Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of Dr. Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, was born at Drayton Terrace, Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May, 1882. Christabel Pankhurst (born 1880) and Adela Pankhurst (born 1885) were two of her siblings. Sylvia spent her childhood in a household immersed in radical politics and women's rights campaigns. (1)
Richard Pankhurst was a committed socialist and a strong advocate of women's suffrage. He had been responsible for drafting an amendment to the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 that had resulted in unmarried women householders being allowed to vote in local elections. Richard also served on the Married Women's Property Committee (1868-1870) and was the main person responsible for the drafting of the women's property bill that was passed by Parliament in 1870. (2)
Richard Pankhurst became a leading figure in radical politics in Manchester. The Spectator, a journal that supported the Liberal Party, warned about his extreme political views. "He has pledged himself to Home Rule and the repeal of the Crimes Bill, and the Irish have, therefore, accepted him; the moderate Liberals say he is better than a Tory, and the extreme Radicals are attracted by his ideas, which they see to be philanthropic... Dr. Pankhurst will not vote with Mr. Gladstone, but against him. The Premier is for unity and order ; Dr. Pankhurst is for Home Rule and the repeal of the Crimes Act. Mr. Gladstone is for household suffrage; Dr. Pankhurst for universal suffrage of both sexes... We admit that Dr. Pankhurst is honestly dreaming; and therefore we prefer... a sensible Tory to Dr. Pankhurst." (3)
In 1886 the family moved to London where their home in Russell Square became a centre for gatherings of socialists and suffragists. They were also both members of the Fabian Society. At a young age, their children were encouraged to attend these meetings. This had a major impact on their political views. As June Purvis has pointed out: "Such experiences had a decisive effect on Christabel. Nothing she learned from the inadequate education offered by governesses or, when the family moved back to the north in 1893, at the high schools she attended - first in Southport and then in Manchester - compared with the political education she received at home." (4)
Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst became involved in left-wing politics. Visitors to their home included Keir Hardie, William Morris and Eleanor Marx. The couple continued their involvement in the struggle for women's rights and in 1889 helped form the pressure group, the Women's Franchise League. The organisation's main objective was to secure the vote for women in local elections. Powerful members of society were totally opposed to granting votes to women. Queen Victoria strongly expressed herself against this "mad folly of Women's Rights." (5)
In 1893 Richard and Emmeline returned to Manchester where they formed a branch of the new Independent Labour Party (ILP). This new party was more supportive of women's rights than older Socialist organizations. The Social Democratic Federation "viewed female aspirations essentially as an expression of bourgeois individualism" and although the Fabian Society "allowed female participation it remained indifferent towards votes for women". (6)
Women were allowed to be candidates to join the Poor Law Board of Guardians. However, because of property qualifications most women were ineligible and only a handful were elected. However, these qualifications were abolished by William Gladstone and his Liberal government in 1894 and later that year, Emmeline, with the support of the ILP, became a candidate for the Chorlton Board of Guardians. "Throwing herself into the new cause" she came top of the poll with 1,276 votes. (7)
Sylvia Pankhurst studied at Manchester Art School. She was later to recalled she enjoyed the avant-garde atmosphere of art college and "when absorbed in the work I knew the greatest happiness." (8) In 1900 she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. Women had been admitted from its formation but in a segregated "Female School" with a different curriculum, including life classes in which the live models were strictly, clothed." (9)
Women's Social and Political Union
Emmeline Pankhurst was a member of the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage. By 1903 Pankhurst had become frustrated at the NUWSS lack of success. With the help of her three daughters, Sylvia, Christabel Pankhurst and Adela Pankhurst, she formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline stated that the main aim of the organisation was to recruit more women into the struggle for the vote. "We resolved to limit our membership exclusively to women, to keep ourselves absolutely free from ant party affiliation, and to be satisfied with nothing but action on our question. Deeds, not words, was to be our permanent motto." (10)
Although a committed artist, Sylvia began spending more and more time working for women's suffrage. When the Women Social & Political Union was formed, Sylvia employed her artistic skills for the organisation. This included designing the Membership Card for the WSPU. It portrayed "in clear, bright colours, the working women, in aprons, clogs, and shawls, whose lives she hoped the campaign would improve." (11)
Lisa Tickner argues that political conflicts with her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, and her sister, Christabel Pankhurst, reduced her contribution to the pictorial propaganda of the campaign: "She was increasingly divided from her mother and Christabel over questions of allegiance and strategy. She deplored what she saw as the neglect of the needs of working-class women, and the severing of ties with the socialist movement." (12)
The main objective was to gain, not universal suffrage, the vote for all women and men over a certain age, but votes for women, “on the same basis as men.” This meant winning the vote not for all women but for only the small stratum of women who could meet the property qualification. As one critic suggested, it was "not votes for women", but “votes for ladies.” As an early member of the WSPU, Dora Montefiore, pointed out: "The work of the Women’s Social and Political Union was begun by Mrs. Pankhurst in Manchester, and by a group of women in London who had revolted against the inertia and conventionalism which seemed to have fastened upon... the NUWSS." (13)
The forming of the WSPU upset both the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Labour Party, the only party at the time that supported universal suffrage. They pointed out that in 1903 only a third of men had the vote in parliamentary elections. On the 16th December 1904, The Clarion published a letter from Ada Nield Chew, attacking WSPU policy: "The entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still, and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into Parliament." (14)
The following month Christabel Pankhurst replied to the points that Ada Nield Chew made: "Some of us are not at all so confident as is Mrs Chew of the average middle class man's anxiety to confer votes upon his female relatives." A week later Ada Nield Chew retorted that she still rejected the policies in favour of "the abolition of all existing anomalies... which would enable a man or woman to vote simply because they are man or woman, not because they are more fortunate financially than their fellow men and women". (15)
As the authors of One Hand Tied Behind Us (1978) pointed out: "The fiery exchange ran on through the spring and into March. The two women both relished confrontation, and neither was prepared to concede an inch. They had no sympathy for the other's views, and shared no common experiences that might help to bridge the chasm... Christabel, daughter of a barrister... had little personal experience of working women's lives. Ada Nield Chew had known little else... her life had been a series of battles against women's low wages and appalling working conditions." (16)
On 13th October 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney attended a meeting in London to hear Sir Edward Grey, a minister in the British government. When Grey was talking, the two women constantly shouted out, "Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?" When the women refused to stop shouting the police were called to evict them from the meeting. Pankhurst and Kenney refused to leave and during the struggle a policeman claimed the two women kicked and spat at him. Pankhurst and Kenney were both arrested. (17)
Christabel Pankhurst was charged with assaulting the police and Annie Kenney with obstruction. In a deliberately aggressive courtroom speech, Christabel admitted that she has assaulted police officers and pointed out that "I am only sorry that one of them was not Sir Edward Grey... We cannot make any orderly protest because we have not the means whereby citizens may do such a thing: we have not a vote, and so long as we have not a vote we must be disorderly... When we have that, this will not see us in the police courts; but so long as we have not votes this will happen." (18)
Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were both found guilty. Pankhurst was fined ten shillings or a jail sentence of one week. Kenney was fined five shillings, with an alternative of three days in prison. When the women refused to pay the fine they were sent to prison. The case shocked the nation. For the first time in Britain women had used violence in an attempt to win the vote. (19)
Emmeline Pankhurst was very pleased with the publicity achieved by the two women. "The comments of the press were almost unanimously bitter. Ignoring the perfectly well-established fact that men in every political meeting ask questions and demand answers of the speakers, the newspapers treated the action of the two girls as something quite unprecedented and outrageous... Newspapers which had heretofore ignored the whole subject now hinted that while they had formerly been in favour of women's suffrage, they could no longer countenance it." (20)
In 1906 Sylvia gave up her studies at the Royal College of Art and worked full-time for the WSPU. As June Hannam has pointed out: "In 1906, however, she gave up her studies so that she could devote most of her time to the suffrage campaign. In that year she suffered her first imprisonment after protesting in court at a trial in which women had not been allowed to speak in their own defence. From then onwards Sylvia was always in the thick of the fight. She was arrested and imprisoned on numerous occasions and also suffered hunger and thirst strikes as well as forcible feeding. She gained notoriety at the time for her suffrage militancy and it is for this that she tends to be best remembered in subsequent histories." (21)
Sylvia Pankhurst and Keir Hardie
Sylvia was also very active in the Labour Party and became a close friend of Keir Hardie, the leader of the party in the House of Commons. She had first met him when he was a child. "There he was; his majestic head surrounded by ample curls going grey and shining with glints of silver and golden brown; his great forehead deeply lined; his eyes, two deep wells of kindness, like mountain pools with the sunlight shining through them; sunshine distilled they always seemed to me. Friendship radiated from him. Kneeling on the stairs to watch him I felt that I could have rushed into his arms; indeed it was not long before the children in the houses where he stayed had climbed to his knees. He had at once the appearance of great age and vigorous youth." (22)
According to the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003): "The young student, now aged twenty-four, had fallen for the fifty-year-old politician in a manner which went far beyond mere admiration or friendship. As the relationship developed, the complexity of these feelings became clearer. Sylvia saw Hardie as part political hero, part father-figure and part potential lover. Gradually he began to return her feelings... Hardie helped her move into cheaper lodgings, soothed her furrowed brow and took her out for a cheering meal. From then on Sylvia often visited him at the House of Commons and the two walked together in St James's Park or spent the evening at Nevill's Court. Quite how they dealt with the fact that he was already married is not entirely clear." (23)
