Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Last updated:13 October 2015

Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst

Image credit: ILP

Sylvia Pankhurst (1882–1960) was a daughter of Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst.  Although often considered only as part of the ‘Pankhurst family’, Sylvia made a distinguished contribution not only to Votes for Women, but also to Internationalism, Anti-fascism and Anti-colonialism. Above all, she should be considered as one of the major figures of British Socialism. Sylvia was born in Old Trafford and the family briefly located to London. When they returned to Manchester in 1893 her parents joined the Independent Labour Party and Sylvia became an activist, being particularly influenced by her father.

She was a talented artist who met the full force of discrimination against women when she studied at the Royal College of Art. However, the question of women’s suffrage overtook her personal ambition and in 1903, along with other women and members of the Pankhurst family, she formed the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU). By 1905 the WSPU, having become frustrated at a lack of progress, decided upon a strategy of more direct action. Sylvia started working full time for the WSPU from 1906 and suffered periods of imprisonment. However, she did come to question the strategy of the organisation, the lack of democracy and the lack of common cause with working class women. Indeed the WSPU began to campaign for a Conservative Government in order to bring about a limited female franchise. Nevertheless, Sylvia continued to work for the WSPU and was further imprisoned and force-fed under the Cat & Mouse Act.

By 1913 Sylvia had broken completely with the WSPU and, in conjunction with a number of socialist figures, set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). This move was brought about by her understanding of the lives of those in the East End, her growing friendship with Keir Hardie, her experience of listening to working class activists on her two tours to the United States in 1911 and 1912, and her analysis of the Dublin Lock Out of 1913. Sylvia set up and edited The Women’s Dreadnought and worked with women in the East End of London on a variety of social and political campaigns.

When war broke out in 1914, Sylvia and other women, in the light of the WSPU’s pro-government and pro-war stance, set up the Women’s Peace Army. Sylvia became both a peace activist and a campaigner (and provider) of services for working class communities. In her work The Home Front she showed that the policy of starvation was deliberately used to boost Army recruitment. She also exposed the activities of many of those profiteering from both war and the shortage of food.

The ELFS became the Workers Suffrage Federation and The Women’s Dreadnought the Worker’s Dreadnought in recognition of the extent to which the liberation of women was to be considered part of the wider class struggle. She welcomed the Russian Revolution in 1917 and travelled there in order to assess the extent to which the Revolution liberated women. At the same time, she travelled widely throughout Western Europe to build links with other progressive forces. Her involvement in the creation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) showed the extent to which Sylvia was prepared to argue for a particular approach. She had a robust dialogue with Lenin and although she joined the CPGB there were disagreements about the position of the Dreadnought. After serving yet another prison sentence Sylvia increasingly came to oppose the centralised nature of the CPGB and highlighted the position of the Workers Opposition in the Soviet Union. In 1921 she refused to cede control of the Dreadnought and was expelled from the CPGB.

As a result of her experience Sylvia developed a much more internationalist perspective than many of her peers. She understood from the beginning that fascism in Italy was largely financed by banks and large business in order to operate in their interest. This was at a time when not only the British ruling class but many on the Left saw Mussolini as a positive development. She began to apply her socialism to a broader analysis of fascism and to develop a critique of British Imperialism. She visited India in 1926 and wrote a book – India and the Earthly Paradise – which portrayed the brutality of the British occupation.

Six women advertising a talk by Sylvia Pankhurst

Image credit: ILP

Her anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist stand left Sylvia with few political allies but by 1930 the realities of fascism were beginning to be appreciated and she was involved in the formation of the Women’s Committee Against War & Fascism, the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom and the International Peace Crusade.

At home she campaigned for better maternity services and in 1930 wrote Save the Mothers which exposed the high rates of infant mortality.

She became involved with the cause of Ethiopia in response to the actions of fascist Italy in beginning to invade that country from 1934. In 1936 she started the New Times and Ethiopia News and provided an outlet for anti-colonialist and African writers as well as exposing Italian massacres in Ethiopia. She also campaigned against aerial bombing (which had been pioneered by the British in Iraq) on the grounds that it represented the deliberate targeting of innocent people. Her experience of Ethiopia, and British ‘neutrality’, also enabled her to campaign against the fascists in Spain. In this phase of her life she worked closely with her Italian companion, Silvio Corlo.

In 1956, encouraged by Emperor Haile Selassie, Sylvia and her son Richard went to live in Ethiopia. During the Second World War Sylvia had campaigned to expose war crimes in Ethiopia and when she visited in 1944 she observed that although ‘liberated’ by the British the colonial occupation had continued. Sylvia campaigned for liberation throughout Africa, prompting a Foreign Office official to comment in 1947 that ‘we agree with you in your evident wish that this horrible old harridan should be choked to death with her own pamphlets’.

Sylvia died in 1960 and was buried in the grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.

The Library has a range of material on and by Sylvia Pankhurst for people to come in and read. This includes a large number of biographies by Connelly (shelfmark N15), Harrison (X78) and Harrison & Homewood (FR01), Ayling (Z37), Davis (Q61) and many other authors. There are two works by her son Richard Pankhurst, (B24) and, with Bullock (I50). There are works by Sylvia Pankhurst covering Ethiopia (both Africa – Box 1) and the Suffragette Movement (A13), (A15) and (H44). Her works Soviet Russia as I Saw It (A47) and The Home Front (A61) are both available. The Library has works which look at the East London Suffragettes by Joshua & Taylor (C52b) and in box ‘AG – Suffragette Movement’. The Library also has a good introductory work on the Pankhurst Family by Pugh (I60).
Finally, copies of the Worker’s Dreadnought are available in either paper copy or microfiche (S51).

Comment on this page

Cannot read text? Show another

Comments are moderated before publication