Sylvia Pankhurst

The daughter of two great social reformers, Sylvia slipped easily into a career in human rights though she had started out as an artist. She campaigned, lectured, wrote and published throughout her life

Background

International Institute for Social History (A10-738) 

Sylvia Pankhurst in 1915

ESTELLE SYLVIA PANKHURST (she later dropped her first forename) was born in Drayton Terrace, Old Trafford, Manchester on 5 May 1882. 

Sylvia’s father was the barrister and legal reformer Dr Richard Pankhurst, and regular visitors to her childhood home included the designer and socialist William Morris and the founder of the Independent Labour Party, Keir Hardie M.P. 

Sylvia was the second daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social & Political Union in 1903. Known as ‘suffragettes’, they were the most militant group to campaign to get women the vote. 

Sylvia herself was an early force in the campaign for women’s right to vote. She was repeatedly imprisoned for her protests – more than any other suffragette – but she had many other interests, both ideological and cultural. 

Sylvia was a gifted painter and graphic designer who trained at the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906. Influenced by the artist/illustrator Walter Crane, William Morris and others, her early paintings and decorative art were of very high quality, and she created some memorable designs for the suffragette movement. 

One of her earliest artistic commissions showed the challenges that women faced in Edwardian Britain. Her mother had promised that Sylvia would decorate Pankhurst Hall in Salford, erected by the Independent Labour Party and named after her father, only to find to Sylvia’s disgust that women were not to be admitted to the building which opened in 1902. It was this discovery that spurred her mother Emmeline into founding a new women’s organisation in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). A few years later Sylvia went on to challenge the establishment at the Royal College of Art when she discovered that most of the scholarships were only offered to men, but her protests were ignored even after the family friend, the Labour MP Keir Hardie brought the matter up in Parliament.

Between 1907 and 1912 Sylvia was responsible for many of the designs of the WSPU. It must have been natural for her mother Emmeline, who led the WSPU, to ask her talented daughter to play her part. In the years just before the First World War Sylvia found herself drawn more and more into the suffragette campaign and she abandoned her artistic career. In October 1912 Sylvia helped to set up a new WSPU group in Bow, east London. Here she discovered the appalling conditions of working class women and became determined to improve their conditions. ‘Wherever there is a need,’ she said, ‘there is my country’.

For the rest of her life Sylvia remained constantly active, campaigning against political oppression and promoting worldwide human rights. 

As the campaign for the vote reached a crescendo in 1913-14, Sylvia’s position changed as became unsettled by the more extreme violent tactics of some of the suffragettes. More fundamental was her growing belief that resolving social class inequalities under capitalism, including class conflict between women, was more important than just securing the vote. 

This differed from those like her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel (who ran the WSPU) who believed that the injustices which women experienced in Edwardian society, including exclusion from the political franchise, could be attributed to the power of men. They believed women’s interests transcended those of social class and that the ‘sisterhood of women’ was possible. However, they also tended to be more conservative in their views about society.

Both positions also differed from those known as ‘suffragists’ who emphasised that women’s inequality was due to their exclusion from certain rights, such as education, and who advocated gradual, constitutional, piecemeal reform. Historians have long debated which of the three main positions had the most impact.

In January 1914, Sylvia’s support for the Labour movement and Home Rule in Ireland led to her being expelled from the WSPU. With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the movement split again. Sylvia’s group, now renamed the East London Federation of Suffragettes, opposed the war unlike the vast majority of suffragettes who supported it.  

During the conflict the East London Federation of Suffragettes set up crèches for children of working-class mothers, a toy factory to provide employment and cheap restaurants to feed those that struggled with the rising cost of food. Many of these experiments helped pave the way for a future welfare state. Outraged at the inequalities in society, Sylvia was initially enthusiastic about the Russian revolution in 1917 and became a supporter of Communism. 

