My Favourite Londoner
I first heard about Sylvia Pankhurst in my British History lessons at school in my home town of Melbourne in 1968. I was 16. My teacher said that as well as campaigning for women’s votes she was a left-wing firebrand. That increased my interest. I like the way Sylvia combined feminism and socialism, and love her feisty attitude and irreverent style of protest. She is much more inspiring to me than her better-known mother and sister, the other suffragette leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.
In the latter years of her life she watered down her revolutionary fervour and adopted some less than wholly progressive ideas. Nevertheless, when looking at her political activism in its totality, it is clear that Sylvia undoubtedly helped advance the cause of human liberation. One of her most important achievements was contributing to women gaining the vote. She was repeatedly jailed and went on hunger strike 10 times in 1913 and 1914 alone. Sylvia also campaigned for equal pay, mother and baby clinics, widow’s pensions, and for worker’s rights and against unemployment. She was founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. After urging a socialist revolution in Britain, she was convicted of sedition and imprisoned for five months. A fiery anti-fascist, Sylvia campaigned to defend Spanish democracy against Franco’s fascists, aided Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and backed the Ethiopian people’s struggle to liberate their country from occupation by Mussolini’s army. Horrified by Stalin’s purges and the show trials of leading Bolsheviks, she broke with Soviet-style ‘barbed wire’ communism.
There are several similarities between Sylvia and myself. We both started out life pursuing artistic careers. Sylvia studied at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. My family was too poor to send me to art school, so I learned on the job, in the display and design section of a big department store. Sylvia fell out with her politically conservative mother and sister, and I also had strong disagreements with my right-wing family. I loathe marriage. It is a patriarchal institution. Sylvia took the same view; scandalising her family by refusing to marry her Italian socialist lover, Silvio Corio. Sylvia saw the many different struggles for social justice as part of a single process of human liberation. It’s an idea that has influenced my thinking too. We both share revolutionary, anti-establishment ideals and believe in the necessity of direct action and civil disobedience to overturn unjust laws. Indeed, because I based some of my political ideas and campaign tactics on Sylvia and the suffragettes, my OutRage! colleagues used to nick-name me 'Peggy (Peter) Pankhurst'. There are no contemporary women rights campaigners who come anywhere near her radicalism and social impact. The women’s movement seems to have done a Rip Van Winkle. Sylvia would berate their complacency. We’ve got more women MPs nowadays but what do they do for the liberation of the female sex? Not much. Many of Blair’s Babes seem to be mostly voting fodder for the male-dominated Labour leadership.
If Sylvia were alive now, she’d be leading a left-wing feminist movement, probably called something like WomenRage! They’d be occupying business headquarters and government offices to demand equal pay for women (it is still only four-fifths of men’s income), free nursery places for every child, and equal representation for women in all leadership positions. She would, I expect, call for electoral reform to ensure more women MPs; perhaps urging the creation of two-member constituencies, where every electorate would be required to vote for a male MP and a female MP. It is probably the only way to end women’s under-representation in parliament. Because of her commitment to internationalism, it is also likely that Sylvia would be prominent in the green, anti-war, human rights and anti-globalisation movements, and the campaign to cancel Third World debt. The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee has begun a campaign to erect a bronze statue of Sylvia on College Green, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Designed by the late Ian Walters, it depicts Sylvia walking over ground strewn with placards – an appropriate, emblematic depiction of a woman whose many protests helped advance the causes of women’s equality, social justice, anti-colonialism and human rights.
Peter Tatchell is a member of the Green Party and the queer rights group OutRage!