Sylvia Pankhurst's biographer, Rachel Holmes, claims that she loved visiting Keir Hardie, "it was a home from home, reminiscent of the times before her father died." This was reinforced by the fact that Hardie's political views with very similar to her father's belief in socialism. This was very different from the opinions of her mother and sister who had grown increasingly hostile to the Labour Party because it campaigned for universal suffrage rather than votes for certain categories of women. Sylvia and Hardie were privately embarking on one of the most sensational love matches of the early twentieth century". On 8th March, 1907, he gave her his recently published book, From Serfdom to Socialism. (24)
Democracy in the WSPU
Sylvia Pankhurst became concerned about the developments that had taken place in the Women's Social and Political Union. In September 1907, Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst sent out a letter to all branches of the WSPU stating that this was not in any way a democratic group. "We are not playing experiments with representative government. We are not a school for teaching women how to use the vote. We are a militant movement... It is not a school for teaching women how to use the vote. We are militant movement... It is after all a voluntary militant movement: those who cannot follow the general must drop out of the ranks." As Simon Webb has pointed out: "This is quite unambiguous. Members must not expect to influence policy or question the leader, the role is limited to obeying orders." (25)
Sylvia tended to agree with Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Edith How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Anne Cobden Sanderson, Katherine Vulliamy, Helen Fox, Muriel Matters, Octavia Lewin, Emma Sproson, Margaret Nevinson, Henria Williams, Constance Tite, Violet Tillard and about sixty-five other members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL). Most of its members were socialists who wanted to work closely with the Labour Party who "regarded it as hypocritical for a movement for women's democracy to deny democracy to its own members." (26)
Sylvia argued with her mother over this issue. She later observed, she might as well have urged the wind to stop blowing as advise her mother to change her mind. However, out of family loyalty, Sylvia did not leave the WSPU. (27) Her views was shared by her younger sister, Adela Pankhurst. She later told fellow member, Helen Fraser: "I knew all too well that after 1910 we were rapidly losing ground. I even tried to tell Christabel this was the case, but unfortunately she took it amiss." (28)
On 25th June 1909, Marion Wallace-Dunlop was found guilty of wilful damage and when she refused to pay a fine she was sent to prison for a month. On 5th July, 1909 she petitioned the governor of Holloway Prison: “I claim the right recognized by all civilized nations that a person imprisoned for a political offence should have first-division treatment; and as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction.” (29)
Wallace-Dunlop refused to eat for several days. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, it was decided to release her. According to Joseph Lennon: "She came to her prison cell as a militant suffragette, but also as a talented artist intent on challenging contemporary images of women. After she had fasted for ninety-one hours in London’s Holloway Prison, the Home Office ordered her unconditional release on July 8, 1909, as her health, already weak, began to fail". (30)
On 22nd September 1909 Charlotte Marsh, Laura Ainsworth and Mary Leigh were arrested while disrupting a public meeting being held by Herbert Asquith. Marsh, Ainsworth and Leigh were all sentenced to two weeks' imprisonment. They immediately decided to go on hunger-strike, a strategy developed by Marion Wallace-Dunlop a few weeks earlier. Wallace-Dunlop had been immediately released when she had tried this in Holloway Prison, but the governor of Winson Green Prison, was willing to feed the three women by force. (31)
Mary Leigh, described what it was like to be force-fed: "On Saturday afternoon the wardress forced me onto the bed and two doctors came in. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It is two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there is a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid is passing. The end is put up the right and left nostril on alternative days. The sensation is most painful - the drums of the ears seem to be bursting and there is a horrible pain in the throat and the breast. The tube is pushed down 20 inches. I am on the bed pinned down by wardresses, one doctor holds the funnel end, and the other doctor forces the other end up the nostrils. The one holding the funnel end pours the liquid down - about a pint of milk... egg and milk is sometimes used." Leigh's graphic account of the horrors of forcible feeding was published while she was still in prison. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, it was decided to release her. (32)
Hunger-strikes now became the accepted strategy of the WSPU. In one eighteen month period, Emmeline Pankhurst endured ten hunger-strikes. She later recalled: "Hunger-striking reduces a prisoner's weight very quickly, but thirst-striking reduces weight so alarmingly fast that prison doctors were at first thrown into absolute panic of fright. Later they became somewhat hardened, but even now they regard the thirst-strike with terror. I am not sure that I can convey to the reader the effect of days spent without a single drop of water taken into the system. The body cannot endure loss of moisture. It cries out in protest with every nerve. The muscles waste, the skin becomes shrunken and flabby, the facial appearance alters horribly, all these outward symptoms being eloquent of the acute suffering of the entire physical being. Every natural function is, of course, suspended, and the poisons which are unable to pass out of the body are retained and absorbed." (33)
Sylvia Pankhurst thought that she join other Women's Social and Political Union members and to get herself imprisoned and then go on hunger-strike. She told Keir Hardie: "I shall have to go to prison to stand by the others". He responded that the movement didn't need any more martyrs, it needed her art. "Finish what you are working on at least." Sylvia agreed to wait but was determined to join other members of the WSPU in their hunger-strike campaign. (34)
In 1909 Sylvia and Keir Hardie rented a cottage in Penshurst, Kent. They met there as often as his busy schedule permitted. According to Fran Abrams: "During one of these interludes he begged her not to go back to prison. The thought of the feeding tubes and the violence with which they were used was already making him ill - how much worse would it be if it were her?" (35) Hardie became one of the main critics of the force-feeding of women prisoners: "That there is difference of opinion concerning the tactics of the militant Suffragettes goes without saying, but surely there can be no two opinions concerning the horrible brutality of these proceedings? Women, worn and weak by hunger, are seized upon, held down by brute force, gagged, a tube inserted down their throats and food poured or pumped into the stomach." (36)
On 14th February 1913, Sylvia Pankhurst and Zelie Emerson, were arrested from throwing a stone at the window of the police station in Bow. They were arrested and sentenced to six weeks in prison. After going on hunger strike they were released. On 17th February, they broke windows of a branch of Westminster Bank in Bow Road. (37) As Fran Abrams has pointed out: "On the first two occasions her efforts were thwarted when her fines were paid and she was released - the first time she blamed WSPU officials, the second time her mother." (38)
This was followed by damaging the greens of Bradford Moor golf course. The magistrate said that if the women behaved as "common riffraff" then they must be treated as such and they were both sentenced to two months' hard labour. (39) Zeli and Sylvia served their sentence in Brixton Prison. They went on hunger and thirst strike and were placed in the hospital wing and force-fed. (40)
According to Rachel Holmes: "Sylvia went on hunger strike and was force-fed more times than any other suffragette. Her mother hunger struck, but was never force-fed. The government appeared to be nervous of the public response to abusing so popular an iconic matriarchal, middle-class figure. Christabel, at the time running the leadership-in-exile from Paris, was not required to hunger strike and hence was never subjected to torture." (41)
While in prison Sylvia Pankhurst wrote to The Suffragette about her experiences: "I am fighting, fighting, fighting. I have four, five, and six wardresses every day, as well as the two doctors. I am fed by stomach-tube twice a day. They prise open my mouth with a steel gag, pressing it in where there is a gap in my teeth. I resist all the time. My gums are always bleeding. The night before last I vomited the last meal, and was ill all night, and was sick after both meals yesterday... My shoulders are bruised with struggling whilst they hold the tube into my throat. I used to feel I should go mad at first, and be pretty near to it, as I think they feared, but I have got over that, and my digestion is the thing that is most likely to suffer now." (42)
East London Federation of Suffragettes
Sylvia Pankhurst grew increasingly unhappy about the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) decision to abandon its earlier commitment to socialism. She also rejected the WSPU attempts to gain middle class support by arguing in favour of a limited franchise. Pankhurst made the final break with the WSPU when the movement adopted a policy of widespread arson. Sylvia now concentrated her efforts on helping the Labour Party build up its support in London. (43)
In 1913, Sylvia Pankhurst, with the help of Keir Hardie, Norah Smyth, Zelie Emerson, Julia Scurr, Mary Phillips, Millie Lansbury, Eveline Haverfield, Lilian Dove-Wilcox, Maud Joachim, Nellie Cressall and George Lansbury established the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF). An organisation that combined socialism with a demand for women's suffrage it worked closely with the Independent Labour Party. Pankhurst also began production of a weekly paper for working-class women called The Women's Dreadnought. (44)
As June Hannam has pointed out: "The ELF was successful in gaining support from working women and also from dock workers. The ELF organized suffrage demonstrations and its members carried out acts of militancy. Between February 1913 and August 1914 Sylvia was arrested eight times. After the passing of the Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act of 1913 (known as the Cat and Mouse Act) she was frequently released for short periods to recuperate from hunger striking and was carried on a stretcher by supporters in the East End so that she could attend meetings and processions. When the police came to re-arrest her this usually led to fights with members of the community which encouraged Sylvia to organize a people's army to defend suffragettes and dock workers. She also drew on East End traditions by calling for rent strikes to support the demand for the vote." (45)
Norah Smyth, supplied most of the money for this venture. Appointed treasurer of the EFL she helped finance their weekly newspaper, The Women's Dreadnought that first appeared in March 1914. Although they printed 20,000 copies, by the third issue total sales were only listed as just over 100 copies. During processions and demonstrations, the newspaper was freely distributed as propaganda for the EFF and the wider movement for women's suffrage. (46)
