Sylvia Pankhurst .com - an Interactive Learning Resource
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Richard Marsden Pankhurst
Sylvia's father, Dr Richard Marsden Pankhurst
Emmeline Pankhurst
Sylvia's mother, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, being arrested as a Suffragette (images reproduced courtesy of Dr Richard Pankhurst, and the LSE Library)

One of three sisters, Sylvia was the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who had founded the Women’s Social & Political Union (the WSPU or the Suffragettes), and of the barrister and legal reformer Dr Richard Pankhurst. Their family home in Nelson Street, Chorlton on Medlock, Manchester, is now a museum, bookshop and women's cultural base called the Pankhurst Centre.

As her social awareness increased during her teenage years, Sylvia felt embarrassed that her upbringing had been so privileged. However, she appreciated her education and the frequent intellectual discussions at home. Her father’s friends and regular visitors to the Pankhurst home included William Morris and other great artists and thinkers of the day: George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann and Keir Hardie. Hardie founded the Labour Party in 1893, when Sylvia was only eleven; in adulthood she was to develop a close relationship with him.

Sylvia's Father:

Originally a Conservative who later joined the Liberal Party and finally the Fabian Socialists, Sylvia's father was an early feminist. It was he who drafted the first Women's Suffrage Bill in 1869, and he continued to support the notion of female enfranchisement until his death in 1897. He was also responsible for the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884, which allowed married women to keep all personal effects that they had brought to their marriage or acquired during it. Before the Act, these had automatically become the property of the husband. It was his ideals that inspired Sylvia the most, and she followed his example rather than her mother’s, as a tireless campaigner for worldwide peace, and against fascism and racism. He died, however, when she was only sixteen. Sylvia never forgot that he had told her early on, 'If you do not work for others you will not have been worth the upbringing'.

Sylvia's Mother:

Born Emmeline Goulden, Sylvia's mother met her husband, 24 years her elder, when she was only 20. Emmeline had been brought up with a strong social awareness. Her father, Robert Goulden, had campaigned against slavery and the Corn Laws. Her mother, Sophia Crane, was an early feminist and had taken her to women's suffrage meetings in the early 1870s.

With her husband, Emmeline founded the Women's Franchise League in 1889 and became an active member of the Independent Labour Party formed by Keir Hardie in 1893 (which by 1895 had 35,000 members).

In 1903 she started the Women's Social and Political Union, which began its militant campaigns in 1905, sometimes using violence in an effort to win women the vote. In 1907 she left Manchester for London. For the next seven years she was repeatedly imprisoned for her activities; her actions and frequent hunger strikes inspiring women all over the country to bring attention to the cause by committing acts of civil disobedience. On the outbreak of war in 1914, the Government released all suffragettes from prison in return for the WSPU agreeing to cease militant activities. From then on, Emmeline and her daughter Christabel turned their attentions to the war effort; also fighting for women's right to contribute to it by doing work that had previously been the domain of men, freeing men to go and fight.

In the preceding years, Sylvia had become uncomfortable about the increasing violence used by the Suffragettes such as arson attacks and a rift developed, alienating her from Emmeline and Christabel. The WSPU abandoned its early commitment to Socialism, but Sylvia herself did not. Neither did Sylvia condone the war effort; she was later to object to enforced conscription which was introduced in 1916.

Sylvia's Siblings:

Sylvia's elder sister Christabel and her younger sister Adela also joined their mother's fight for women's suffrage. Christabel co-founded the Women's Social & Political Union in 1903 and was amongst the first to be imprisoned in 1905, for interrupting a Liberal Party meeting where she demanded votes for women. The publicity gained brought many more women to join the cause. Originally Christabel had wanted to be a dancer. In 1906, however, she gained a degree in law but, as a woman, was not allowed to become a practising barrister.

With her mother Christabel advocated violent tactics in the fight for women's suffrage, but was not supported by Sylvia who subsequently left the WSPU. Christabel supported a system that would give the vote only to women with money and property, which Sylvia could not agree with: Sylvia herself fought for universal suffrage for all adults. In 1921 Christabel went to live in the United States where she became a prominent member of Second Adventist movement, believing in the Second Coming of Christ. She later returned to Britain to live until World War II broke out, when she moved back to the United States.

Adela Pankhurst too spent periods in prison and went on hunger strike but, like Sylvia, she was not keen on the WSPU's militant strategies and was a pacifist. After a rift with her mother, Adela left England for Australia just before the first world war, and settled there. In 1920 she founded the Australian Communist Party with her husband, trade unionist Tom Walsh. Later, however, she abandoned left-wing politics altogether – even expressing some sympathy for the fascist movements in Germany and Italy. She joined the Women’s Guild of Empire, a Christian organization against Communism, and in favour of preserving Australia’s place in the British Empire.

Harry Pankhurst, their brother, was born in 1890. He became paralysed and lived only till he was 21.

Sylvia's Son:

Richard & Rita Pankhurst
Dr Richard Pankhurst with his wife Rita at home in Addis Ababa, in the house given to Sylvia by Emperor Haile Selassie

Sylvia's child Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst was born in 1927 in Woodford. He was educated at Bancroft's School, Woodford, and at the London School of Economics. He moved with Sylvia to Ethiopia in 1956, later becoming a professor at the University of Addis Ababa where he has taught for most of his career. In 1963 he founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies there, and was its first Director. He successfully campaigned for the return to Ethiopia of the Aksum obelisk which had been looted on Mussolini’s orders in 1937. His OBE was awarded 'for services to Ethiopian studies'.

Dr Pankhurst has written a number of books on Ethiopian history and culture. For many years he was co-editor of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies and of Ethiopia Observer, a magazine founded by his mother. He is also author of a biography of Sylvia's earlier life that focuses on her paintings: Sylvia Pankhurst: Artist and Crusader, and of Sylvia Pankhurst: Counsel for Ethiopia; an account of her life between the years 1934 and 1960 in which she developed a complex relationship with Ethiopia, as she campaigned against Fascism in Europe and Africa.