Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of Dr. Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, was born at Drayton Terrace, Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May, 1882. Her father was a committed socialist and a strong advocate of women's suffrage. He 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 also 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.
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. As June Hannam has pointed out: "Sylvia's own interest in socialist and feminist politics was influenced by her parents' activities and also by the many well-known speakers and writers who visited the family." During these years Richard and Emmeline continued their involvement in the struggle for women's rights and in 1889 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 Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst 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. Her father died of a perforated ulcer in 1898. Sylvia had been very close to her father and never really got over his death. Unlike her mother and sister, Sylvia retained the socialist beliefs that had been taught to her by her father when she was a child.
Sylvia attended Manchester Girls' High School and in 1898 began studying at Manchester Art School. In 1900 she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. Although a committed artist, Sylvia began spending more and more time working for women's suffrage.
Emmeline Pankhurst was a member of the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage. By 1903 Pankhurst had become frustrated at the NUWSS lack of success. With the help of her three daughters, Sylvia, Christabel Pankhurst and Adela Pankhurst, she formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). At first the main aim of the organisation was to recruit more working class women into the struggle for the vote. At first members of the WSPU were drawn largely from the Independent Labour Party and carried out propaganda for both socialism and women's suffrage in the north of England.
By 1905 the media had lost interest in the struggle for women's rights. Newspapers rarely reported meetings and usually refused to publish articles and letters written by supporters of women's suffrage. In 1905 the WSPU decided to use different methods to obtain the publicity they thought would be needed in order to obtain the vote.
On 13th October 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney attended a meeting in London to hear Sir Edward Grey, a minister in the British government. When Grey was talking, the two women constantly shouted out, "Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?" When the women refused to stop shouting the police were called to evict them from the meeting. Pankhurst and Kenney refused to leave and during the struggle a policeman claimed the two women kicked and spat at him. Pankhurst and Kenney were arrested and charged with assault.
Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were found guilty of assault and fined five shillings each. Kenney and Pankhurst were found guilty of assault and fined five shillings each. When the women refused to pay the fine they were sent to prison. The case shocked the nation. For the first time in Britain women had used violence in an attempt to win the vote.
In 1906 Sylvia gave up her studies at the Royal College of Art and worked full-time for the WSPU. Later that year she suffered her first imprisonment after protesting in court at a trial in which women had not been allowed to speak in their own defence.
Sylvia was also very active in the Labour Party and became a close friend of Keir Hardie, the leader of the party in the House of Commons. According to the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003): "The young student, now aged twenty-four, had fallen for the fifty-year-old politician in a manner which went far beyond mere admiration or friendship. As the relationship developed, the complexity of these feelings became clearer. Sylvia saw Hardie as part political hero, part father-figure and part potential lover. Gradually he began to return her feelings... Hardie helped her move into cheaper lodgings, soothed her furrowed brow and took her out for a cheering meal. From then on Sylvia often visited him at the House of Commons and the two walked together in St James's Park or spent the evening at Nevill's Court. Quite how they dealt with the fact that he was already married is not entirely clear."
During the summer of 1908 the WSPU introduced the tactic of breaking the windows of government buildings. On 30th June suffragettes marched into Downing Street and began throwing small stones through the windows of the Prime Minister's house. As a result of this demonstration, twenty-seven women were arrested and sent to Holloway Prison.
On 25th June 1909 Marion Wallace-Dunlop was charged "with wilfully damaging the stone work of St. Stephen's Hall, House of Commons, by stamping it with an indelible rubber stamp, doing damage to the value of 10s." Wallace-Dunlop was found guilty of wilful damage and when she refused to pay a fine she was sent to prison for a month. Christabel Pankhurst later reported: "Miss Wallace Dunlop, taking counsel with no one and acting entirely on her own initiative, sent to the Home Secretary, Mr. Gladstone, as soon as she entered Holloway Prison, an application to be placed in the first division as befitted one charged with a political offence. She announced that she would eat no food until this right was conceded." Wallace-Dunlop refused to eat for several days. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, it was decided to release her after fasting for 91 hours. Soon afterwards other imprisoned suffragettes adopted the same strategy. Unwilling to release all the imprisoned suffragettes, the prison authorities force-fed these women on hunger strike.
In 1909 Sylvia and Keir Hardie rented a cottage in Penshurst, Kent. They met there as often as his busy schedule permitted. According to Fran Abrams: "During one of these interludes he begged her not to go back to prison. The thought of the feeding tubes and the violence with which they were used was already making him ill - how much worse would it be if it were her?"
Sylvia Pankhurst became concerned about the increase in the violence used by the Women's Social and Political Union. 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." After arguing with Emmeline Pankhurst about this issue she left the WSPU.
Sylvia was a talented writer and in 1911 her book The History of the Women's Suffrage Movement was published. However, Sylvia was unhappy that the WSPU had abandoned its earlier commitment to socialism and disagreed with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's attempts to gain middle class support by arguing in favour of a limited franchise.
In the spring of 1913 Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested three times. As Fran Abrams has pointed out: "On the first two occasions her efforts were thwarted when her fines were paid and she was released - the first time she blamed WSPU officials, the second time her mother. Finally, in February, she managed to get a two-month sentence and went on hunger strike. She was force fed, then released on Good Friday in a terrible state. Her eyes blood red, almost unable to walk, she was taken to a WSPU nursing home where Hardie found her a few hours later.... Back in prison again in July, she refused food, drink and sleep. Now she was placed under the Cat and Mouse Act, repeatedly released and then rearrested."
However, Sylvia was growing disillusioned by the WSPU new arson campaign. In July, 1913, attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. These attempts failed but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes. This was followed by cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire.
Some leaders of the WSPU such as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, disagreed with this arson campaign. When Pethick-Lawrence objected, she was expelled from the organisation. Others like Elizabeth Robins showed their disapproval by ceasing to be active in the WSPU. Sylvia now made her final break with the WSPU and concentrated her efforts on helping the Labour Party build up its support in London.
In 1913, 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.
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.
During the war Sylvia joined with Dr. Barbara Tchaykovsky to open four mother-and-baby clinics in London. Tchaykovsky pointed out that during the first year of the war 75,000 British soldiers (2.2 per cent of the combatants) had been killed. However, during the same period over 100,000 babies in Britain (12.2 per cent of those born) had died. In 1915 nearly 1,000 mothers and their babies were seen at Sylvia's clinics. Local politicians such as George Lansbury helped to raise funds for the organisation that's milk bill alone was over £1,000 a year.
In March 1916 Pankhurst renamed the East London Federation of Suffragettes, the Workers' Suffrage Federation (WSF). The newspaper was renamed the Workers' Dreadnought and continued to campaign against the war and gave strong support to organizations such as the Non-Conscription Fellowship. The newspaper also published the famous anti-war statement in July, 1917, by Siegfried Sassoon.
Sylvia Pankhurst was a supporter of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and visited the country where she met Lenin and ended up arguing with him over the issue of censorship. The government disliked Sylvia's pro-Communist articles in her newspaper and she was imprisoned for five months for sedition. After she was released from prison Pankhurst renamed her organization the Workers' Socialist Federation.
On 31st July, 1920, a group of revolutionary socialists attended a meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel in London. The men and women were members of various political groups including the British Socialist Party (BSP), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), Prohibition and Reform Party (PRP) and the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF).
It was agreed to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Early members included Tom Bell, Willie Paul, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, J. T. Murphy, Arthur Horner, John R. Campbell, Bob Stewart and Robin Page Arnot. McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Bell and Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers. It later emerged that Lenin had provided at least £55,000 (over £1 million in today's money) to help fund the CPGB.
Sylvia Pankhurst considered the CPGB to be too right-wing and was completely opposed to the idea of it being affiliated to the Labour Party. She was eventually expelled from the CPGB for refusing to allow the Dreadnought from being controlled by the party executive. The Workers' Socialist Federation was closed down in June 1924.
Sylvia began living with Silvio Erasmus Corio (1875–1954), an Italian socialist. They moved to Woodford Green and in 1927, at the age of forty-five, she gave birth to her only child, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst. The boy was named after the three most important men in her life: Richard Pankhurst, Keir Hardie and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. Sylvia upset Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst, by refusing to marry the boy's father. As her biographer, June Hannam, has pointed out: "She had long believed in sexual freedom and, despite pressure from Christabel, lived out her ideas in practice by refusing to marry."
