The Socialist Suffragette

Rachel Holmes celebrates the life of Sylvia Pankhurst

IN 1896, when she was thirteen, Sylvia Pankhurst was taken by her father to the Mosley Hotel in her home town of Manchester to meet Eleanor Marx, the foremother of socialist-feminism and Karl’s youngest daughter, at an event held in honour of William Liebknecht, leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Forty-one-year-old Marx, leader of the gasworkers, and fondly nicknamed ‘Our Old Stoker’, profoundly impressed the adolescent Sylvia who, decades later, would in turn be claimed as ‘Our Sylvia’ by British workers. Marking the handing on of the torch from one generation of socialist-feminist women to the next, this meeting is a significant moment in British history. It is also a telling pointer to the trajectory of Sylvia’s political future. All the Pankhurst women started out as socialists in common cause for Votes for Women. All of them remained feminists – of one sort or another – until they died. But Sylvia was the only Pankhurst who remained a lifelong socialist. 

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst, born in Old Trafford in 1882, fulfilled the luminary and radical promise of her name. Britain at the time of her birth was deeply undemocratic. All women and the majority of working men were denied the right to vote and so barred from full citizenship. Sylvia was a key protagonist in the development of British democracy, which has existed in an advanced form for less than century. By the time Sylvia died in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 1960, she had made a profound contribution to the establishment of social democracy in Britain and to the anti-colonial, anti-racist liberation struggles that broke the shackles of its Empire. Sylvia embodied what Melissa Benn calls ‘the enduring principle of agitation’, the belief in principled and powerful collective protest.

Sylvia’s surname placed her as a daughter of Britain’s best-known feminist family, leading the militant front in the struggle for Votes for Women. She descended from Chartists present at Peterloo and Anti-Corn Law Leaguers, whose membership cards her mother proudly displayed on the mantelpiece. Sylvia’s mother Emmeline was Britain’s most famous suffragette. Her socialist and feminist father Dr Richard Pankhurst – known as the ‘Red Doctor’ – had drafted the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act with his friend John Stuart Mill. In 1888, the couple attended the International Workers Congress where they first met Keir Hardie, who became a close family friend. Sylvia’s parents were founder members of the Independent Labour Party. Richard stood several times for parliament, as a republican socialist candidate, unsuccessfully. ‘Why are women so patient?’ Dr Pankhurst asked his wife, three daughters and son, ‘Why don’t you force us to give you the vote? … Why don’t you scratch our eyes out?’ This was the political DNA that Sylvia inherited from generations of her radical family who did not hold that inequality was either natural or inevitable. 

Family party pooper

Sylvia’s vocation was to be an artist. Instead she became one of the co-founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), set up in the family’s front parlour in 1906. The ‘Family Party’, as it was known, bound the Pankhurst women in common cause until the outbreak of World War One, about which they profoundly disagreed. However, conflict had been developing between Sylvia and Christabel over WSPU policy and the aims of the Votes for Women campaign long before that. 

All civil wars begin in the family. The rift between the Pankhursts began with divergent beliefs over questions of class, not gender. Christabel, supported by her mother, argued for a limited vote that would enfranchise fewer than two million women who met property and education qualifications – in short, votes for posh women. Sylvia regarded this as far too narrow. To be meaningful, the vote must be inclusive: for all working women. Sylvia supported wholeheartedly the cause of female suffrage. She harboured no doubt that women needed to organise and lobby forcefully within the socialist movement to make it a priority. However, she was an egalitarian visionary who saw nothing wrong with utopian daydreaming about the aims of socialism. In principle, she supported the goal of universal suffrage. She believed also in harnessing the economic and political struggles of women and the working class. Without a class analysis, feminism was just a campaign group for rich women who wanted equality with brothers and husbands but had no interest in extending the same rights to their chauffeurs or housemaids. 

Sylvia’s warnings that the exclusion of working women from the 1918 Representation of the People Act would set back the evolution of democracy in Britain by a decade proved correct. While it was largely working-class women who formed the activist vanguard for women’s suffrage from the 1880s, it was primarily middle-class and aristocratic women who benefited from the limited extension of the franchise in the 1918 Act. Until 1928, enfranchised women overwhelmingly voted Conservative. 

Suffragette Britannia

In 1914, Emmeline and Christabel became jingoistic anti-German xenophobes, obtaining a government amnesty for suffragette prisoners in exchange for calling off the militant struggle and supporting the war. They renamed The Suffragette– the movement’s newspaper – Britannia, its front cover sporting a martial image of Boadicea in her chariot. Sylvia, like her lover Keir Hardie, first leader of the Labour Party, was a courageous pacifist – deeply opposed to what she regarded as an unnecessary capitalist war intended to stem the rise of socialism in western Europe.

The privately argued differences between Sylvia, Christabel and their mother over the working woman’s vote developed into public battles. Then full-scale sex and class war broke out between them. When Mrs Pankhurst heard in 1916 that her pacifist daughter had organised an anti-conscription rally in Trafalgar Square, she sent Christabel a telegram: ‘Strongly repudiate and condemn Sylvia’s foolish and unpatriotic conduct. Regret I cannot prevent use of name. Make this public.’ As Sylvia remarked on the definitive split between herself, her mother and Christabel over the Great War, the Pankhursts were a family who took their political allegiances keenly to heart. Sylvia was ostracised by her mother and elder sister for her anti-racist, anti-war and pro-universal suffrage views. She was targeted by Mussolini, and was on the Gestapo’s secret list of people to arrest when the Nazis occupied England. She became a dear friend of Haile Selassie and played no small part in persuading the world to support the cause of the liberation of Ethiopia, by Selassie’s admission. She climbed through the Alps and evaded the secret services of three nations in order to get to Moscow to debate Lenin, on the issue of anti-parliamentarianism, on which they differed. Her home in Woodford, Essex, was always open to Italian and African students in exile and Jewish refugees during the war. Among them were future leaders Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and many others, all of whom wrote tributes to her. Nkrumah nicknamed Sylvia’s Woodford home ‘The Village’ during his student days. At West Dene, her house, he had gathered with Ethiopians, Kenyans, Egyptians, South Africans, Nigerians, Somalis, Eritreans, Afro-Caribbeans, African-Americans, Jewish refugees from Europe, Communist and socialist refugees from Italy.

The political ructions between the Pankhursts in the early 20th century set the agenda for a hundred years of feminism. As Labour’s Barbara Castle observed in the 1980s, the bitter rift between the Pankhurst sisters would come ‘to represent the two strands of the development of feminism.’ At the time Castle wrote this, Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, a self-proclaimed anti-feminist, had just been re-elected for a third term. Like all the Pankhursts, Emmeline and Christabel set out as socialists. By the time they succeeded in winning the right to become MPs, both were standing as stylishly dressed Conservative candidates. Sylvia stuck with her socialism. Speaking from the dock in shabby second-hand clothes at her unsuccessful appeal against a conviction for sedition in 1921, she restated the principles from which she never wavered: ‘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.’

Rachel Holmes’s Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel was published by Bloomsbury in September. Her previous books include Eleanor Marx: A Life

%d bloggers like this: