3 – Sylvia Pankhurst
“I know we will create a society where there are no rich or poor, no people without work or beauty in their lives, where money itself will disappear, where we shall all be brothers and sisters, where everyone will have enough.” Sylvia Pankhurst
Think of the name Pankhurst in relation to rebellious women, and it is likely that Emmeline Pankhurst will be the first name that comes to mind. Emmeline was a fair old rebel herself and one of the most famous female activists in history, particularly for her role as a leading Suffragette in the campaign for women to get the vote in the United Kingdom, but compared to her daughter Sylvia, she seemed almost conformist.
Sylvia took what her mother had done and ran with it, fighting for the rights of women, but also for the cause of socialist revolution, of anti-fascism and of anti-imperialism everywhere – so much so that she was denounced as being too left wing by no less than Lenin. When your mother is one of the most famous radicals of the age, one has to really ramp up teenage rebellion to make an impact.
Sylvia was born in Manchester in 1882, when her mother Emmeline was already active in the Women’s Suffrage Society. She was raised in a highly political household, of course, and, on leaving university, began in the “family business”: working for the Women’s Social and Political Union. Even from the start, however, Sylvia was interested in a more rounded approach to politics than simply the cause of women’s voting rights. She fostered active links with trade unions and, in 1913, began speaking at meetings supporting the Dublin Lockout (which we will remember from our profile of Constance Markiewicz) and growing ever closer to the Labour Party leader, Keir Hardie. Eventually, she was expelled from the WSPU for her outside agitation.
This was merely a sign to Sylvia that she should up her radicalism. The First World War was looming, and she threw herself into activism against it. Her mother and sister, Christabel, were supporters of military conscription and she broke with them, turning her home base, the Women’s Suffrage Federation, into the Worker’s Socialist Federation and leading campaigns to support women at home and hide conscientious objectors. She helped to lobby for the rights of soldier’s wives, both on a political level, petitioning the government, but also on a practical level, attempting to create jobs in the poorest parts of London so that they could earn money to feed their families.
As the war raged on, Sylvia became more and more left-wing. She was increasingly involved with the nascent Communist Party of Great Britain and at the end of the war, travelled to congresses around Europe to speak, including a trip to Bolshevik Russia. She vehemently disagreed with Lenin on the subject of parliamentarianism – he had advised her to work more closely with the Labour Party, which she considered reformist – and became identified with the Left Communist current, which was critical of the bureaucratic nature of the Bolshevik Revolution. Her long-term partner, Silvio Corio, was an anarchist and Sylvia’s new orientation drew much from the anarchist movement, which was at something of a historical height.
Her activism became less communist-orientated and coalesced around anti-fascism and anti-imperialism. She was particularly involved in supporting Ethiopia against fascist Italian invasion in the 1930s, as well as opposing the British Union of Fascists at home, and in campaigning for Indian independence. She was monitored by the British security services for decades, until, after the Second World War, she moved to Ethiopia. She died there in 1960, and perhaps we should leave her the last words:
“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.”