During this period she wrote several books, including India and the Earthly Paradise (1926), a book calling on the reform of maternity care, Save the Mothers (1930), a history of the struggle for the vote, The Suffrage Movement (1931) and an account of her war experiences in the East End, The Home Front (1932).
Sylvia remained active in politics throughout her life. 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. In 1935 she began a weekly journal, The Ethiopian News, that publicized the efforts made by Emperor Haile Selassie to persuade the League of Nations to prevent colonization.
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."
In 1953 Sylvia suffered a heart-attack. As a result, her sister, Christabel Pankhurst made contact with Sylvia. As June Purvis has pointed out: "On 5 May 1953, Sylvia's birthday, Christabel renewed contact with her sister, writing her a warm letter and wishing her well after her recent heart attack. The correspondence between the two sisters continued intermittently until Christabel's death."
After Silvio Erasmus Corio died in 1954 Sylvia accepted an earlier invitation from the Emperor Haile Selassie and moved with her son to live permanently in Ethiopia in 1956. She helped to found the Social Service Society and edited a monthly periodical, the Ethiopia Observer. In 1959 an exhibition of her art was held at the French Institute in London
Sylvia Pankhurst died in Addis Ababa, on 27 September 1960. She was regarded so highly in Ethiopia that the emperor ordered that she should receive a state funeral, which was attended by himself and other members of the royal family. A memorial service was held in London in the Caxton Hall on 19th January 1961.
Emmeline Pankhurs and Christabel Pankhurst have both been commemorated by a statue and plaque at the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens on the corner of the House of Commons. Over the years the House of Lords has repeatedly blocked proposals for a memorial to Sylvia Pankhurst.
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.
Often I went on Sunday mornings with my father to the dingy streets of Ancoats, Gorton, Hulme, and other working-class districts. Standing on a chair or soap-box, pleading the cause of the people with passionate earnestness, he stirred me, as perhaps he stirred no other auditor, though I saw tears in the faces of the people about him. Those endless rows of smoke-begrimed little houses, with never a tree or a flower in sight, how bitterly their ugliness smote me! Many a time in spring, as I gazed upon them, those two red may trees in our garden at home would rise up in my mind, almost menacing in their beauty; and I would ask myself whether it could be just that I should live in Victoria Park, and go well fed and warmly clad, whilst the children of these grey slums were lacking the very necessities of life. The misery of the poor, as I heard my father plead for it, and saw it revealed in the pinched faces of his audiences, awoke in me a maddening sense of impotence; and there were moments when I had an impulse to dash my head against the dreary walls of those squalid streets.
We now felt the next move must be to secure an interview with the Prime Minister, and we therefore wrote to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman asking him to receive a deputation from the WSPU. He replied that he could not spare the time to see us.
Sylvia Pankhurst had given up career and status to go amongst the masses of the people in order to instruct them, and so to prepare the ground for the revolution, which they believed, would some day take place. There was a certain infantile look about her, because her face had the roundness and smoothness of a child. Quiet and shy in those days, she had surprised her friends by one brilliant success after another.
Street lamps were broken, keyholes were stopped up with lead pellets. House numbers were painted out, cushions of railway carriages slashed, flower-beds damaged, golf-greens all over the country scraped and burnt with acid… Old ladies applied for gun licences to terrify the authorities. Telegraph and telephone wires were severed with long-handled clippers; fuse boxes were blown up, communications between London and Glasgow being cut off for some hours. There was a window-smashing raid in the West End, the Carlton, the Reform Club and others were attacked. Boat houses and sports pavilions and a grandstand at Ayr racecourse were burnt down. Works of art and objects of exceptional value were destroyed. Empty houses and other unattended buildings were set on fire. Bombs were placed near the Bank of England, at Oxted Station, and on the steps of a Dublin insurance office.
Sylvia Pankhurst abandoned her promise to Hardie to stay out of prison and was arrested three times in the spring of 1913. On the first two occasions her efforts were thwarted when her fines were paid and she was released - the first time she blamed WSPU officials, the second time her mother. Her eyes blood red, almost unable to walk, she was taken to a WSPU nursing home where Hardie found her a few hours later. He had hardly slept during her imprisonment and she blamed herself for the pain she had caused him, "his face haggard and seamed with sorrow and insomnia, his hair long and unkempt." Even this could not deter her, though. Now she was placed under the Cat and Mouse Act, repeatedly released and then rearrested. With the nation in uproar and arson attacks escalating around the country, Sylvia was determined to do her bit. And this, finally, caused Hardie's patience to snap.
During one of her releases from prison, Sylvia had been invited to speak at a meeting of the Free Speech Defence Committee, set up to protest against bans on militant suffrage demonstrations. Frank Smith, Hardie's closest aide, asked Sylvia to promise she would not create trouble at the meeting. She refused. When Hardie visited her next, she accused him of "dragging the party's banner in the mud" by becoming too close to the Liberals. Although Hardie did not respond, Sylvia said the meeting became "almost a quarrel." She told Hardie not to visit her again, and indeed she did not see him again until the following year. "I had told him it was too painful, too incongruous he should come in the midst of the warfare waged against him and the Labour Party by the orders of my sister," she wrote later. On the day after this meeting, Emmeline visited Sylvia. She had planned to come the day before, she said, but had changed her mind when she learned Hardie was there. "She spoke as if he were a person a Suffragette should be ashamed to meet," Sylvia remarked.
It was, in effect, the end of Hardie's relationship with Sylvia, though the two continued to write to each other. In the summer of that year, when Sylvia left England to tour Scandinavia, he sent her off with a list of contacts and an affectionate farewell. Confessing that he had been thinking of her and hoping she was better, he concluded: "Go then... and come back strong to me after."
When I read in the newspapers that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign, I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nation… We set up a League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives to strive for better pensions and allowances. We also campaigned for pay equal to that of men. Votes for Women were never permitted to fall into the background. We worked continuously for peace, in face of the bitterest opposition from old enemies, and sometimes unhappily from old friends.
The militarists continued their agitation for "National Service" for all men and women "from 16-60 years of age," and a "Service Franchise" giving a vote to every soldier, sailor, and munition worker and disfranchising conscientious objectors. The women were to remain voteless till after the war.
We were to march from the East End to Trafalgar Square, to raise our opposing slogans:
"Complete democratic control of national and international affairs!" "Human suffrage and no infringement of popular liberties." The Daily Express, the Globe, and many other newspapers, wherein appeared frequent incitement to violence against "peace talk," directed their battalions of invective against our meeting, denouncing it as "open sedition." As usual, friends saluted us on our march through the East End; crowds gathered to speed us; they had struggled with us for a decade; they supported us still, though our standard seemed now more Utopian, more elusively remote.
At Charing Cross we came into a great concourse of people, clapping and cheering. They welcomed our slender ranks as an expression of the old, old cry: "Not might, but rights' - a symbol of the triumph of the spirit over sordid materialism, and of their own often frustrated hopes and long unsatisfied desires. To them we were protestants against their sorrows, and true believers in the living possibility of a world of happiness. In their jolly kindness some shouted: "Good old Sylvia!" I gave my hands to many a rough grip. They pressed round me, ardent and gay, sorrowful, hopeful, earnest. Many a woman's eyes brimmed with tears as she met mine; I knew, by a sure instinct, that she had come across London, overweighted with grief, to ease her burden by some words with me.
As we entered the square a rush of friends, with a roar of cheers and a swiftness which forestalled any hostile approach, bore us forward, and hoisted a group of us on the east plinth, facing the Strand, whilst the banner-bearers marched on westward, where the banners were to be handed up; but the north side was packed with soldiers who fell upon the approaching banners and tore them to shreds. The law offered no protection; so few policemen had never been seen in the square at any demonstration. Far from assisting us to maintain order, they prevented our men speakers, and numbers of our members who wished to support us, from mounting the plinth, though we urged that they should come. We were left, a little group of women and a child or two, to deal with what might arise.
The Government had obviously given orders to leave us to the violence of the mob.
We were not afraid.
A small, hostile group had established itself by the plinth, prompted by the organisers of the disturbance, whom I recognised as old hands at such work; poor, shabby public house loafers, they shouted without pausing for breath till their red faces were purple. I continued in spite of them, by taking pains to speak clearly and not too fast. From the north the disturbers hurled at me roughly screwed balls of paper, filled with red and yellow ochre, which came flying across the lions' backs and broke with a shower of colour on anyone they chanced to hit. The reporters on the plinth had drawn near me to listen; thus, inadvertently, they intercepted the missiles aimed at me, and were covered with red and yellow.
They sprang back to avoid a further volley, and Mrs. Drake's twelve-year-old daughter, Ruby, received a deluge of red full in her eyes. Crying, she buried her face in her mother's dress, while the "patriots" raised a cheer.
Always after such incidents, our mother and baby clinics, the day nursery, the restaurants, the factory, all our work for ameliorating distress suffered immediately from loss of donations. A cable repudiating me from Mrs. Pankhurst was published and helped to detach some of the old W.S.P.U. members who still supported us.
On reaching London we at once summoned a general meeting of the Federation. The members at first declared they would not be "thrown out" of the W.S.P.U., nor would they agree to a change of name. I persuaded them at last that refusal would open the door to acrimonious discussions, which would hinder our work and deflect attention from the cause. The name of our organisation was then debated. The East London Federation of the Suffragettes was suggested by someone, and at once accepted with enthusiasm. I took no part in the decision. Our colours were to be the old purple, white, and green, with the addition of red - no change, as a matter of fact, for we had already adopted the red caps of liberty. Mother, annoyed by our choice of name, hastened down to the East End to expostulate; she probably anticipated objections from Paris. "We are the Suffragettes! that is the name we are always known by," she protested, "and there will be the same confusion as before!" I told her the members had decided it, and I would not interfere.
In the East End, with its miserable housing, its ill-paid casual employment and harsh privations bravely borne by masses of toilers, life wore another aspect. The yoke of poverty oppressing all was a factor no one-sided propaganda could disregard. The women speakers who rose up from the slums were struggling, day in, day out, with the ills which to others were merely hearsay. Sometimes a group of them went with me to the drawing-rooms of Kensington and Mayfair; their speeches made a startling impression upon those women of another world, to whom hard manual toil and the lack of necessaries were unknown. Many of the W.S.P.U. speakers came down to us as before: Mary Leigh, Amy Hicks, Theodora Bonwick, Mary Paterson, Mrs. Bouvier, that brave, persistent Russian, and many others; but it was from our own East End speakers that our movement took its life. There was wise, logical Charlotte Drake of Custom House, who, left an orphan with young brothers and sisters, had worked both as barmaid and sewing machinist, and who recorded in her clear memory incidents, curious, humorous, and tragic, which stirred her East End audiences by their truth.
Melvina Walker was born in Jersey and had been a lady's maid; many a racy story could she tell of the insight into "High Life" she had gained in that capacity. For a long period she was one of the most popular open-air speakers in any movement in London. She seemed to me like a woman of the French Revolution. I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, and urging on the fighters with impassioned cries. When she was in the full flood of her oratory, she appeared the very embodiment of toiling, famine-ridden, proletarian womanhood.
Mrs. Schlette, a sturdy old dame, well on in her sixties, came forward to make a maiden oration without hesitation, and soon was able to hold huge crowds for an hour and a half at a stretch. Mrs. Cressell, afterward a Borough Councillor; Florence Buchan, a young girl discharged from a jam factory, the reason being given by the forewoman: "What do you want to kick up a disturbance of a night with the Suffagettes"; Mrs. Pascoe, one of our prisoners, supporting by charing and home work a tubercular husband and an orphan boy she had adopted-but a few of the many who learnt to voice their claims.
Sylvia Pankhurst wrote asking me to call at her printing office in Fleet Street. I found a plain little Queen Victoria sized woman with plenty of long unruly bronze-like hair. There was no distinction about her clothes, and on the whole she was very undistinguished. But her eyes were fiery, even a little fanatic, with a glint of shrewdness.
She said she wanted me to do some work for the Workers' Dreadnought. Perhaps I could dig up something along the London docks from the coloured as well as the white seaman and write from a point of view which would be fresh and different. Also I was assigned to read the foreign newspapers from America, India, Australia, and other parts of the British Empire, and mark the items which might interest Dreadnought readers.
Pankhurst (1882-1960), the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, achieved fame in the Suffragette movement before the First World War, but was later associated with communist, anti-fascist and anti-war causes. She was involved in support for the Abyssinian cause after the Italian invasion of 1936, founding and editing the "New Times and Ethiopia News". She emigrated to Ethiopia in 1944, where she became a friend and adviser to the Emperor Haile Selassie, and maintained a steadfast anti-British outlook.
This reconstituted file chiefly concerns her post-Suffragette activities, though there are summaries of her activities, and those of the publication "The Workers' Dreadnought" and the Workers' Suffrage Federation from 1914. The main body of the file follows Pankhurst from the launch of the "New Times and Ethiopian News" in 1936, from which time there are reports of meetings addressed by Pankhurst, notes of interviews with her and the product of a watch maintained on her correspondence.
In 1940 she wrote to Viscount Swinton in his capacity as head of a committee investigating fifth column activities, and provided him with a list of Fascists at large and conducting propaganda, and of anti-Fascists who had been interned. The copy, which is on file having been passed on by Swinton, is annotated in Swinton's hand "I should think a most doubtful source of information."
The file concludes that Pankhurst's information most probably came from her long-term Italian partner, Silvo Corio. After the liberation of Ethiopia, the file follows her activities there, where she was a strong supporter of a union of Ethiopia with ex-Italian Somaliland, later to become part of the independent state of Somalia. The file considered in 1948 various strategies for "muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst."
Sylvia Pankhurst is Sent to Jail
Sylvia Pankhurst was taken to the women's jail at Holloway on October 24th, 1906.
Daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and younger sister of Christabel, Sylvia Pankhurst was twenty-four when she was packed off to prison for the first time. A promising artist, she had been a student at the Royal College of Art in London before dropping out in 1906 to join her mother and sister in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the struggle for women’s suffrage. She produced the WSPU’s ‘Votes for Women’ banners, designed the organization’s membership card and was secretary of the national committee, which was based in London.
On October 23rd a group of suffragettes led by Mrs Pankhurst herself infiltrated into the lobby of the House of Commons and started a protest meeting. They were bundled out into the street by policemen, there was what Sylvia Pankhurst called ‘a scrimmage’ and ten of the women were arrested. When they came up in Cannon Street police court the next day, the magistrate refused to listen to them and peremptorily ordered them to be bound over to be of good behaviour for six months or go to prison for six weeks. They protested and demanded the right to be heard in their own defence, but the magistrate had them removed by the police.
At this point Sylvia walked into the courtroom and complained that women who wanted to give evidence in the case had not been allowed in. Promptly dragged out into the street by force, she tried to make a speech to an interested crowd, but was hauled back into the court again, charged with obstruction and sentenced to pay a pound fine or go to prison for fourteen days. Choosing prison, she was taken to the women’s jail at Holloway with the others in a Black Maria.
Once there, after hours of waiting, they were strip-searched and made to take a bath (the baths, Sylvia wrote, were ‘indescribably dirty’ and the water ‘clouded with the scum of previous occupants’) and then dress in scratchy prison clothes, stamped in black with the broad arrow. On their heads they wore white cotton caps fastened under the chin, and each was provided with a handkerchief to last for a week. They were then marched along corridors and up flights of stairs to be locked one by one in small, stone-floored, iron-doored cells. There was a plank bed with a mattress and pillow ‘as hard and comfortless as stone’, as well as a wooden stool, a single wooden spoon and a tin plate and pint mug, a bit of hard yellow soap and a thin towel, a rudimentary brush and comb, a tin wash-basin and slop-pail, and items of cleaning equipment.
First thing in the morning while it was still dark, there was much jangling of bells and shouting of orders and each prisoner had to wash and dress, empty her slops, roll up her bedding and clean out the cell. Breakfast of bread and skilly (oatmeal gruel) was brought to the cell. After that there was work to do – hemming a sheet or making a shirt or a mail-bag. At 8.30am came chapel, with the prisoners forbidden to speak to each other. At twelve there was dinner of either oatmeal and bread or suet and bread or potatoes and bread. The day was spent almost entirely in the cell except on two days a week when the women walked silently round and round the exercise yard for half an hour. The final meal was bread and gruel again at five o’clock and lights out was at eight.
Sylvia was released on November 6th. She would be imprisoned many more times and subjected to forcible feeding when she staged hunger strikes. Her ardent socialism opened a gap between her and her sister and mother. All three of them were natural autocrats and Sylvia founded her own militant feminist and socialist organization in the East End of London in 1913 and broke away from the WSPU the following year. Fiercely opposed to the First World War, she warmly approved of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and detested both fascism and lipstick, which she thought ‘reveals the slave mentality’. She died at seventy-eight in 1960.