This led her to be imprisoned in 1920 for the publication of articles in the magazine she edited, the Workers’ Dreadnought, which incited sailors in the Royal Navy to mutiny, although these were actually written for her by the Jamaican writer Claude McKay. In 1924 Sylvia left the East End and moved to rural Woodford Green, Essex (now in the London Borough of Redbridge). Here, she published literature on an often bewildering variety but all with a sturdy conviction. She had a lifelong interest in the care of mothers and babies, for example and in 1930 she published Save the Mothers: A plea for measures to prevent the annual loss of about 3000 child-bearing mothers and 20,000 infant lives in England and Wales and a similar grievous wastage in other countries. Elements of this would find expression years later in the creation of the National Health Service in 1948.

Meanwhile, she had met an Italian revolutionary called Silvio Corio. He had trained as a printer and typographer but was also a journalist with an interest in politics. They fell in love, and went to live together in Woodford. Their son Richard was born in 1927. Sylvia’s position as an unmarried mother caused a sensation as it stood outside of the conventional morality of the time.

For the rest of her life Sylvia remained constantly active, campaigning against political oppression and promoting worldwide human rights. She became a passionate advocate for Ethiopia after it was invaded by Mussolini’s Fascist Italy in October 1935. Warning against the dangers of both Western colonialism and fascism she remained committed to Ethiopia for the rest of her life, visiting it for the first time in 1944 shortly after it had been freed from Italian rule by Allied forces.

In 1956, Sylvia moved to Ethiopia at the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie. Here, she turned her attentions once again to improving conditions for mothers and babies and campaigned to open a specialist women's hospital. On her death in 1960, she was given an Ethiopian state funeral, and was buried in a place reserved for Ethiopian heroes.

The Pankhurst Family

ONE OF THREE SISTERS, Sylvia was the daughter of the barrister and legal reformer Dr Richard Pankhurst, and of Emmeline Pankhurst who founded the Women’s Social & Political Union (the WSPU) in 1903, the most militant of the suffrage groups.

SYLVIA'S FATHER

Dr Richard Marsden Pankhurst

1834

1898

International Institute for Social History

Sylvia Pankhurst in 1915

Originally a Conservative who later joined the Liberal Party and finally the Fabian Socialists, Sylvia’s father was an early feminist. He unsuccessfully stood for Parliament several times for the Labour cause in 1884-5 and 1895. 

As a lawyer, 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 1898. 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. 

To further Dr Pankhurst’s attempts to become an MP for the Labour cause the Pankhursts moved from Manchester to London in 1887 when Sylvia was 5 years old. Emmeline opened a shop at 165 Hampstead Road selling ‘artistic’ household furnishings and William Morris fabrics but this proved unsuccessful. The following year the shop reopened in Regent Street as a more reasonably priced version of Liberty. Meanwhile the family home was full of political meetings. 

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

In 1892 the family returned to Manchester but with the death of Dr Pankhurst in 1898 the family moved into a smaller house at 62 Nelson Street, Chorlton on Medlock, Manchester where they lived until 1907 (it is now a museum, bookshop and women’s cultural base called the Pankhurst Centre). 

It was her father’s 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 what he had told her, ‘If you do not work for others you will not have been worth the upbringing’.

International Institute for Social History

Sylvia’s mother, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, being arrested outside Buckingham Palace after trying to present a petition for women’s suffrage to King George V, 22 May 1914

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 Emmeline started the Women’s Social and Political Union, the most militant of the suffragette groups who sometimes used violence in an effort to win women the vote. In 1907 Emmeline 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. Sylvia became increasingly uncomfortable about the violence used by the WSPU and a rift developed between her, Emmeline and Christabel. Sylvia also began to support the labour movement and working-class women in the East End which further alienated her from her mother and sister. In January 1914, Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU.

