst was unique in that she ministered primarily in Baptist and Reformed contexts. He also explains with skill the various problems associated with the historiography of women evangelists and preachers. Pankhurst based her views concerning women in ministry on Luke 24:22, Larsen writes, adding that, “The women who were the heralds of Christ’s resurrection became a keynote text that enabled her to find Biblical warrant for women in ministry.”
He also points out that in all of the introductions of Pankhurst to fundamentalist audiences, there was not one introduction that ever “disparaged or critiqued her Suffragette work, or even one that indicated embarrassment regarding it.” Larsen writes that various fundamentalist ministers actively supported the right of women to vote. He also noted that Pankhurst developed a friendship with Winston Churchill in the early 1930s.
One criticism is that Larsen could have done a better job with the chronological sequencing of Pankhurst’s life. For example, he tells us that Pankhurst moved to Paris, but you need to piece together several events in order to realize that she moved there in 1912. Despite this, it must be said that this is an important book because it carefully dispels liberal Protestant misconceptions regarding the relationship of conservative Protestantism and feminism. Moreover, the book offers helpful historical information regarding the history of evangelical feminism.
Certainly, there are some within conservative Protestantism who have been hostile towards women. It must be observed, however, that evangelical feminism has a tradition within conservative Protestantism that is real and can be examined historically. This book would be particularly enlightening for theologically liberal feminists who desire a more nuanced understanding of the historical origins of the feminist movement and evangelical feminism. The current existence of groups such as Voices of Orthodox Women indicate that evangelical feminism is alive and well in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Later in life, Pankhurst moved to Santa Monica, Calif., and, upon her death in 1958, the British nation created a permanent memorial to her next to the one of her mother located near the House of Lords. The Santa Monica Evening Outlook wrote, “Dame Christabel Pankhurst, militant campaigner for Christ and women’s suffrage, is dead.”