Sylvia Pankhurst, who had brought an end to her romantic relationship with Keir Hardie, became extremely close to Norah during this period: "Although Norah was also from a wealthy background, she dedicated many years of her life, and almost all of her inheritance, to the suffragette cause, and lived in Bow with Sylvia for many years. Norah played a key role in all the Federation's activities (she was financial secretary, helped to drill the People's Army and even wallpapered and painted the Woman's Hall) but seemed to prefer a place out of the limelight." (47) It has been suggested Norah became a substitute sister for Sylvia. (48)
Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst objected to the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes and by the end of 1913 Sylvia was on the verge of being expelled from the WSPU. Christabel, who was living in exile, demanded she came to see her in Paris. "So insistent were the messages… I agreed to go… I was smuggled into a car and driven to Harwich. I insisted that Norah Smyth, who had become financial secretary of the Federation, should go with me to represent our members… Like me, she desired to avoid a breach. Dogged in her fidelities, and by temperament unable to express herself under emotion, she was silent… She (Christabel) urged, a working women's movement was of no value; working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest." Christabel added: "You have your own ideas. We do not want that; we want all our women to take their instructions and walk in step like an army!". (49)
Christabel also complained about ELF's close links with the Labour Party and the trade union movement. She especially objected to her attending meetings addressed by George Lansbury and James Larkin and her friendship with Keir Hardie and Henry Harben. In view of all this, Christabel concluded, Sylvia's East London suffragettes had to become an entirely separate organization, having proven their inability to operate in compliance with Women Social & Political Union policy. (50) Emmeline Pankhurst wrote to Sylvia: "You are unreasonable, always have been, and I fear always will be." On 29th January 1914, Christabel expelled Sylvia from the WSPU. (51)
Norah Smyth, continued to provide the money needed to keep the ELF functioning. However, as the authors of the East London Suffragettes (2014) pointed out: "One of Nora's greatest contributions was as an observer. She had a talent for photography, and it is thanks to her that we have such a fantastic visual record of the East London suffragettes' activities, and so many images of the deep poverty which surrounded them." (52)
First World War
The British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914. Two days later, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies declared that the organization was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Fawcett supported the war effort, but she refused to become involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) took a different view to the war. It was a spent force with very few active members. According to Martin Pugh, the WSPU were aware "that their campaign had been no more successful in winning the vote than that of the non-militants whom they so freely derided". (53)
The WSPU carried out secret negotiations with the government and on the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Christabel Pankhurst, arrived back in England after living in exile in Paris. She told the press: "I feel that my duty lies in England now, and I have come back. The British citizenship for which we suffragettes have been fighting is now in jeopardy." (54)
After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men. She told the audience: "What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!". (55)
Anti-war activists such as Ramsay MacDonald were attacked as being "more German than the Germans". Another article on the Union of Democratic Control carried the headline: "Norman Angell: Is He Working for Germany?" Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield were described as "Bolshevik women trade union leaders" and Arthur Henderson, who was in favour of a negotiated peace with Germany, was accused of being in the pay of the Central Powers. Her daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst, a member of the Labour Party, accused her mother of abandoning the pacifist views of Richard Pankhurst. (56)
Norah Smyth shared Sylvia's pacifist beliefs and joined her on platforms in the East End, condemning the war and calling for an early peace. Norah wrote in The Women's Dreadnought that "peace would be the overriding issue in the year to come". (57) Former WSPU members such as Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth joined them on ELFS demonstrations against the war. (58)
In 1914 Norah Smyth, and Henry Harben agreed to finance the establishment of the Women's Hall at 400 Old Ford Road in Bow. It was large enough to hold meetings of 350 people. It became the headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). It became a social centre run largely by and for local working-class women. It housed a ‘Cost Price Restaurant' where people could get a hot meal at a very low price and free milk for their children. (59)
In October 1914 Norah agreed to finance the establishment of a toy factory at the rear of the Women's Hall. The first toys were wooden and flat, easily made and quickly marketable. The socialist artist Walter Crane provided free designs. Since the Germans had cornered most of the toy market before the war, especially the production of dolls, it seemed to be a good idea. Eventually the factory produced stuffed dolls that they sold to Selfridge's in the West End. When the factory started making profits, Norah turned it into a cooperative and hired Regina Hercbegova as manager. (60)
The factory was supposed to be run collectively, guided by a definite constitution and a workers' committee. Unbeknown to Norah Smyth, Hercbegova set up her own business management system. "Regina swiftly grasped the most effective capitalist methods – cost cutting, increasing her own wages and decreasing those of the staff – while running roughshod over the co-operative, socialist ethos on which the factory was supposed to run." (61)
Regina Hercbegova ran the factory very badly and it was soon heavily in debt. By the end of the war had sold jewels, cashed bonds and sold antique furniture to keep the venture going. In all, Norah lent the factory £750. Norah also financed other ventures. Indeed, between February 1915 and July 1916, Norah lent the ELF a total of £1839 10s 4d. (62)
Despite the problems with the factory, the Women's Hall was a great success: "With a large hall of their own, the suffragettes were able to hold public meetings without fear of interference from the council or the police. Other sympathetic groups could hold their meetings there too, bringing in a new audience for the Federation's messages and building solidarity with other campaigns in the East End at the time. Without having to pay hire fees, the Federation could run a much wider range of activities, including lessons and workshops, fundraising concerts, lending libraries, affordable canteens and nurseries." (63)
Norah Smyth and Sylvia Pankhurst formed a branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in the East End. In a continuing attempt to maintain a balance between suffrage and peace agitation the East London Federation of Suffragettes changed its name in March 1916 to the Workers Suffrage Federation (WSF), symbolically acknowledging its long-held goal of universal suffrage. (64)
Norah and Sylvia, although critical of those who supported Britain's entry into the First World War, they admired those who attempted to reduce the suffering in the conflict. This included Henry Harben who had financed a hospital treating wounded soldiers in France that was being run by another former WSPU member, Dr. Flora Murray. They showed their approval by visiting the hospital in Paris. (65)
The women's hostility to the war resulted in people resigning from the WSF. As Sylvia Pankhurst admitted later: "I felt sorrow in having to tell parents whose sons were at the front that war was wrong and its ideals false… It required an effort to bring myself to do it… I lost old friends and subscribers to our movement." (66)
During the war Sylvia joined with Dr. Barbara Tchaikovsky to open four mother-and-baby clinics in London. Tchaykovsky pointed out that during the first year of the war 75,000 British soldiers (2.2 per cent of the combatants) had been killed. However, during the same period over 100,000 babies in Britain (12.2 per cent of those born) had died. In 1915 nearly 1,000 mothers and their babies were seen at Sylvia's clinics. Local politicians such as George Lansbury helped to raise funds for the organisation that's milk bill alone was over £1,000 a year. (67)
Sylvia Pankhurst's newspaper was renamed the Workers' Dreadnought and continued to campaign against the war and gave strong support to organizations such as the Non-Conscription Fellowship. The newspaper also published the famous anti-war statement in July 1917, by Siegfried Sassoon. He argued: "I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of the soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.... I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust." (68)
Russian Revolution and Democracy
Sylvia Pankhurst was a supporter of the Russian Revolution that took place in February 1917. She later described her early, enthusiastic response, greeting events in Russia as "the Social Revolution I at once recognized it and affirmed it to be", the starting point of the "revolution, the rising of the masses against war which would usher in the Socialist order of universal fraternity - that bright hope of the multitude which from childhood I had shared." (69)
Sylvia sent a message to Alexander Kerensky congratulating the Duma for overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II. The Workers' Dreadnought published a message to socialists, the press and Russians living in Britain and France, congratulating Russian workers on taking their first successful steps towards establishing "a genuine democracy" and bringing about a "speedy end to the war." (70)
The Provisional Government did not take Russia out of the war as Sylvia had hoped. Kerensky appointed General Alexei Brusilov as the Commander in Chief of the Russian Army. He toured the Eastern Front where he made a series of emotional speeches where he appealed to the troops to continue fighting. On 18th June, Kerensky announced a new war offensive. According to David Shub: "The main purpose of the drive was to force the Germans to return to the Russian front the divisions which they had diverted to France in preparation for an all-out offensive against the Western Allies. At the same time, the Provisional Government hoped this move would restore the fighting spirit of the Russian Army." (71)
Encouraged by the Bolsheviks, who favoured peace negotiations, there were demonstrations against Kerensky in Petrograd. The Bolshevik popular slogan "Peace, Bread and Land", helped to increase support for the revolutionaries. By the summer of 1917, the membership of the Bolshevik Party had grown to 240,000. The Bolsheviks were especially favoured by the soldiers who found Lenin's promise of peace with Germany extremely attractive. (72)
Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, established the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC). On 20th October, the MRC had its first meeting. Members included Joseph Stalin, Andrey Bubnov, Moisei Uritsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky and Yakov Sverdlov. According to Robert V. Daniels, the author of Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (1967): "Despite Menshevik charges of an insurrectionary plot, the Bolsheviks were still vague about the role this organisation might play... Several days were to pass before the committee became an active force. Nevertheless, here was the conception, if not the actual birth, of the body which was to superintend the overthrow of the Provisional Government." (73)
