Christabel Pankhurst was the daughter of women's suffrage movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst and radical socialist Richard Pankhurst and sister to Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst. Her father was a barrister and her mother owned a small shop. Christabel assisted her mother, who worked as the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Manchester. Despite financial struggles, her family had always been encouraged by their firm belief in their devotion to causes rather than comforts.
Nancy Ellen Rupprecht wrote, "She was almost a textbook illustration of the first child born to a middle-class family. In childhood as well as adulthood, she was beautiful, intelligent, graceful, confident, charming, and charismatic." Christabel enjoyed a special relationship with both her mother and father, who had named her after "Christabel", the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge ("The lovely lady Christabel / Whom her father loves so well"). Her mother's death in 1928 had a devastating impact on Christabel.
Pankhurst learned to read at her home on her own before she went to school. She and her two sisters attended Manchester High School for Girls. She obtained a law degree from the University of Manchester, and received honours on her LL.B. exam but, as a woman, was not allowed to practice law. Later Pankhurst moved to Geneva to live with a family friend, but returned home to help her mother raise the rest of the children, when her father died in 1898.
In 1905 Christabel Pankhurst interrupted a Liberal Party meeting by shouting demands for voting rights for women. She was arrested and, along with fellow suffragist Annie Kenney, went to prison rather than pay a fine as punishment for their outburst. Their case gained much media interest and the ranks of the WSPU swelled following their trial. Emmeline Pankhurst began to take more militant action for the women's suffrage cause after her daughter's arrest and was herself imprisoned on many occasions for her principles.
After obtaining her law degree in 1906, Christabel moved to the London headquarters of the WSPU, where she was appointed its organising secretary. Nicknamed "Queen of the Mob", she was jailed again in 1907 in Parliament Square and in 1909 after the "Rush Trial" at Bow Street. Between 1913 and 1914 she lived in Paris, France, to escape imprisonment under the terms of the Prisoner's (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, better known as the "Cat and Mouse Act". The start of World War I compelled her to return to England in 1914, where she was again arrested. Pankhurst engaged in a hunger strike, ultimately serving only 30 days of a three-year sentence.