Crawford, Elizabeth. The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866–1928. London, 1999.
Pankhurst, Christabel. Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote. London, 1959.
Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story. London, 1914.
Pankhurst, Estelle Sylvia. The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals. London, 1931.
Pugh, Martin. The Pankhursts. London, 2001.
Purvis, June. Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. London and New York, 2002.
She joined the pacifists in 1914 when war came, as Emmeline and Christabel took another stance, supporting the war effort. Her work with the Women’s International League and with unions and the labor movement opposing the draft and the war earned her a reputation as a leading anti-war activist.
As World War I progressed, Sylvia became more involved in socialist activism, helping to found the British Communist Party, from which she was soon expelled for not toeing the party line. She supported the Russian Revolution, thinking that it would bring an earlier end to the war. She went on a lecture tour to the United States, and this and her writing helped support her financially.
In 1911 she had published The Suffragette as a history of the movement to that time, centrally featuring her sister Christabel. She published The Suffragette Movement in 1931, a key primary document on the early militant struggle.
Natural-Born Rebel, Citizen of the World
In 1912, Sylvia moved to the East End of London and in May 1913, alongside Norah Smyth and American suffragette Zelie Emerson, she founded the London East End WPSU, where she worked on the campaign for suffrage alongside agitating for a welfare system. Holmes notes that the postwar Clement Attlee government drew on her work and writing in its creation of the British National Health Service.
When public opinion was divided among the suffragettes on the issue of the First World War, Sylvia took a principled, internationalist stand, once again parting way with her mother and sister Christabel, who both supported the war. Against them, she argued that
this war, like the Boer war and all others we have known, is fought for material gains … it is a huge and shameful loss to humanity.
It was this participation in antiwar campaigning that brought Sylvia into close contact with some luminary radicals of her time who also opposed the war, among them, Clara Zetkin. Sylvia had entered World War I, Holmes notes, a socialist and reluctant militant reformist and Labour Party supporting suffragist she emerged from it a left-wing revolutionary communist. Sylvia was a revolutionary in all spheres of her life. Her first great love was Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party.
As the Bolshevik Revolution erupted in Russia, Sylvia offered her fulsome support. Her newspaper, Workers’ Dreadnought, welcomed the Russian revolution and supported the immediate dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, earning Lenin’s admiration, who praised her for representing “the interests of hundreds of thousands of people.” Indeed, in November 1917 she argued that:
the Russian problem is our problem: it is simply whether people understand socialism and whether they desire it. Meanwhile, our eager hopes are for the Bolsheviks of Russia: may they open the door which leads to freedom of all lands.
At the 1918 Labour Party conference in Britain, she argued against intervention in Russia the Labour Party was making wartime compromises and was hostile in its response to the Bolshevik Revolution. Her 1920 article, “Towards a Communist Party,” published in Workers’ Dreadnought, sparked Lenin’s interest about the prospects of a British Communist Party. Her refusal to unite socialist parties and her call for anti-parliamentarism in the course of revolutionary action had spurred his anger. Lenin wrote “Left wing childishness” as a response to his debate with Sylvia, in which he termed her “ultra-leftism” an “infantile disorder.”
Sylvia never wavered in her commitment to international socialism. In 1921 she was accused of sedition and spoke in her own defense: “I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me. It is wrong that people like you should be comfortable and well fed while all around you people are starving.”
The 1920s were a revolutionary decade for Sylvia in more than one way in 1927, at the age of forty-five, she was unmarried when she had her only child Richard with her Italian anarchist partner, Silvio Corro, leading her mother and sister Christabel to cut all ties with her — though by this stage, their relations were already strained due to their pronounced political differences. Among Pankhurst’s internationalist commitments, she was an early critic of Italy’s aggressions in Ethiopia, and saw the dangers of the rise of fascism before many others had done so.
She wrote, powerfully, in 1933: “fascism denies and destroys all freedom of thought, party, press, association: exploits and enslaves the workers.” Educated in the struggle for democracy, Sylvia saw its dismantling before others had noticed those processes. The resistance, as ever, came from the humanity and resilience of those attacked by fascism.
Sylvia studied Ethiopian art and culture, and her dedication to anti-colonial struggles brought her in close conversation with W. E. B. Du Bois, who commended her for bringing black Ethiopia to white England. During the Second World War, she helped Jewish refugees escape from under Nazi hands.
Sylvia’s internationalist commitments found expression not only in political organizing, but in her travels as well. Her travels in the United States in 1912–13, when she visited immigrant communities in New York and Chicago, the racially segregated South and a Native American college left a deep impact on her. After the 1917 revolution, an event that impacted the lives of all revolutionaries around the world, including Sylvia, she went, undercover, to Soviet Russia, a journey she also chronicled.
She traveled throughout Continental Europe and studied the progressive welfare provisions there. Her commitment to anti-racism and anti-imperialism brought her to Eastern Africa where she developed an interest and skill in chronicling the cultural history of Ethiopia, to counter the demeaning, racist narratives of her time. Her later life was spent in Ethiopia. She was invited by Haile Selassie, who had become a close interlocutor during his exile in 1935. Sylvia was bestowed upon with the highest state honors in Ethiopia. When Sylvia died at the age of sevety-eight in Ethiopia, she received a state funeral.
Sylvia was fearless at the face of all challenges which life and history presented her. “When you know you’re right, you can’t be turned aside,” she once said, and her political commitments were matched by an unwavering moral clarity. Her sister Adela noted in 1933 that “in Sylvia’s eyes, to cease being a socialist, if one had ever been one, is a moral crime.”
Sylvia Pankhurst - History
WOMEN WORKING FOR PEACE IN
Sylvia Pankhurst was a leading opponent of WW1, orchestrating ‘her own war against war’. She spent the war helping the poor in the East End of London, seeing the effects of the war on the home front. At the same time she was speaking, writing and campaigning around the country against the war.
Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was born in Manchester on 5th May 1882. Her father was Dr. Richard Pankhurst, a barrister, socialist, pacifist and supporter of women’s suffrage, and her mother Emmeline became famous as the leader of the suffragette movement. By the time she was 10, Sylvia declared herself a republican who was ‘on the side of the People and the Poor.’ She developed her artistic interest in painting and drawing and went to the Manchester School of Art. The Pankhursts met Keir Hardie, who later became Sylvia’s great friend and lover, and were among the first to join his Independent Labour Party.
In 1898 Sylvia’s father, her ‘hero and guiding light’, died. In 1903 the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) took place at the Pankhurst house in Manchester, working for social reform and the female franchise. The next year she moved to London to attend the Royal College of Art, and her friendship with Keir Hardie developed. The WSPU movement grew more confrontational. Sylvia was designing posters and postcards for WSPU but having little time to pursue her career in art. As WSPU members were increasingly arrested on protests, she too was later imprisoned many times, enduring appalling treatment, but managed to use her time inside to write prose and poetry and to paint, and afterwards to make protests in the press about the treatment of all prisoners. In 1907 she combined her art with her concern for the poor by travelling on an artistic pilgrimage to paint the working women of Britain, being shocked by the conditions she found.
As divisions within WSPU grew, and some women split away in protest at the increasing autocratic control exerted by her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, Sylvia found there was no place for her at the top of the organisation. Nonetheless she initiated open air meetings, and organised local support for huge rallies in Hyde Park, designing and making the banners and flags. As the campaign developed new tactics of vandalism and arson, Sylvia grew uncomfortable.
She began to develop her own links with the East End of London, drawing on her friendship with George Lansbury and the long tradition of political activism in the area. She was shocked by the slums, the starvation wages and exorbitant rents. She determined to create a women’s socialist movement: ‘the East End was the greatest homogeneous working-class area accessible to the House of Commons by popular demonstrations. The creation of a woman’s movement in that great abyss of poverty would be a call and a rallying cry to the rise of similar movements in all parts of the country.’ She and her friends Norah Smyth and Zelie Emerson found an old shop in Bow Road and established the East London branch of WSPU. She started working with Lansbury, writing articles for his newspaper and appearing on platforms with men - not allowed by WSPU, who withdrew all their funds from her.