The following day the Red Guards surrounded the Winter Palace. Inside was most of the country's Cabinet, although Kerensky had managed to escape from the city. The palace was defended by Cossacks, some junior army officers and the Woman's Battalion. At 9 p.m. The Aurora and the Peter and Paul Fortress began to open fire on the palace. Little damage was done but the action persuaded most of those defending the building to surrender. The Red Guards, led by Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, now entered the Winter Palace. (74)
Sylvia Pankhurst was a strong supporter of the Bolsheviks. She argued that the new Russia was more democratic than Britain: "As a representative body, an organization such as the All-Russian Workers, Soldiers', Sailors' and Peasants' Council is more closely in touch with and more directly represents its constituents than the Constituent Assembly or any existing Parliament. The delegates... are constantly reporting back and getting instructions from their constituents; whilst Members of Parliament are elected for a term of years and only receive anything approaching instructions at election times." (75)
Sylvia Pankhurst was highly critical of the proposed Qualification of Women Act. She published a letter in The Call newspaper explaining why: "(1) A woman is not to vote until 30 years of age, though the adult age is 21. (2) A woman is on a property basis when enfranchised. (3) A woman loses both her Parliamentary and local government vote if she or her husband accept Poor Law Relief; her husband retaining his Parliamentary and losing his local government vote if he accepts Poor Law Relief. (4) A woman loses her local government vote if she ceases to live with her husband, ie. if he deserts her, she loses her vote, he retains his. (5) Conscientious Objectors to military service are to be disenfranchised." (76)
The Qualification of Women Act was passed in February, 1918. The Manchester Guardian reported: "The Representation of the People Bill, which doubles the electorate, giving the Parliamentary vote to about six million women and placing soldiers and sailors over 19 on the register (with a proxy vote for those on service abroad), simplifies the registration system, greatly reduces the cost of elections, and provides that they shall all take place on one day, and by a redistribution of seats tends to give a vote the same value everywhere, passed both Houses yesterday and received the Royal assent." (77)
Pankhurst argued that class divisions were not only protected but further entrenched by the qualified vote. Sylvia pointed out it was working-class women, particularly the young, grafted during the First World War and since the 1880s young women had formed the activist base for women's suffrage. Despite this, it was primarily middle-class and aristocratic women who benefited, and those with some education or property. Middle-class women, it was hoped, would provide a bulwark against advancing threats of social unrest. Rachel Holmes explained how Sylvia had good reason to fear the impact of this legislation: "Voting patterns demonstrated this to be the case. Between 1918 and 1928, newly enfranchised women overwhelmingly voted Conservative." (78)
Sylvia wrote several articles in the Workers' Dreadnought where she attempted to integrate her philosophy of feminism with those of Leon Trotsky who had developed the idea of government by soviets. "These are the workshop committees of the mothers for the streets and the houses they live and work in are their workshops. The women must organise themselves and their families and help in the general struggle of the working class to conquer the power of government." (79)
Sylvia Pankhurst and Communism
In March 1918 Sylvia Pankhurst established the People's Russian Information Bureau (PRIB), to co-ordinate British support for the revolution. Basil Thompson, head of the 114-man Special Branch, a unit set up to conduct investigations to protect the State from perceived threats of subversion, ordered that Pankhurst was to be closely monitored. It was discovered that she was in close contact with Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet government's representative in Britain, and Theodore Rothstein, a journalist who was suspected of being a Soviet spy. (80)
During this period Sylvia had fallen in love with Silvio Corio, who had joined the staff of the Workers' Dreadnought as a journalist. By 1919 he was managing the newspaper. He had been born in Italy and was a follower of the anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin rather than Karl Marx. His political activism forced him into exile. After living in France he moved to London and wrote for several different left-wing journals. (81)
Another member of staff was the black poet Claude McKay who had recently arrived from America. In a letter to the newspaper he had complained about the racism he had experienced since arriving in Britain. Sylvia invited him to visit her in the office. She offered him a full-time job. According to Rachel Holmes McKay was the "first black political journalist to be employed full time on the staff of a modern national British newspaper." (82)
McKay later wrote about the meeting: "I found a plain little Queen Victoria sized woman with plenty of long unruly bronze-like hair. There was no distinction about her clothes, and on the whole she was very undistinction about her clothes, and on the whole she was very undistinguished. But her eyes were fiery, even a little fanatic, with a glint of shrewdness... Pankhurst had a personality as picturesque and passionate as any radical in London... and in the labour movement she was always jabbing her hat pin into the hides of the smug and slack labour leaders." (83)
In February 1920 wrote an article in the Workers' Dreadnought entitled "Towards a Communist Party" outlining the progress of the unity negotiations for the formation of a united British Communist Party, on the basis of affiliation to the Third International, the recognition of the Soviet system instead of parliamentarianism and the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. "The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence from reformism inviolate. Its mission is to lead the way without stopping or turning by the direct road to Communist Revolution". (84)
On 14th May 1920, Scotland Yard raided the offices of the Workers' Dreadnought and arrested Sylvia Pankhurst and her business manager, Harold Burgess. Lenin pointed out in Pravda: "Sylvia Pankhurst has been arrested in England... When they speak of 'freedom' do they speak of freedom for the capitalists to rob, to deceive, to befool the toilers from the yoke of the capitalists, the speculators and the property owners? Comrade Pankhurst represents the interests of hundreds upon millions of people who are oppressed by the British and other capitalists." (85)
Lenin became critical of Sylvia Pankhurst's political strategy: "I consider erroneous the tactics pursued by Comrade Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers' Socialist Federation, who refuse to collaborate in the amalgamation of the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and others to form a single Communist party. Personally I am in favour of participation in Parliament and of affiliation to the Labour Party, given wholly free and independent communist activities... I consider it most desirable that a single Communist party by speedily organised on the basis of the decisions of the Third International, and the Industrial Workers of the World and the Shop Stewards' Committees, in order to bring about a complete merger with them in the near future." (86)
Sylvia Pankhurst replied to Lenin that she was willing to discuss this matter with him: "My reply to you is that I would like to defend my tactics in the Moscow Congress, but I have been refused two visas by two intervening countries. If you, through your influence in the Labour Party and you parliamentary friends can obtain for me a passport, I shall gladly meet you in debate. (87)
David Lloyd George, the prime minister, prohibited Sylvia from leaving the country. "Trailed by the security services and on the watch list at every port, she decided to leave Britain by subterfuge. Driven by her determination to debate directly with Lenin and the Comintern, she embarked on her risky mission from Harwich, in disguise. Assisted by comrades, she stowed away on a freighter bound for Norway and Sweden, where she expected to pick up a Soviet steamer." (88)
Unfortunately, no steamer was available and she was transported to Russia in an old fishing smack, "unpainted for many years... scarcely eight feet across and her gear rusted and weatherworn" in which she spent "hours of misery" in the icy seas making the voyage to Murmansk. In her memoir, Soviet Russia as I Saw It (1921) she wrote that they "bounded over the waves, away from Capitalism". (89)
Lenin called on British socialist organisations to affiliate with the Labour Party. He added that it was necessary for the Labour Party to have a trial period in office in order to expose the futility of reformism and the unreliability of Labour officials. Sylvia Pankhurst countered: "We assert that the Labour Party will in any case come to power, that the British Socialist Party cannot disassociate itself too clearly from the Labour Party's reformist policy and must by no means enter into alliances or arrangements with it. We believe the Communists can best wean the masses from faith in bourgeois parliamentarianism by refusing to participate in it." (90)
William Gallacher supported Sylvia Pankhurst in her arguments. Lenin responded by calling a private meeting to discuss the "British question" with Pankhurst and Gallacher. Also at the meeting were Karl Radek, Gregory Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and John Reed. (91) Sylvia later pointed out: "We, who were in opposition on certain matters, nevertheless argued our case in spite of the hopelessness of the task, and Lenin argued against us, as though our defeat had not been a foregone conclusion." (92) He criticised Pankhurst's ideology and derided it as "intellectual childishness, not the serious tactics of a revolutionary class". (93)
Although she disagreed with Lenin, she found him a fascinating character: "At first sight one feels as though one has always known him... the photographs are not like him: they represent an altogether heavier, darker and more ponderous man in place of this majestic and mobile being.... rather short, broadly built, he is quick and nimble in every action just as he is in thought and speech... his rather bright complexion looks sandy because it is tanned and freckled by hot sun... His bearing is frank and modest, his brown eyes twinkle with friendly amusement." (94) Lenin took her views seriously and "makes no less than 10 major references to Sylvia Pankhurst - more than any other British revolutionary socialist". (95)
On 31st July, 1920, a group of revolutionary socialists attended a meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel in London. The men and women were members of various political groups including the British Socialist Party (BSP), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), Prohibition and Reform Party (PRP) and the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF). It was agreed to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Arthur McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Tom Bell and Harry Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers. (96)
It later emerged that Lenin had provided at least £55,000 (over £1 million in today's money) to help fund the CPGB. Early members included Sylvia Pankhurst, Willie Paul, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, J. T. Murphy, Arthur Horner, Rose Cohen, Tom Mann, Ralph Bates, Winifred Bates, Rose Kerrigan, Peter Kerrigan, Bert Overton, Hugh Slater, Ralph Fox, Dave Springhill, William Mellor, Robin Page Arnot, John Ross Campbell, Bob Stewart, Shapurji Saklatvala, Ellen Wilkinson, George Aitken, Dora Montefiore and Robin Page Arnot.