On the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the government released all suffragettes from prison in return for the WSPU agreeing to case militant activities. Like most of the population, Emmeline and Christabel fully supported the war and they campaigned for women to undertake work that had previously been the domain of men, freeing men to go and fight. They believed that women demonstrating their patriotism would further the cause of gaining the vote. Sylvia, meanwhile, opposed the war which further alienated her from her family.

Sylvia Pankhurst talks about her mother Emmeline

In this account of her mother’s life recorded in 1953, Sylvia Pankhurst (pictured c.1950) remembers both Emmeline Pankhurst’s strength of conviction and her great personal charm, despite the fact that Sylvia had been ostracised from the WSPU by her. Interspersed with recollections of her mother founding and leading the Women’s Social and Political Union and the great suffering she endured to achieve the goal of votes for women are more personal memories that reveal Emmeline’s huge energy and love of fashion.

SYLVIA'S MOTHER

Emmeline Pankhurst

1858

1928

SYLVIA'S SIBLINGS

Christabele Pankhurst

1880

1958

&

Adele Pankhurst

1885

1961

IWM

Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel and Sylvia, October, 1911

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 was subsequently expelled from the WSPU. Christabel supported a system that would give the vote only to women with money and property, which Sylvia could not agree with. Instead, Sylvia 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 the Second World War 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

Dr Richard Pankhurst, OBE

1927

2017

Rita Pankhurst

Dr Richard Pankhurst and his wife Rita 

Sylvia’s son Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst was born in 1927. Sylvia named him after her father Richard; her political mentor Keir Hardie; and her friend Emmeline Pethick. Richard grew up in Woodford, Essex, and was educated at Bancroft’s School, 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. Later, he successfully campaigned for the return to Ethiopia of the ancient Aksum obelisk which had been looted during the Fascist Italian invasion in 1937 on Mussolini’s orders and was finally returned from Italy in 2005. His OBE was awarded ‘for services to Ethiopian studies’. 

Dr Pankhurst was an expert on Ethiopian history and culture and author of many books. For many years he was co-editor of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies and of the Ethiopia Observer, a magazine founded by his mother. He was 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. Dr Pankhurst passed away on 16 February 2017. On his death in Addis Ababa, Workneh Gebeyehu, the Ethiopian Foreign Minister described him as “one of Ethiopia’s greatest friends”. 

Richard married Rita Eldon in 1957. Rita was a noted librarian and scholar of Ethiopian studies. As Director of Library Services at the City of London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University) she was instrumental in acquiring the Fawcett Library which contained women’s suffrage campaign records. The Fawcett collection served as the nucleus for the internationally renowned Women’s Library, now in the custodianship of the London School of Economics. Upon their return to Ethiopia in 1987 Rita continued to be active in scholarship until her death on 30 May 2019.

Richard and Rita’s son Alula Pankhurst is a social development consultant whose main focus has been on Ethiopia and Ethiopian studies. 

Their daughter Helen Pankhurst is an international development and women’s rights activist and writer. Her book Deeds not Words: The Story Of Women’s Rights Then And Now was published in February 2018 to critical acclaim.

Ethiopian Reminiscences 

Richard and Rita Pankhurst, 2013

 

This film provides a unique view of travel within Ethiopia, seemingly ceaseless work and, most important to Richard and Rita, innumerable deep and life-long friendships.

Politics & World Affairs

International Institute for International History (B3-316)

Sylvia speaking at an anti-fascist demonstration in London’s Hyde Park, 28 October 1935

Throughout her life, Sylvia Pankhurst was driven by her social conscience and never stopped trying to think of ways in which society could be improved. Her political ideals were never static, developing over time as her awareness of the world increased. 

With her mother and sister, she had fought for women’s suffrage, but Sylvia believed strongly in universal suffrage, feeling that the more participation people had in deciding their own destiny, the sooner they would see a fairer society. However, winning the vote was not enough and her work would continue long after that. 