Sylvia tried a small act of vandalism in the House of Commons - she didn’t want to damage any art so chose a dull portrait, hoping she would only break the glass, but her lump of concrete bounced off, to the amusement of the police. When she later threw a stone at a window, after which several people were arrested including her, she was sentenced to two months hard labour. She smuggled in paper and pencils, and went on a hunger and thirst strike. On the third day they started force-feeding her twice a day - a ‘nightmare ritual of the steel gag, the rubber tube, the vomiting and the agony.’ She fought them the whole way. ‘The flesh around her eyes and the eyeballs themselves became more and more painful.’ The truth of what was happening to her and others was hushed up. The Cat and Mouse Act was introduced, enabling the government to release seriously ill hunger-strikers and then re-arrest them when they had recovered. On her release Sylvia wrote an article in the Daily Mail about her experiences which led to protests against the feeding and the Act. She established a fund to help the families of imprisoned suffragettes. Back in prison, she kept fainting, and had to be constantly released. Eventually her health was so bad she attended meetings on a stretcher, carried aloft ‘emaciated and indomitable…like a medieval saint in a procession.’
In early 1914 the East London Federation was expelled from WSPU, marking a major break with her mother and sister Christabel. The Federation changed its name to the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). They launched the Woman’s Dreadnought newspaper in March 1914. Sylvia was imprisoned several times between February and June 1914, using the time to plan her programme for the East End. She found a new home for the ELFS in Old Ford Road, with a large hall. Here they organised a library, choir, lectures, concerts and a junior suffragettes club. Sylvia determined to get an elected group of representative suffragettes from the East End to see the Prime Minister, Asquith. She was driven to the House of Commons, where she lay on the ground, refusing to eat or drink until she died or he agreed to see them. Hardie and Lansbury persuaded him to agree to meet six women, and he was impressed with their moderate, well-reasoned case. She had achieved something of a breakthrough, but then the war came.
Sylvia heard that war had begun while she was in Dublin. Returning home on a steamer full of troops she wrote ‘Men going to die without heed to the beauty and purpose of life, untouched by the cleansing fires of enthusiasm, going like cattle to be slaughtered, mere pawns in the hands of those whose identity was unknown to them…Throughout Europe would be a vast widowhood, the cries of fatherless children…a gigantic arrest of human progress, a huge vanquishing of the higher life of culture, the finer processes of thought.’
During WW1 Sylvia ‘was to orchestrate her own war against war and to establish her own personal welfare state - to do, in effect, what she felt the government should be doing.’ She widened her concern out from the East End to the whole society, while continuing to campaign for universal franchise. She was shocked by the decision of her mother and Christabel to support the war, remembering ‘my father’s peace crusade…his unswerving life-long advocacy of Peace and internationalism’. She set about writing hundreds of letters and articles, leading deputations and protest marches. She protested loudly against government injustice, about sweated pay and bad working conditions. She challenged people to act: ‘The men in power have plunged us into war for their commercial interests. They pass bills in the interests of financiers. What will they do for you?’ Her passionate beliefs lost her many supporters.
Full of ideas for wiping out poverty, she was not content to wait for the local authority to take action, so started herself, in response to desperate local need - ‘Starvation, that strange, dull gaze, daily stared in my face from the eyes of mothers and children.’ Women and children were being turned away from hospitals to make room for soldiers. She set up a milk distribution centre and eventually four mother and baby clinics, free of charge. Doctor Barbara Tchaykovsky, who helped to run the clinics, pointed out that while 75000 British soldiers died in the first year of the war, 100,000 babies died at home. By 31 August 1914 Sylvia had created her first Cost Price restaurant. During 1915 her team served about 400 meals a day and helped 1000 mothers and babies at the clinic. Other organisations began to copy her scheme. ‘She had inherited the Pankhurst talent for inspiring and persuading anyone and everyone to help her in whatever she wanted to do.’ She created a co-operative Toy Factory to provide employment, and a small nursery, with parties and festive events for local children.
Seeing the difficulties of the families of those in the armed forces, in February 1915 she and others set up the League of Rights for Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Wives and Relatives. They campaigned for proper allowances for the wives, and pensions for widows and dependents. Lansbury said that Sylvia ‘worked day and night, rushing from town to town, from one Government office to another….the War Office must have been considerably worried by her attentions. It is certain, however, that many thousands of women and children owe her, and the rest of the committee, thanks for securing something approaching decent treatment….’ In the end the government set up its own organisation.
Sylvia discovered that hunger was being used to recruit men into the army she found food relief from the Commonwealth was diverted to the army and commercial companies away from the poor. When she saw that the West End still had supplies of bacon and sugar, she organised a deputation to the Prime Minister, taking with them food from Harrods and the Army and Navy Stores which they dumped on his desk. She threatened to return with ever larger deputations if he didn’t provide food for the East End. Relief began to get through to Poplar. In April she found a disused pub, the Gunmakers’ Arms, in the Old Ford Road which she converted into The Mothers’ Arms as a progressive nursery school, with support from the City of London Corporation and the Ministries of Health and Education.
Sylvia involved herself with the growing international women’s peace movement, being one of the first suffragettes to speak out against the war, and signing the letter to German and Austrian women circulated by Emily Hobhouse at Christmas 1914. When the Women’s Congress was held in the Hague, Sylvia had anticipated she wouldn’t be allowed to attend, and instead drafted resolutions for the Congress. She wanted ‘the abolition of secret foreign treaties, the creation of a permanent peace treaty uniting all nations, the abolition of national armies and navies, and the democratisation of the International Court of Arbitration…with an extension of its powers.’ She was elected to the committee of the British group formed after the Congress, the Women’s International League, but soon felt she could do more radical work on her own. She campaigned against conscription, joining the National Council against Conscription, speaking in September 1915 at a meeting in Trafalgar Square, organised by socialists, trade unionists and suffragists, at which she saw news placards saying that Keir Hardie was dead. Shattered, she went home to write his obituary for her Dreadnought paper, calling him ‘the greatest human being of our time’.
The Woman’s Dreadnought was growing in circulation throughout 1916, including stories of hardship coming from the troops and their families, such as men being executed for desertion, and cruel punishments and torture. She took up the cause of enemy aliens being victimised, miners on strike, disabled soldiers, widows, and the petty bureaucracy stopping their allowances, pensioners who could no longer afford the increased price of food, some being driven into the workhouse - one veteran of the Crimean war drowning himself rather than go there. By highlighting these personal cases she brought injustices to wide attention. In the case of a young conscript shot for desertion when shell-shocked, she published his letters home and made a pacifist pamphlet from his story. The stories of conscientious objector tribunals were also reported, and the ill-treatment of many COs as well as ordinary serving soldiers, such as the No. 1 Field Punishment where they were strapped to a crucifix for hours. She lobbied the War Office on behalf of the COs sent to France, at the request of some of their mothers.
The Dreadnought was said to be ‘one of the most important anti-war, non-sectarian socialist papers in Britain.’ Sylvia frequently wrote what could be seen as treasonable articles, and the paper was under surveillance. In 1916 a young women journalist covered the Easter uprising in Ireland, and the executions that followed, in the Dreadnought. In 1917 the Russian revolution came as a sign of hope to Sylvia, who by now favoured revolution, believing that the persecution of women had deep roots in the capitalist parliamentary system. The ELFS whose name had been changed to the Workers’ Suffrage Federation in 1916, now became the Workers’ Socialist Federation, dedicated to overthrowing capitalism. The Dreadnought’s biggest scoop was the publication in the summer of 1917 of Siegfried Sassoon’s letter stating his opposition to the war: ‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a War of defence, has now become a War of aggression and conquest.’ Two days later his letter was read out in the House of Commons. The police raided the offices of the Dreadnought and the No-Conscription Fellowship, seizing copies of the letter. The issue of October 6, 1917 advocating a peace referendum among the troops, was destroyed and the type broken up.
The paper carried articles by leading communists and thinkers including Marx and Lenin, and Silvio Corio, an Italian anarcho-socialist, who became Sylvia’s partner. She continued to promote communism after the war, travelling to Russia to meet Lenin in spite of her passport being confiscated. Once again she ended up in prison, for sedition, after publishing articles urging men in the Royal Navy to revolt. By 1921 the Communist Party of Great Britain tried to gag her paper, now the Workers’ Dreadnought, which was reporting on internal party controversies. She continued to produce it, now attacking the Communist Party and Lenin. Sylvia was one of the first to see the dangerous developments in the growth of fascism in Italy and Germany and the threat of the confrontation between fascism and communism. She was ahead of her time publishing information about racial inequality in South Africa, employing the first black correspondent, and publishing Indian writers. The paper itself closed in 1924.