The first resolution passed at the Communist Unity Convention covered the main aims of the new party: "The Communists in Conference assembled declare for the Soviet (or Workers' Councils) system as a means whereby the working class shall achieve power and take control of the forces of production. Declare the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary means of combating counter-revolution during the transition period between capitalism and communism, and stand for the adoption of these measures as a step towards the establishment of a system of complete communism wherein the means of production shall be communally owned and controlled. This Conference therefore establishes itself the Communist Party on the foregoing basis and declares its adhesion to the Communist International." (97)
Sylvia Pankhurst joined Communist Party against the wishes of Silvio Corio, who had been appalled by the way Lenin had persecuted anarchists in the Soviet Union. Sylvia also had doubts about Lenin's government and in March, 1921, the Workers' Dreadnought published an article by Herman Gorter, entitled "Open Letter to Comrade Lenin." Gorter rejected Lenin's arguments that he had made in his pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder (1920) and praised the work of Silvio and Sylvia "to raise the masses as a whole, and the individuals to a higher level, to educate them one by one to be revolutionary fighters, by making them realise (not through theory only, but especially by practice), that all depends on them, that they are to expect nothing from foreign help, very little from leaders, and all from themselves." (98)
In October 1920 Scotland Yard detectives arrested Sylvia Pankhurst under Regulation 42 of the Defence of the Realm Act that proscribed any "act calculated or likely to cause sedition or disaffection among any of His Majesty's forces, or among the civilian population". The issue contained four offending articles in the Workers' Dreadnought that had been written by Sylvia Pankhurst, Dave Springhall, Theodore Rothstein and Claude McKay. (99)
Sylvia Pankhurst was found guilty and the judge pointed out that "the punishment of six months' imprisonment which I pass on you is quite inadequate". It was reported by the Daily Herald that the judge referred to "treason felony" and "hard labour". However, after a whispered consultation with the clerk, he added: "Having regard to your sex, I order it to be in the second division." (100)
At her appeal on 5th January 1921, she told her story of pursuing her father's mission of liberating the oppressed from their oppressors. In support of her argument, she quoted her "heroes", Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, William Blake, William Morris and Edward Carpenter. Sylvia told the officers of the court, "it is wrong that people like you should be comfortable and well fed, while all around you people are starving." The judge, Sir John Bell, was unimpressed and upheld the sentence. Moreover, he added, six months' solitary confinement, because of the seriousness of her offence. (101)
Sylvia Pankhurst considered the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) to be too right-wing and was completely opposed to the idea of it being affiliated to the Labour Party. She was eventually expelled from the CPGB for refusing to allow the Dreadnought from being controlled by the party executive. She wrote in the Workers' Dreadnought that she was sad to see that there was as yet no sign of the withering of dictatorship, which was supposed to be only a temporary transitional state. "The Communist Party of Great Britain is at present passing through a sort of political measles called discipline which makes it fear the free expression and circulation of opinions within the Party." (102)
Birth of Richard Pankhurst
Sylvia began living with Silvio Corio, and after the Workers' Dreadnought came to an end in 1924 they opened a café together. (103) They then moved to Woodford Green where Sylvia concentrated on her writing. Silvio and Sylvia also opened the Red Cottage bookshop. They sold books and pamphlets written by Jack London, Charles Bradlaugh, Edward Carpenter, Olive Schreiner, William Cobbett, Mary Wollstonecraft, Clara Gilbert Cole, Henry George, Keir Hardie, Maxim Gorky, Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Antonio Gramsci and Alexandra Kollontai. (104)
In the autumn of 1926, Emmeline Pankhurst accepted the invitation from the Conservative Party to stand as their candidate for Whitechapel. Sylvia was appalled by this news and wrote to the national newspapers expressing her disapproval. (105) "Permit me, through your columns, to express my profound grief that my mother should have deserted the cause of progress... For my part I rejoice in having enlisted for life in the socialist movement, in which the work of Owen, Marx, Kropotkin, William Morris and Keir Hardie, and such pioneering efforts as those of my father, Richard Marsden Pankhurst, both before and during the rise of the movement in this country, are an enduring memory. It is naturally most painful for me to write this, but I feel it incumbent upon me, in view of this defection, to reaffirm my faith in the cause of social and international fraternity, and to utter a word of sorrow that one who in the past has rendered such service should now, with that sad pessimism which sometimes comes with advancing years, and may result from too strenuous effort, join the reaction." (106)
Ethel Smyth, a close friend, explained: "Mrs Pankhurst, once a member of the ILP, came to feel something like horror of the Labour Party, whereas Sylvia was one of their warmest adherents. The perhaps inevitable alienation between mother and daughter was fated to culminate in a tragic and sinister episode during the tragic last weeks of the former's life." (107)
The trade union leader Henry Snell commented: "Mrs. Pankhurst was magnetic, courageous, audacious, and resolute. Mrs. Pankhurst was an autocrat masquerading as a democrat. Mussolini might with profit have learned his business at her feet. She later found her appropriate spiritual home, and ended her days in the Tory Party, which used her to oppose Labour candidates and others whose help she had accepted, and on whose shoulders she had climbed to fame." (108)
Christabel Pankhurst also joined the Conservative Party but was unable to find a winnable parliamentary seat. She also became disillusioned with women voters. "We women too are human... having now became politically responsible, we can more easily realise that we are wholly unable, just as men are unable, even to form, much less to put into effect, a policy that will regenerate the world." (109)
Christabel also disapproved of the way that young women expressed their new freedom: "The emancipation of today which displays itself mainly in cigarettes and shorts... in painted lips and nails, and the return of trailing skirts and other absurdities of dress which betoken the slave-women's sex appeal rather than the free-woman's intelligent companionship." (110)
In 1927, at the age of forty-five, she gave birth to her only child, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst. Corio, who was 52, "was a proud, loving and experienced father". The boy was named after the three most important men in her life: Richard Pankhurst, Keir Hardie and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. (111)
Sylvia did not believe in marriage and had argued in favour of free love and sexual freedom, though she never practised it indiscriminately. Two of her heroines, Mary Wollstonecraft and Clara Zetkin, had both been unmarried mothers. In an article published in The Sunday Chronicle Sylvia argued that "like most idealistic young people", she had "the notion that true love can only come once in a lifetime, and invariably, endures forever". She had changed her mind about this and "I early became convinced that no man or woman should be chained for life." (112)
Sylvia upset Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst, by refusing to marry the boy's father. Several times she attempted to visit her mother, but when she arrived at the house, Emmeline refused to see her. According to Emmeline's foster-child Mary Gordon, her mother locked herself in her bedroom "like a sulky girl and refused to see Auntie Sylvia when that scarlet woman dared to call." (113)
Sylvia Pankhurst responded to this rejection by giving an interview to the News of the World in April 1928. It reported "Sylvia Pankhurst's amazing confession" that she gave birth "to a child out of wedlock - a Eugenic baby, she prefers to call it." She added: "I wanted a baby, as every complete human being desires parenthood, to love him and cherish him, to see him grow and develop and to leave behind me a being who will, I hope, carry on the best that is in me and my stock." Sylvia said she was very much in love with her son's father whose identity she refused to reveal. That he was fifty-three and foreign was all she would say. She added: "He is of a retiring disposition and hates publicity, I will not bring him publicity by naming him." (114)
Newspapers around the world, especially, the tabloids, took up the story. Christabel Pankhurst interpreted Sylvia's actions as a personal attack. She complained to friends that the newspaper headlines referring to "Miss Pankhurst" caused her no end of embarrassment as she feared being mistaken for the subject of the scandal. She told Grace Roe: "That was the biggest blow I ever received and the repercussions have not really ceased. The whole publicity was skilfully engineered to harm me." (115)