In 1912 Sylvia helped to found a branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Bow, in London’s impoverished East End. During 1913 she spoke in favour of the Labour movement, and Home Rule in Ireland. In 1914 the East London branches of the WSPU and Sylvia herself were expelled from the WSPU because of their labour activism and so the East London Federation of Suffragettes was born (becoming the Workers’ Suffrage Federation in 1916 and then the Workers’ Socialist Federation in 1918).

 

As an opponent of the First World War, Sylvia supported the international women’s peace movement which aimed to bring warring nations together at an international conference. The International Congress of Women met in neutral Holland in 1915 to protest against the First World War; some 1500 women attended, coming from Europe and the United States, although it did not prevent the war from continuing.

Sylvia’s work in the poverty-stricken East End became allied with an international socialist outlook. For example, when Irish republicans led the armed Easter Rising against British rule in April 1916 Sylvia recalled how she had more sympathy for the socialist leader James Connolly than the other more conservative nationalists. 

The outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 seemed to offer a moment of hope that socialists had long dreamed about. In a sign of where her interests now lay, Sylvia changed the title of the newspaper she edited from the Woman’s Dreadnought to the Workers’ Dreadnought and began to argue for the creation of local ‘soviets’, or workers’ committees to replace Parliament. In 1919 Sylvia visited Italy, Germany, and Holland to meet other socialists and communists, while also engaging in correspondence with Lenin, the leader of the Russian Communist Party. Lenin and Sylvia did not see eye to eye about everything, however. Sylvia at this time had little regard for Parliament believing it was undemocratic and held back the advance of communism in Britain. Lenin dismissed Sylvia and argued that the socialist parties in Britain should unite and contest elections. The stage was set for a show-down.

Sylvia decided to travel to Moscow to attend the Second World Congress of the Third International in July 1920 and confront Lenin. This was a meeting of members of the Third International, an organisation of socialist and communist parties from around the world. Sylvia had to undertake this arduous journey in secret as the Home Office had confiscated her passport, fearing the damage she could do. After stowing away on a freighter from Harwich to Sweden, followed by a perilous crossing to the Russian port of Petrograd on a fishing boat, she took the train to Moscow.

Unexpectedly, her meeting with Lenin went smoothly and ‘Comrade Pankhurst’ agreed to follow the cause of unity which was perhaps a pragmatic compromise to protect the Communist revolution. Shortly after her return from Moscow, in October 1920, Sylvia was arrested for inciting treason among the Royal Navy after an article in the magazine she edited, the Workers’ Dreadnought, advocated that sailors should go on strike. For this, she was imprisoned for 6 months in Holloway Prison. The article had been written by the Jamaican writer Claude Mackay, making Sylvia the first newspaper editor in Britain to employ a black journalist, full-time. 

By this time, she had fallen in love with a revolutionary Italian journalist, Silvio Corio, who worked on her newspaper. Inspired by his concern, Sylvia became aware of violent Fascist attacks against other political groups and members of the public in Italy. Following the murder of the Italian Socialist Party secretary general and politician, Giacomo Matteotti, by Fascists in 1924, she founded an anti-Fascist pressure group, the Women's International Matteotti Committee.

Continuing her fight for world peace and having moved from Bow to Woodford Green, Essex, she erected a monument there in 1935 against aerial warfare; she felt strongly that bombing innocent people from the sky was not a fair way to fight. When Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Sylvia campaigned against it but did not get the support of the British government she hoped for. She did, however, get some acknowledgement from her local MP who happened to be Winston Churchill. Indeed, they had an exchange about this in 1936 on the letters page of the Woodford Times newspaper. Her concern for Ethiopia was to last the rest of her life. She also went on to support the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and helped Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. 

Sylvia remained active in politics throughout her life, taking on specific causes that moved her, from women’s rights to socialism, from anti-imperialism to anti-racism. Britain remained suspicious of her, along with many other political figures who had at some time been allied to the Communist Party. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the British secret service MI5 archives hold a file from 1948 discussing strategies for 'Muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst'.

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