Moving to Woodford Green, she wrote books including The Suffragette Movement, and The Home Front about her work in WW1. She gave birth to her son Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst in 1927. Even before Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Sylvia had found a new cause, the people of Ethiopia, and fought against fascism in Italy. She ‘launched an onslaught on anyone with influence…letters from E. Sylvia Pankhurst began to arrive, often written in green ink, on paper torn from exercise books. Embassies, politicians and editors - she drove them all to distraction. But there is no doubt that ultimately her efforts were recognised and not in vain.’ She spoke at meetings denouncing the use of mustard gas, the bombing of Red Cross hospitals and the failure of the League of Nations to enforce sanctions. She started another newspaper, the New Times and Ethiopia News in 1936. When the Emperor Haile Selassie had to flee and came to England, it was she who met him and took him under her wing. During all this her home saw a stream of refugees from fascism, as well as miners’ children during the General Strike, suffragettes and East End women.
In July 1936 a monument in the form of a stone bomb was unveiled by a group including the Secretary of the Imperial Ethiopian Legation in front of Sylvia’s Red Cottage in Woodford Green. ‘To those who in 1932 upheld the right to use bombing aeroplanes this monument is raised as a protest against war in the air.’ It recalled the Zeppelin raids over the East End in WW1, the British bombing of rebels in Burma and India in 1932 and the recent mustard gas bombs dropped by the Italians on Ethiopian civilians. An article in Sylvia’s paper said ‘There are thousands of memorials in every town and village to the dead but not one as a reminder of the danger of future wars. The purpose of the monument was to create a lasting reproach to those whose morality was untouched, whose consciences were unmoved and whose emotions were unaffected.’ (In recent years Sylvia Ayling has rescued this monument from neglect.)
Her biographer describes her as by now, a national institution, but one who often irritated people by her inability to play second fiddle. By WW2, she was on Churchill’s side against the fascists, she was on Hitler’s list to be arrested, and she was under police protection after receiving death threats. In this war, Sylvia became Hon. Secretary of the War Emergency Council set up to help working class families, and was pleased to find the Ministry of Food starting Cost Price Restaurants such as she had run in WW1.
The Emperor returned to Ethiopia in 1941 and Sylvia visited the country later. In 1954 Silvio died, and in 1956 her son Richard was offered a post at the University of Ethiopia by the Emperor, with a home for Sylvia. She was soon typically involved in local charities and social work. On 27 September 1960 she died, and was given a state funeral in Addis Ababa. Eulogies came from all over the world. An unpublished letter was found among her papers: ‘Let me be counted among the citizens of the world who own no barriers of race or nation, whose hopes are set on the golden age of universal fraternity we believe to come.’
Demanding working-class representation
22 However, the ELFS’s turn towards less direct action on economic questions cannot solely be attributed to a more conservative assessment of what could be achieved. The deputations to governmental bodies, for example, raised the radical prospect of working-class control over questions previously deemed beyond the concern of democratic decisions. At the start of the War, the government persuaded Mary Macarthur of the National Federation of Women Workers, Marion Phillips and Margaret Bondfield of the Women’s Labour League to join the Central Committee for the Employment of Women (CCEW), which provided temporary employment for women. The ELFS was deeply critical of the CCEW’s much vaunted scheme, the Queen Mary Workrooms, complaining that the 3d. paid per hour to the workers (considerably less than what the ELFS paid its own employees) meant that leading women in the labour movement were presiding over a scheme that forced working-class women into sweated labour. The ELFS sent a deputation of working women to see Mary Macarthur and argue the case for the payment of a higher wage in the Workrooms. ELFS member Charlotte Drake, herself a member of the delegation, reported the exchange in the Dreadnought commenting critically on the ‘splendid, furnished apartment’ in which the deputation was received, with its ‘gild chairs’ and ‘very rich carpets on the floor’, observing that Macarthur:
23 Drake’s report thus questioned Macarthur’s legitimacy to represent the interests of working women when Macarthur was so far removed from everyday working-class experiences, thereby helping to bolster the ELFS’s fourth demand that working-class women be themselves representatives on committees on questions related to them.
Sylvia Pankhurst - History
As it is Sylvia Pankhurst’s birthday this week, we thought that we would ask Jacqui Turner @Jacqui1918 to suggest some Desert Island Discs. Here it is with Jacqui’s apologies to all academics researching suffrage out there…
Cast away on the desert island today (though it may be a stark reminder of her time in isolation while on hunger strike in prison) is Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960). Sylvia was a suffragette, socialist feminist, pacifist and social campaigner and all around top bird.
Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves (1985), Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin
‘Now this is a song to celebrate /The conscious liberation of the female state!’
An obvious choice so let’s get it out of the way upfront. It was clear that women were not going to be handed the vote so they came ‘outta the kitchen…doin’ it for themselves’ and adopting tactics that had been used by men in pursuit of the franchise. Even though we think of the suffrage campaign as a great cohesive movement of women, it was fractious with groups disagreeing on tactics and how the vote might be won.
Mancunian Way (2006) Take That
‘I’m gonna bring this town alive’
As a Lancashire lass born and bred myself, sometimes this drives me nuts – it is easy to forget that the Pankhursts were northern gels and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had its roots in Manchester’s radical and socialist politics. Sylvia was a founder member of the WSPU with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel. In 1903, they spilt from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society in pursuit of new measures independent of political parties and to progress their cause through increasingly militant tactics, breathing new life into the stalling campaign for votes for women.
London Calling (1979) The Clash
‘London calling to the faraway towns/ Now war is declared and battle come down’
While Manchester may have been a centre for commerce and industry the national centre of government was undoubtedly London. As the WSPU had no political affiliation they were determined to oppose whichever party was in government. In an effort to intensify political pressure, in 1906 the WSPU moved their headquarters and took the battle for the vote to London.
Hunger Strike, Temple of The Dog (1990)
‘Blood is on the table and the mouths are all chokin’ But I’m goin’ hungry, Yeah’
Sylvia went on hunger strike and was force-fed many times in protest against suffragette’s status as common criminals rather than political prisoners. Between February 1913 and July 1914 she was arrested and repeatedly force fed 8 times. Here is one account (with thanks to Vote100): ‘I was struggling wildly, trying to tighten the muscles and to keep my throat closed up. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but a mad revolt of struggling, for at last I heard them say, “That’s all” and I vomited as the tube came up.’ McClure’s Magazine, Vol. XLI, Issue no. 4, Aug. 1913 (pp.87-93)
We are Family (1978) Sister Sledge
‘We are family/ I got all my sisters with me’
This is a tricky one, did you know that there was a third Pankhurst sister, Adela? I am turning to Professor June Purvis here to explain the complex relationships within the Pankhurst family: ‘The three Pankhurst women were all members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) but Emmeline and Christabel became disillusioned with the way the ILP never gave priority to the women’s issue, despite its claim to support gender equality. When they resigned from the ILP in 1907, Sylvia was deeply upset. She wanted to link the WSPU to the socialist movement. Sylvia subsequently portrayed her sister in The Suffragette Movement as an evil Svengali who led their easily swayed mother away from the true path of socialism. She labelled separatist feminist Christabel a Tory.’ Read more from Professor Purvis’ on the Pankhurst sisters here here
War (1970) Edwin Starr
‘Oh, war I despise, ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives’
Unlike her mother and sister, who were patriotic supporters of World War One, Sylvia was a pacifist and internationalist. She considered the War as a means by which the Establishment or the ruling elite would preserve social and political inequalities and imperialism. She probably wasn’t wrong either.
‘9 to 5’ (1980) by Dolly Parton
‘Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’/ Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’/ They just use your mind and they never give you credit…’
It might be a surprise to see Dolly here alongside Sylvia but this song celebrating working women and calling out the capitalistic patriarchy may have appealed to Sylvia. She merged her feminism and socialism to establish the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) in 1912/13. They were predominantly a working-class organisation initially linked to the WSPU (until Sylvia was expelled in 1914) but with an independent mandate campaigning for social change alongside the vote between 1912 and 1920.
Radio Ethiopia (1976), Patti Smith Group
‘There will be no famine in my existence, I merge with the people of the hills’
Sylvia supported Ethiopia during the Fascist Italian invasion (1936–1941). She founded a newspaper New Times and Ethiopia News and moved to the country with her son. She died, was given a state funeral and was buried there in 1960. Emperor Haile Selassie I named her an “honorary Ethiopian”.