A friend, Helen Fraser, said Emmeline was "horrified and greatly distressed when Sylvia had her son." On 14th June 1928, Emmeline Pankhurst, aged 69, died. Several members of the family and former Women Social & Political Union members believe that Sylvia's public announcement sent the already weakened Mrs Pankhurst to her death. (116)
During this period she wrote several books, including India and the Earthly Paradise (1926), a book calling on the reform of maternity care, Save the Mothers (1930) and and an account of her war experiences in the East End, The Home Front (1932). However, her most important book, The History of the Women's Suffrage Movement, was published in 1931. The book "interweaves the personal story of the Pankhurst family with the interrelated themes of the struggle for votes for women, the birth of British socialism and the Labour Party, and how to imagine and design a feminist society." (117)
In November 1935, Sylvia Pankhurst, wrote an article in The Daily Mirror about her opinions on unmarried mothers. "As a Suffragette in prison I met young expectant mothers serving sentences for having attempted suicide in fear of a censorious world. During the war, when I worked in the East End among war sufferers of every sort, girls came to me with their 'war babies'. Many had been dismissed by irate employers, some had been driven from home by angry parents. In all those years of public activity, busy as I was with other matters I had formed my own conclusions on matrimony, parenthood and the rights of children. I resolved very emphatically that I would always stand against classing any children as illegitimate, and insist that all must be entitled to equal respect and equal opportunities both as regards their parents and the community." (118)
Sylvia Pankhurst led the campaign against the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. In 1935 she began a weekly journal, New Times and Ethiopia News, that publicized the efforts made by Emperor Haile Selassie to persuade the League of Nations to prevent colonization. In October 1938 she visited Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Foreign Office wrote hostile reports on her tour. When she was in Eritrea an official commented: "Miss Pankhurst clearly set out on her journey with her mind already made up. She was going to visit a citadel of freedom populated by brave, virtuous and wholly admirable defenders who were beset by the machinations of European imperialists." (116) While in Ethiopia an official reported: "Miss Pankhurst's sense of her own importance... shelters inadequately behind an affection of modesty." (119)
In complete contrast to her pacifist approach to the First World War she advocated complete military victory against fascism. She condemned Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy and was outraged by the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. "The Communist Parties of Britain and France will doubtless find some method of justifying this Pact to their own satisfaction, but their non-communist allies, who had great faith, are dismayed.... It is a stunning blow. Yet for ourselves we are not stunned by it, not wholly surprised. We knew that there was always a risk that the Soviet Union would even now hold aloof from the struggle - the desperate struggle - between all that is best in European democracy and the brutal forces of fascism." (120)
The British secret service had held a file on Sylvia Pankhurst since her early days in the women's suffrage movement. They became concerned by her being "associated with communist, anti-fascist and anti-war causes". They became commented when "she became a friend and adviser to the Emperor Haile Selassie, and maintained a steadfast anti-British outlook". As late as 1948 MI5 was considering various strategies for "muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst." (121)
In 1953 Sylvia suffered a heart-attack. As a result, her sister, Christabel Pankhurst made contact with Sylvia. As June Purvis has pointed out: "On 5 May 1953, Sylvia's birthday, Christabel renewed contact with her sister, writing her a warm letter and wishing her well after her recent heart attack. The correspondence between the two sisters continued intermittently until Christabel's death" on 13th February 1958. (122)
Silvio Corio died on 11 January 1954, aged seventy-eight. Sylvia arranged for his cremation to take place in Manor Park, Walthamstow, but was too distressed to attend the funeral. Richard Pankhurst recalled that his mother wept unceasingly for days when his father died. Sylvia wrote to her old friend, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence: "When Richard's father died, Richard asked me not to go to the crematorium with him because he knows I am like that and he told me he would be upset if I came and begged me not to go. I can't control my tears and all that. You know I am not very well now - sometimes I feel almost the same as before but anything upsets me. I never go out now unless someone will drive me in a car and very seldom at all." (123)
In October 1954 Emperor Haile Selassie arrived in Britain for an official state visit. After meeting with Queen Elizabeth II he visited Sylvia and reminded her of his standing invitation to her and her son to move to Ethiopia where a warm welcome and much useful work awaited them. Richard, who was teaching at Toynbee Hall and researching at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, was offered a post at the University College of Addis Ababa. (124)
Sylvia Pankhurst died in Addis Ababa, on 27 September 1960. She was regarded so highly in Ethiopia that the emperor ordered that she should receive a state funeral, which was attended by himself and other members of the royal family. The Manchester Guardian reported: "Observers said it was the most outstanding tribute ever paid at a non-royal or non-official funeral in Ethiopia." (125)
Shortly after Emmeline Pankhurst's death a Pankhurst Memorial Fund was established. The fund was largely organised by Rachel Barrett. Although the Chief Commissioner of Public Works, Sir Lionel Earle, was sympathetic to their cause, he believed that it would be impractical to place the statue in Westminster. After several locations were rejected Marshall secured permission to erect the statue in a corner of Victoria Tower Gardens near the House of Commons. Though this required a special Parliamentary bill, the Conservative Party MP William Bull ensured its smooth passage. Arthur George Walker was commissioned to produce the life-sized statue and the ceremony took place on 6th April, 1930. (126)
In 1958 the statue was moved from its original position in the south of the gardens to a new site further north, and a low stone screen was built flanking the statue, terminating at either end with bronze medallions sculpted by Peter Hills. These depict, on the left, the "prison brooch" or "badge" of the Women Social & Political Union, and, on the right, a profile bust of Christabel Pankhurst. (127)
Over the years the House of Lords has repeatedly blocked proposals for a memorial to Sylvia Pankhurst. In 2016 The Observer reported that as "there seems little hope of a statue of the radical pioneer joining her mother and sister in Westminster". As Maxine Peake pointed out: "They have had this for many years but the proposed statue of Sylvia has always been rejected. The reason was that she did not fit in with the establishment of the time by opposing the war. And she was a socialist and an anti-racist campaigner. This statue will correct the historical record." The plan to erect a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst on Clerkenwell Green in Islington. (128) At the time of writing (February, 2023) the statue has not been produced. (129)
(1) As a young girl Sylvia Pankhurst went with her father Richard Pankhurst, when he was campaigning for the Independent Labour Party in Manchester.
Often I went on Sunday mornings with my father to the dingy streets of Ancoats, Gorton, Hulme, and other working-class districts. Standing on a chair or soap-box, pleading the cause of the people with passionate earnestness, he stirred me, as perhaps he stirred no other auditor, though I saw tears in the faces of the people about him. Those endless rows of smoke-begrimed little houses, with never a tree or a flower in sight, how bitterly their ugliness smote me! Many a time in spring, as I gazed upon them, those two red may trees in our garden at home would rise up in my mind, almost menacing in their beauty; and I would ask myself whether it could be just that I should live in Victoria Park, and go well fed and warmly clad, whilst the children of these grey slums were lacking the very necessities of life. The misery of the poor, as I heard my father plead for it, and saw it revealed in the pinched faces of his audiences, awoke in me a maddening sense of impotence; and there were moments when I had an impulse to dash my head against the dreary walls of those squalid streets.
(2) In 1906 Sylvia Pankhurst tried to arrange a meeting with the British Prime Minister. She later wrote about this in her book The Suffrage Movement.
We now felt the next move must be to secure an interview with the Prime Minister, and we therefore wrote to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman asking him to receive a deputation from the WSPU. He replied that he could not spare the time to see us.
(3) Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence joined the Women's Social and Political Union in 1905. In her book My Part in a Changing World (1938) she described Sylvia Pankhurst.
Sylvia Pankhurst had given up career and status to go amongst the masses of the people in order to instruct them, and so to prepare the ground for the revolution, which they believed, would some day take place. There was a certain infantile look about her, because her face had the roundness and smoothness of a child. Quiet and shy in those days, she had surprised her friends by one brilliant success after another.
(4) Sylvia Pankhurst described this new militant policy in her book The Suffrage Movement published in 1931.
Street lamps were broken, keyholes were stopped up with lead pellets. House numbers were painted out, cushions of railway carriages slashed, flower-beds damaged, golf-greens all over the country scraped and burnt with acid… Old ladies applied for gun licences to terrify the authorities. Telegraph and telephone wires were severed with long-handled clippers; fuse boxes were blown up, communications between London and Glasgow being cut off for some hours. There was a window-smashing raid in the West End, the Carlton, the Reform Club and others were attacked. Boat houses and sports pavilions and a grandstand at Ayr racecourse were burnt down. Works of art and objects of exceptional value were destroyed. Empty houses and other unattended buildings were set on fire. Bombs were placed near the Bank of England, at Oxted Station, and on the steps of a Dublin insurance office.
(5) Sylvia Pankhurst, The Daily Mirror (4th November, 1935)
As I grew older I saw that vicious cruelty itself - everywhere all around me. And I began to understand the tragedy of the unmarried mother and her child.
As a Suffragette in prison I met young expectant mothers serving sentences for having attempted suicide in fear of a censorious world.
During the war, when I worked in the East End among war sufferers of every sort, girls came to me with their "war babies". Many had been dismissed by irate employers, some had been driven from home by angry parents.
In all those years of public activity, busy as I was with other matters I had formed my own conclusions on matrimony, parenthood and the rights of children.
I resolved very emphatically that I would always stand against classing any children as illegitimate, and insist that all must be entitled to equal respect and equal opportunities both as regards their parents and the community.
No man should be released from the duty of bringing up his children at his own social and economic level, whether he has married their mother or not.
It seems to me that the law which encourages fathers to evade their responsibilities towards certain children, and places these children in an inferior position as regards inheritance, is totally wrong....
Like most idealistic young people, I began with the notion that true love can only come once in a lifetime, and invariably endures for ever.
Even the re-marriage of widows and widowers appeared to me contemptible; these people, I felt, had never really loved...
In practice, my life at home is just the same as other people's. We have the same economic obstacles to face in maintaining our home, the same community of interests, the same affections, the same anxieties, the same joys.
(6) Claude McKay, A Long Way from Home (1970)
I found a plain little Queen Victoria sized woman with plenty of long unruly bronze-like hair. There was no distinction about her clothes, and on the whole she was very undistinction about her clothes, and on the whole she was very undistinguished. But her eyes were fiery, even a little fanatic, with a glint of shrewdness... Sylvia Pankhurst had a personality as picturesque and passionate as any radical in London... and in the labour movement she was always jabbing her hat pin into the hides of the smug and slack labour leaders.
She said she wanted me to do some work for the Workers' Dreadnought. Perhaps I could dig up something along the London docks from the coloured as well as the white seaman and write from a point of view which would be fresh and different. Also I was assigned to read the foreign newspapers from America, India, Australia, and other parts of the British Empire, and mark the items which might interest Dreadnought readers.
(7) Fran Abrams, Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003)
Sylvia Pankhurst abandoned her promise to Hardie to stay out of prison and was arrested three times in the spring of 1913. On the first two occasions her efforts were thwarted when her fines were paid and she was released - the first time she blamed WSPU officials, the second time her mother. Finally, in February, she managed to get a two-month sentence and went on hunger strike. She was force fed, then released on Good Friday in a terrible state. Her eyes blood red, almost unable to walk, she was taken to a WSPU nursing home where Hardie found her a few hours later. He had hardly slept during her imprisonment and she blamed herself for the pain she had caused him, "his face haggard and seamed with sorrow and insomnia, his hair long and unkempt." Even this could not deter her, though. Back in prison again in July, she refused food, drink and sleep. Now she was placed under the Cat and Mouse Act, repeatedly released and then rearrested. With the nation in uproar and arson attacks escalating around the country, Sylvia was determined to do her bit. And this, finally, caused Hardie's patience to snap.
During one of her releases from prison, Sylvia had been invited to speak at a meeting of the Free Speech Defence Committee, set up to protest against bans on militant suffrage demonstrations. Frank Smith, Hardie's closest aide, asked Sylvia to promise she would not create trouble at the meeting. She refused. When Hardie visited her next, she accused him of "dragging the party's banner in the mud" by becoming too close to the Liberals. Although Hardie did not respond, Sylvia said the meeting became "almost a quarrel." She told Hardie not to visit her again, and indeed she did not see him again until the following year. "I had told him it was too painful, too incongruous he should come in the midst of the warfare waged against him and the Labour Party by the orders of my sister," she wrote later. On the day after this meeting, Emmeline visited Sylvia. She had planned to come the day before, she said, but had changed her mind when she learned Hardie was there. "She spoke as if he were a person a Suffragette should be ashamed to meet," Sylvia remarked.
It was, in effect, the end of Hardie's relationship with Sylvia, though the two continued to write to each other. In the summer of that year, when Sylvia left England to tour Scandinavia, he sent her off with a list of contacts and an affectionate farewell. Confessing that he had been thinking of her and hoping she was better, he concluded: "Go then... and come back strong to me after."
(8) Sylvia Pankhurst disagreed with the way the WSPU supported the government during the First World War.
When I read in the newspapers that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign, I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nation… We set up a League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives to strive for better pensions and allowances. We also campaigned for pay equal to that of men. Votes for Women were never permitted to fall into the background. We worked continuously for peace, in face of the bitterest opposition from old enemies, and sometimes unhappily from old friends.
(9) On 8th April 1916 Sylvia Pankhurst, organized a demonstration in London against conscription.
The militarists continued their agitation for "National Service" for all men and women "from 16-60 years of age," and a "Service Franchise" giving a vote to every soldier, sailor, and munition worker and disfranchising conscientious objectors. The women were to remain voteless till after the war.
We were to march from the East End to Trafalgar Square, to raise our opposing slogans:
"Complete democratic control of national and international affairs!" "Human suffrage and no infringement of popular liberties." The Daily Express, the Globe, and many other newspapers, wherein appeared frequent incitement to violence against "peace talk," directed their battalions of invective against our meeting, denouncing it as "open sedition." As usual, friends saluted us on our march through the East End; crowds gathered to speed us; they had struggled with us for a decade; they supported us still, though our standard seemed now more Utopian, more elusively remote.
At Charing Cross we came into a great concourse of people, clapping and cheering. They welcomed our slender ranks as an expression of the old, old cry: "Not might, but rights' - a symbol of the triumph of the spirit over sordid materialism, and of their own often frustrated hopes and long unsatisfied desires. To them we were protestants against their sorrows, and true believers in the living possibility of a world of happiness. In their jolly kindness some shouted: "Good old Sylvia!" I gave my hands to many a rough grip. They pressed round me, ardent and gay, sorrowful, hopeful, earnest. Many a woman's eyes brimmed with tears as she met mine; I knew, by a sure instinct, that she had come across London, overweighted with grief, to ease her burden by some words with me.
As we entered the square a rush of friends, with a roar of cheers and a swiftness which forestalled any hostile approach, bore us forward, and hoisted a group of us on the east plinth, facing the Strand, whilst the banner-bearers marched on westward, where the banners were to be handed up; but the north side was packed with soldiers who fell upon the approaching banners and tore them to shreds. The law offered no protection; so few policemen had never been seen in the square at any demonstration. Far from assisting us to maintain order, they prevented our men speakers, and numbers of our members who wished to support us, from mounting the plinth, though we urged that they should come. We were left, a little group of women and a child or two, to deal with what might arise.
The Government had obviously given orders to leave us to the violence of the mob.
We were not afraid.
A small, hostile group had established itself by the plinth, prompted by the organisers of the disturbance, whom I recognised as old hands at such work; poor, shabby public house loafers, they shouted without pausing for breath till their red faces were purple. I continued in spite of them, by taking pains to speak clearly and not too fast. From the north the disturbers hurled at me roughly screwed balls of paper, filled with red and yellow ochre, which came flying across the lions' backs and broke with a shower of colour on anyone they chanced to hit. The reporters on the plinth had drawn near me to listen; thus, inadvertently, they intercepted the missiles aimed at me, and were covered with red and yellow.