Sylvia has been given The Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible though I am not altogether convinced that she would have voraciously read either other than with a critical feminist eye. Her choice of book: Helen Pankhurst, Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights – Then and Now (2018). How could she not choose her feminist granddaughter’s book published 100 years on?
Luxury item: A box of paints to express to her talent for art and painting.
My sincere thanks to David Turner and Chris Heighes, without whom there would have been very little music here at all!
You can find out more about Jacqui and her work and research at the University of Reading here and on Twitter @Jacqui1918.
Jacqui has curated and led the Astor100 Project, a national commemoration of 100 years in women in parliament throughout 2019 and 2020, you can visit the Astor100 web pages here Astor100 The web site includes a curated blog series written by internationally renowned academics, researchers and past and present female politicians.
The blog series accompanies a digital exhibition ‘An Unconventional MP’: The political career of Nancy Astor in 50 documents’, which showcases documents from the Astor Papers held at the University of Reading Special Collections to illustrate Nancy Astor’s political career and her legacy. You can find the exhibition on Twitter @LadyAstor100 (you may have to scroll down a little).
What an inspirational and iconic woman Sylvia was, and how telling that she is generally known only within the context of the Pankhurst family and her work for the suffragette cause. This wonderfully readable biography is like three books in one: the first traces the lives of Sylvia Pankhurst&aposs parents, especially her mother Emmeline the second is a wonderfully-realised history of British left-wing progressive politics and activism including the birth of the Labour Party and the third is the l What an inspirational and iconic woman Sylvia was, and how telling that she is generally known only within the context of the Pankhurst family and her work for the suffragette cause. This wonderfully readable biography is like three books in one: the first traces the lives of Sylvia Pankhurst's parents, especially her mother Emmeline the second is a wonderfully-realised history of British left-wing progressive politics and activism including the birth of the Labour Party and the third is the life of Sylvia herself. Of course, all three are intertwined and are written about in great detail that never becomes wearisome. Holmes keeps this engaging and limits her footnotes (notably, they are only 5% of the volume so this seems to be positioning itself as a general rather than scholarly text as not everything is referenced for follow-up).
There is, though, a massive amount that I didn't know about Sylvia - firstly her long love affair with Keir Hardie, first leader of the Labour Party and, secondly, her long-term interest with and in Ethiopia and Haile Selassie which begins with Mussolini's invasion but which ends with Sylvia emigrating to Ethiopia, which is also where she died in 1960. This section might be of especial interest to readers of Maaza Mengiste's 'The Shadow King', currently on the Booker Shortlist 2020.
It's astonishing to think that Sylvia who was born in 1882 and grew up under Victoria's regime lived on into the twentieth century, dying in 1960, and so saw so much change in society: the growth of the labour, union, socialist and feminist movements the Russian Revolution, fascism in Europe, the anti-racism and anti-colonial movements. Holmes is perhaps stronger on the local and national rather than the international but that may be due to where the sources are: certainly, there's far more detail about Sylvia's early life, not least her arrests and multiple imprisonments for militant suffragette activism and the horrific bouts of force-feeding during her hunger strikes and sleep strikes.
This doesn't sidestep the splits in the suffrage movement and Sylvia's distressing falling out with her mother and sister Christabel who may have started out as radicals but became more reactionary over time, wanting to limit the female vote to propertied and married women while Sylvia became more radical, tying female suffrage to the wider issue of universal suffrage and the enfranchisement of working men.
This is long but it never outstays its welcome, and it widens our attention to Sylvia beyond the proto-feminist suffragette activism to her work that formed the foundation of the NHS amongst other things - and I particularly liked her arguments with Lenin!
Many thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC via NetGalley. . more
Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes sweeps the reader along as we revisit much of 20th century history. This is so much more than just a biography of a remarkable woman, this is a history of some of the major struggles of last century.
I tend to read several books at a time and when I approach a lengthy book I try to figure out how much I want to read each day while giving the time and thought to my other reads. This is so well written and the subject was such a dynamic person t Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes sweeps the reader along as we revisit much of 20th century history. This is so much more than just a biography of a remarkable woman, this is a history of some of the major struggles of last century.
I tend to read several books at a time and when I approach a lengthy book I try to figure out how much I want to read each day while giving the time and thought to my other reads. This is so well written and the subject was such a dynamic person that I found myself reading this faster than I intended. Even at the end of those three days I would have happily spent more time wrapped up in Pankhurst's life and Holmes' prose.
While many of the issues Pankhurst confronted are still with us today I think another valuable aspect of this work is showing the reader the types of decisions a person has to make if they decide to follow what they believe to be right. Taking a stand, broadly speaking, can be straightforward. But figuring out exactly how you're going to make that stand can put one at odds with people making the same general stand. It is in deciding specifically how one tries to make an impact that one really has to make tough decisions. Sometimes family and friends are sacrificed in the name of what is right. These more nuanced choices are highlighted in this volume because Pankhurst never shied away from the difficult decisions.
I highly recommend this to any reader interested in the early suffrage movements, as well as 20th century activism as a whole.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley. . more
The Pankhurst name was familiar to me. The name occasionally came up on quiz shows. I knew that the name came up in connection with the struggle to get women the vote in the UK. This is as far as my knowledge took me. So when I saw this book on goodreads, it jumped out to me. I had to read it right away. So I bought it through Amazon and started reading and I was not able to put it down. This book proved to be much more than I expected.
Sylvia Pankhurst was the second daughter of the Richard and The Pankhurst name was familiar to me. The name occasionally came up on quiz shows. I knew that the name came up in connection with the struggle to get women the vote in the UK. This is as far as my knowledge took me. So when I saw this book on goodreads, it jumped out to me. I had to read it right away. So I bought it through Amazon and started reading and I was not able to put it down. This book proved to be much more than I expected.
Sylvia Pankhurst was the second daughter of the Richard and Emmaline. The whole family from the start was involved in the women's movement. But it was Sylvia who would eventually branch out into other areas as well. She expanded her fight from women's suffrage to universal suffrage. Not just for the middle class, she was dedicated to making the lives of the working class poor better as well. She became a socialist/communist and even met and had a falling out with Lenin after which she was thrown out of the Communist party. Sylvia was never to theoretical but sought out practical solutions. She saw the poverty and inequality around her and just wanted to improve the lives of those who were suffering. She would create programs like organizing cheap meals, organized maternity programs to improve the lives of women. She set up Care centers, nurseries, and even established her own cooperative factories where the workers were paid fair wages. Everything she did was dedicated to improving the lives of the poor and many of her programs would be studied by future governments when they were designing their socialist policies like the NHS.
During WW1 Sylvia was a pacifist. But when fascism rose between the wars, she quickly understood that only war would be able to bring down those facist countries like Italy and Germany. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, she dedicated herself to helping Ethiopia in any way she could. It was during this time she met and befriended Hailie Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor. Sylvia was deeply anti colonial and would meet many of the future African leaders when she moved to Ethiopia. It was in Ethiopia where she would spend her final years of her life.
Sylvia was always fully dedicated in making the world a better place. She never backed down from her beliefs and even went to jail on numerous occasions where they would subject her the various form of torture. While she made many enemies, she was also respected by many. The number of influential historical characters she met during her life was impressive. Churchill, Lenin and Hailie Selassie to name just a few. And they either loved or hated her.
This book was very well written, it never got boring and was very educational. It is highly recommend for anyone to read. . more
‘If you don’t work for other people you will not have been worth the upbringing’ (Sylvia’s father Richard Pankhurst).
Sylvia Pankhurst. Ever since I heard this name in Ethiopia I have wanted to find out about this quasi-mythical figure described by many a Habesha tourist guide as a hero of their lands. I couldn’t quite connect how someone who was born in Manchester could be so loved in Eastern Africa. And yet this work by Rachel Holmes published in 2020 opened my eyes into a world of incredible f ‘If you don’t work for other people you will not have been worth the upbringing’ (Sylvia’s father Richard Pankhurst).