They sprang back to avoid a further volley, and Mrs. Drake's twelve-year-old daughter, Ruby, received a deluge of red full in her eyes. Crying, she buried her face in her mother's dress, while the "patriots" raised a cheer.
Always after such incidents, our mother and baby clinics, the day nursery, the restaurants, the factory, all our work for ameliorating distress suffered immediately from loss of donations. A cable repudiating me from Mrs. Pankhurst was published and helped to detach some of the old W.S.P.U. members who still supported us.
(10) Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffrage Movement (1931)
On reaching London we at once summoned a general meeting of the Federation. The members at first declared they would not be "thrown out" of the W.S.P.U., nor would they agree to a change of name. I persuaded them at last that refusal would open the door to acrimonious discussions, which would hinder our work and deflect attention from the cause. The name of our organisation was then debated. The East London Federation of the Suffragettes was suggested by someone, and at once accepted with enthusiasm. I took no part in the decision. Our colours were to be the old purple, white, and green, with the addition of red - no change, as a matter of fact, for we had already adopted the red caps of liberty. Mother, annoyed by our choice of name, hastened down to the East End to expostulate; she probably anticipated objections from Paris. "We are the Suffragettes! that is the name we are always known by," she protested, "and there will be the same confusion as before!" I told her the members had decided it, and I would not interfere.
In the East End, with its miserable housing, its ill-paid casual employment and harsh privations bravely borne by masses of toilers, life wore another aspect. The yoke of poverty oppressing all was a factor no one-sided propaganda could disregard. The women speakers who rose up from the slums were struggling, day in, day out, with the ills which to others were merely hearsay. Sometimes a group of them went with me to the drawing-rooms of Kensington and Mayfair; their speeches made a startling impression upon those women of another world, to whom hard manual toil and the lack of necessaries were unknown. Many of the W.S.P.U. speakers came down to us as before: Mary Leigh, Amy Hicks, Theodora Bonwick, Mary Paterson, Mrs. Bouvier, that brave, persistent Russian, and many others; but it was from our own East End speakers that our movement took its life. There was wise, logical Charlotte Drake of Custom House, who, left an orphan with young brothers and sisters, had worked both as barmaid and sewing machinist, and who recorded in her clear memory incidents, curious, humorous, and tragic, which stirred her East End audiences by their truth.
Melvina Walker was born in Jersey and had been a lady's maid; many a racy story could she tell of the insight into "High Life" she had gained in that capacity. For a long period she was one of the most popular open-air speakers in any movement in London. She seemed to me like a woman of the French Revolution. I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, and urging on the fighters with impassioned cries. When she was in the full flood of her oratory, she appeared the very embodiment of toiling, famine-ridden, proletarian womanhood.
Mrs. Schlette, a sturdy old dame, well on in her sixties, came forward to make a maiden oration without hesitation, and soon was able to hold huge crowds for an hour and a half at a stretch. Mrs. Cressell, afterward a Borough Councillor; Florence Buchan, a young girl discharged from a jam factory, the reason being given by the forewoman: "What do you want to kick up a disturbance of a night with the Suffagettes"; Mrs. Pascoe, one of our prisoners, supporting by charing and home work a tubercular husband and an orphan boy she had adopted-but a few of the many who learnt to voice their claims.
(11) Commentary on the release of Sylvia Pankhurst's MI5 file (KV 2/1570) on 21st May, 2004.
Pankhurst (1882-1960), the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, achieved fame in the Suffragette movement before the First World War, but was later associated with communist, anti-fascist and anti-war causes. She was involved in support for the Abyssinian cause after the Italian invasion of 1936, founding and editing the "New Times and Ethiopia News". She emigrated to Ethiopia in 1944, where she became a friend and adviser to the Emperor Haile Selassie, and maintained a steadfast anti-British outlook.
This reconstituted file chiefly concerns her post-Suffragette activities, though there are summaries of her activities, and those of the publication "The Workers' Dreadnought" and the Workers' Suffrage Federation from 1914. The main body of the file follows Pankhurst from the launch of the "New Times and Ethiopian News" in 1936, from which time there are reports of meetings addressed by Pankhurst, notes of interviews with her and the product of a watch maintained on her correspondence.
In 1940 she wrote to Viscount Swinton in his capacity as head of a committee investigating fifth column activities, and provided him with a list of Fascists at large and conducting propaganda, and of anti-Fascists who had been interned. The copy, which is on file having been passed on by Swinton, is annotated in Swinton's hand "I should think a most doubtful source of information."
The file concludes that Pankhurst's information most probably came from her long-term Italian partner, Silvo Corio. After the liberation of Ethiopia, the file follows her activities there, where she was a strong supporter of a union of Ethiopia with ex-Italian Somaliland, later to become part of the independent state of Somalia. The file considered in 1948 various strategies for "muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst."
(12) Daniel Boffey, The Guardian (6th March, 2016)
In life, they became personally and politically estranged. And decades after their deaths, the three Pankhurst women who did so much to win universal suffrage continue to be divided.
While Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the suffragette movement, and her eldest daughter Christabel are commemorated by a statue and plaque at the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens on the south-west corner of the houses of parliament, no such honour has been bestowed on Sylvia, who broke with her family over her opposition to the first world war and pursuit of socialist ideals.
The House of Lords - an institution Pankhurst vowed to tear down in a coming revolution - has over the years repeatedly blocked proposals for a memorial near parliament, despite strong support from figures including the former Commons speaker Betty Boothroyd, and the granting of planning permission by Westminster council.
But while there seems little hope of a statue of the radical pioneer joining her mother and sister in Westminster, an unlikely partnership is seeking to honour her on a plot a few miles east.
The TUC and City of London Corporation are to launch a joint campaign to erect a statue on Clerkenwell Green in Islington in time for the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which first gave the vote to some women.
The City of London Corporation is providing a grant of £10,000 and has set the TUC the challenge of finding £70,000 to get the project off the ground. The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee will be announcing two new patrons – the actress Maxine Peake and the former union general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe – to help drum up support for the cause.
"They have had this for many years but the proposed statue of Sylvia has always been rejected. The reason was that she did not fit in with the establishment of the time by opposing the war. And she was a socialist and an anti-racist campaigner. This statue will correct the historical record."
A bronze model of the statue has already been made by the late sculptor Ian Walters, who was also responsible for the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.
Clerkenwell has been chosen as an alternative to Westminster as it was in the east of London that Sylvia sought to unite the women's movement with that of the working class, after being expelled from her mother's Women's Social and Political Union and forming the East London Federation of Suffragettes.
That initial fracturing of the family over Sylvia's socialist outlook was to lead to an insurmountable chasm in political outlooks and relations between the women. While Emmeline and Christabel sought the support of the middle classes for their cause and urged their supporters to "do their bit" on the outbreak of the first world war, the East London Federation, uniquely among the women's suffrage organisations, refused to support the war. Sylvia, who like Emmeline was imprisoned over their campaigns and force-fed while on hunger strike, also wanted the campaign for women's votes to continue through the war, while her family suspended their's. The youngest sister Adela emigrated to Australia in 1914, where she founded the Communist Party of Australia.
Christabel was to later urge Sylvia to reconcile "not as suffragettes but as sisters", but Sylvia would not consider it. "We had no life apart from the movement," she reportedly told her sibling.
After all women over 21 were given the vote in 1928, Sylvia campaigned on issues such as maternity pay, equal pay and improved childcare facilities.
While describing Sylvia, who died in 1960 aged 78, as both "miraculous" and "unbearable", George Bernard Shaw once compared Emmeline's second daughter to Joan of Arc. Many believe the continued campaigning of the East London Federation led by Sylvia was crucial in delivering women the vote.
The announcement of the new site for the proposed statue comes ahead of International Women's Day on Tuesday. The chairman of the City of London Corporation's finance committee, Roger Chadwick, said: "We hope this grant is a catalyst for others to come forward to make donations towards this memorial. Sylvia Pankhurst was a remarkable woman. Her work paved the way for London to become the most dynamic and exciting city in the world because of the diversity it welcomes and encourages.
"She knew then what we all recognise today: that our strength comes from embracing and valuing people irrespective of their sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, race or religion."
The House of Lords – castigated by Sylvia for being "lined up as one man against the emancipation of the proletariat" - claims that permission for a statue in Westminster had not been granted "because the committee was advised that because Pankhurst had no connection to the House of Lords, the statue should not stand in grounds in such proximity".
Megan Dobney, a founder member of the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee and a TUC official, said the Clerkenwell statue would constitute welcome recognition. "Sylvia would not have liked a memorial, but as a symbol of the unsung heroism of thousands of working-class women who fought for the franchise some kind of recognition is long overdue," she said. "If you go to the park by the House of Lords, there is a statue and a plaque to Christabel and Emmeline. Quite an ugly thing, actually.