Sylvia Pankhurst. Ever since I heard this name in Ethiopia I have wanted to find out about this quasi-mythical figure described by many a Habesha tourist guide as a hero of their lands. I couldn’t quite connect how someone who was born in Manchester could be so loved in Eastern Africa. And yet this work by Rachel Holmes published in 2020 opened my eyes into a world of incredible feats. All accomplished in one life. Born into a Mancunian progressive family, Sylvia met some of the most broadminded socialists in her household as a child, her father being a radical socialist who instilled in his daughters egalitarian values. Her parents were both politically engaged, and although she herself was a member of the Labour party, whose founder and parliamentary leader Keir Hardie she was romantically tied to in her early life, she eventually became more radicalised and supported communism for a while before being completely disappointed by Lenin’s policies. She fought for women’s rights, was imprisoned several times and went on several hunger strikes, the effects of which would remain with her throughout her life. She was an indefatigable fighter for the betterment of women’s lot, but also for the poor, the ill, the sick, the uneducated. Particularly in the East End of London. Some of her peers and many politicians found her ‘Joan of Arc style of unyielding battle for her causes tiresome’. However, she also was extremely sensitive and was an artist, having obtained a degree at the Royal College of Arts. Instead of pursuing an artistic career, however, she put her art at the service of her incredibly resilient civic spirit, leaving a legacy of drawings, paintings and political pamphlets. A prolific writer, she launched, edited and curated quite a few newspapers and books, and is remembered not only for being a radical suffragette, but also for her protection of refugees, her fight against fascism, and for her relentless support of all things Ethiopian. Although she closed her mind to the failings of Haile Selassie’s empire, she participated in many a projects in Ethiopia in the last decade of her life, after the death of her husband Silvio Corio. She settled in Addis and was buried there, where Ethiopians welcomed her as one of her own.
An incredible piece of writing and research. It merits a full five stars.
The sorrows and passions of the visionary suffragette and socialist who ‘roused’ London
Sally Alexander. Fri 13 Nov 2020
The memorial mural of Sylvia Pankhurst and the east London suffragettes on the site of the original Women’s Hall in Bow.
We remember Sylvia Pankhurst today as the suffragette and socialist who took militant feminism to London’s East End. But, as Rachel Holmes argues in this compelling biography, she was a major political figure of the 20t
The sorrows and passions of the visionary suffragette and socialist who ‘roused’ London
Sally Alexander. Fri 13 Nov 2020
The memorial mural of Sylvia Pankhurst and the east London suffragettes on the site of the original Women’s Hall in Bow.
We remember Sylvia Pankhurst today as the suffragette and socialist who took militant feminism to London’s East End. But, as Rachel Holmes argues in this compelling biography, she was a major political figure of the 20th century who deserves to be better known. Born into a radical liberal family in Manchester in 1882, Pankhurst was one of the political generation who, seeing poverty and injustice everywhere, felt themselves at the end of one era and on the brink of another. She was one of historian Sheila Rowbotham’s “dreamers of a new day”.
A pacifist and internationalist, she supported the Russian Revolution, and was an advocate of soviets over parliamentary democracy. A leading founder of the British Communist party in 1920, she quarrelled with Lenin over the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921. When Lenin wrote “Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder”, Pankhurst was one of his targets.
From 1921, having witnessed the brutalities of Italian fascism on one of her political lecture tours, she campaigned ceaselessly against fascism and for colonial liberation. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, she became an ardent supporter of Ethiopian liberation – “the soul of anti-fascism”. Haile Selassie became a close friend, one of many refugees from fascist Europe and political exiles of the African diaspora who found their way to the “red tea shop” in east London, run by Pankhurst with Silvio Corio, her lover and companion of 30 years and father of their son, Richard, born in 1927.
Corio, an anarcho-syndicalist, was a refugee from fascist Italy, bound to Sylvia by a love of books as well as politics. Their east London home in the 1930s became known as “the village” to many pan-Africanists, communists and freedom fighters who wrote for the Workers’ Dreadnought newspaper, and from 1934 the New Times and Ethiopian News, both edited by Pankhurst and Corio.
She lived the last five years of her life in Addis Ababa, inexhaustible in her work and love for Ethiopia and its ancient civilisation. When she died in 1960, aged 78, her desk was covered with detailed plans for the health and education of Ethiopia’s people, especially its children. An idealist with an eye for practical reform, she always, Holmes writes, sought to “make the future a place we want to visit”. This book digs deep into the sorrows and passions of this complex and creative woman.
In memoirs, Pankhurst always began with her family. She loved and revered her father, Richard, a radical lawyer who lived in Manchester and worked closely with Lydia Becker, the formidable constitutionalist suffragist, on campaigns for married women’s property, education and suffrage. Sylvia made his ethical socialism her moral measure: “If you do not work for others, you will not have been worth the upbringing,” he exhorted her.
From left: Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst in 1911. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images
She was in thrall to her parents’ relationship – Emmeline her mother was more than 20 years younger than her husband beautiful, clever, devoted to his causes – and envious of her elder sister, Christabel, who took precedence in her mother’s heart. Sylvia craved tenderness from Emmeline, but found her absent and withholding. Holmes compounds childhood rage with Sylvia’s anger at her mother and Christabel’s increasingly authoritarian rule over the Women’s Social and Political Union, their support for the first world war and their embrace of Conservatism and evangelical Christianity during the 1920s. “Thinking back through” her mother, to quote Virginia Woolf (Sylvia’s exact contemporary), always roused anguish.
Pankhurst’s suffragette art was full of angels, pipes and woodlands the dreams and nightmares of her inner world were darker, and poured out of her in words – not least the bleak, writhing images of desolation in the many love letters she wrote to Keir Hardie, friend of her parents and “father” of the Labour party, with whom she had a long affair. In her writings, first-hand descriptions of breast twisting, beatings, hunger striking, force feeding (often through the nose, sometimes anally and vaginally) are distilled and precise. Prison made her a reformer, Holmes points out: “state torture” revealed the limits of liberalism. Carved into her psyche, Pankhurst’s imagery strengthened her resolve, her “rage of militancy”.
Escaping from prison and police, Pankhurst disguised herself in nurse’s uniform, or as a pregnant mother with infant
The women’s suffrage movement was brilliant at drama and spectacle. Uncorseted, hair undressed, face scrubbed, Pankhurst appeared slender and intense on public platforms – curved like the letter “S”, Silvio wrote to her after a quarrel – as she spoke for between one and three hours. Sent to “rouse” London in 1906 by her mother and sister, she moved east at Hardie’s suggestion, to live among London’s working classes, where dress became masquerade.
Norah Smyth, funder of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, always wore a man’s suit “General” Flora Drummond carried a trumpet. Escaping from prison and police, Pankhurst disguised herself in nurse’s uniform, or as a pregnant mother, newspapers stuffed down her dress. In 1908 Pankhurst filled the front two rows of a Women’s Liberal Federation meeting, addressed by Lloyd George, with women wearing buttoned up overcoats. As stewards and police descended on them for heckling and protesting, the women unbuttoned their coats to reveal prison uniforms beneath.
Pankhurst’s militancy drove her almost to martyrdom. She was imprisoned nine times between January and June 1914 alone, and the effects on her of solitary confinement, hunger- and sleep-strikes (she forced herself to walk her cell until she collapsed) make painful reading. But hers was a reasoning, listening activism. Well-fed, propertied, childless women might be encouraged to endure imprisonment mothers in poor domestic circumstances could not.
Serving on Bow District’s Distress Committee in 1916, she maddened local government officers (including George Lansbury, Labour leader during the 1930s) who used food tickets to encourage good behaviour: a woman should not be refused help, Pankhurst said, because she’d been seen singing while drunk.
Work filled Pankhurst’s thoughts throughout her life, work that needed to be done in the world. “Deeds not words”, was the original WSPU motto, though for her, words were as essential as breathing. To be deprived of writing materials, she wrote after imprisonment for sedition in 1921, was to be deprived of a precious human right.
Eleanor Marx and Rosa Luxemburg were Pankhurst’s heroines, and she was steadfastly socialist and anti-fascist. But feminism was at the heart of her politics. Like other feminists of her time, she campaigned on questions of maternity, sexual violence and domestic labour – which brought in their wake low pay, sweated work and appalling housing and education.
Many feminists in the 1920s and 30s made the move to anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, and believed in a “regenerative state”, even as they were forced to rely, as the ELFS was, on private wealth to fund mothers’ clinics or co-operative workshops (enterprises later funded by local authorities or central government). Most feminisms had roots in utopian socialism with its emphasis on all human relations and the transformation of the inner life.
Pankhurst’s 1931 book, The Suffragette Movement, was whisked from my hands as I was wheeled into the labour ward in the 1970s her Save the Mothers (1930) I could not be without. I share Holmes’s wish for the publication of the collected works. This is a moving, powerful biography of a woman whose desire to connect “with all the world” is an inspiration for our uncertain times.