Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (5 May 1882 – 27 September 1960) was an English campaigner for the suffrage and suffragette movement, a socialist and later a prominent left communist and activist in the cause of anti-fascism and the international auxiliary language movement. She spent much of her later life campaigning on behalf of Ethiopia, where she eventually moved.
Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (she later dropped her first forename) was born at Drayton Terrace, Old Trafford, Manchester, a daughter of Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, who both later became founding members of the Independent Labour Party and were much concerned with women's rights. Pankhurst and her sisters, Christabel and Adela, attended Manchester High School for Girls, and all three became suffragists. Growing up in Manchester, Pankhurst and her siblings were exposed to various types of fine art. At a very young age, Pankhurst was interested in the arts, which led her to attend the Royal College of Art to pursue a career in this profession. Between 1904 and 1906 while attending the school she witnessed the lack of gender equality in the art profession.
In 1912, Pankhurst along with her friends, organized the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later became a branch of WSPU.
Sylvia Pankhurst trained as an artist at the Manchester School of Art, and, in 1900, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington, London.
Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932
In 1906, Sylvia Pankhurst started to work full-time for the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her sister Christabel and their mother. She applied her artistic talents on behalf of the WSPU, devising its logo and various leaflets, banners, and posters as well as the decoration of its meeting halls.
In 1907 she toured industrial towns in England and Scotland, painting portraits of working-class women in their working environments. She spent time in Leicester where she was welcomed by Alice Hawkins who she knew through the Independent Labour Party. They were soon joined by Mary Gawthorpe and they established a WSPU presence in Leicester.
In contrast to Emmeline and Christabel, Pankhurst retained an affiliation with the labour movement and concentrated her activity on local campaigning. She and Amy Bull founded the East London Federation of the WSPU. Pankhurst also contributed articles to the WSPU's newspaper, Votes for Women and, in 1911, she published a propagandist history of the WSPU's campaign, The Suffragette: The History of the Women's Militant Suffrage Movement.
On November 1, 1913 Pankhurst spoke at the Albert Hall in support of the Dublin workers who had recently gone on strike in order to promote a more humane society. After this incident, Pankhurst's relationship with her family became very strained because of Pankhurst's involvement with the Labour Party. Pankhurst's family believed that her aligning with the Labour party went against WSPU identification of being independent. For this reason her sister Christabel removed Pankhurst from their union because of a belief that she was tarnishing their name.
Like many suffragists she spent time in prison, being arrested 15 times while campaigning for the rights of women. Pankhurst was aged 24 when she went to prison for the first time. During the period between February 1913 and July 1914 Pankhurst was arrested eight times, each time being repeatedly force-fed. She gave several accounts of her experience of force feeding and time in prison. One such account was written for McClure's Magazine, a popular American periodical, in 1913.
Pankhurst had been given a Hunger Strike Medal 'for Valour' by WSPU.
By 1914, Pankhurst had many disagreements with the route the WSPU was taking, that is, campaigning by direct action without threat to life. It had become independent of any political party, but she wanted it to become an explicitly socialist organisation tackling wider issues than women's suffrage, and aligned with the Independent Labour Party. She had a close personal relationship with the Labour politician Keir Hardie. On 1 November 1913, Pankhurst showed her support in the Dublin Lockout and spoke at a meeting in London. The members of the WSPU, particularly her sister Christabel, did not agree with her actions, and consequently expelled her from the union. Her expulsion led to her founding of the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914 which over the years evolved politically and changed its name accordingly, first to the Women's Suffrage Federation and then to the Workers' Socialist Federation. She founded the newspaper of the WSF, Women's Dreadnought, and employed Mary Phillips to write for it, this subsequently became the Workers' Dreadnought. The federation campaigned against the First World War, and some of its members hid conscientious objectors from the police.
Less well-known is her involvement in the movement for an international auxiliary language. In 1927, Pankhurst published a booklet, called Delphos. The Future of International Language, where she expressed the growing need for an international auxiliary language and her support for Interlingua in the early 20th century. Pankhurst’s support for Interlingua can be seen as an example of the scientific humanism that dominated the beginnings of interlinguistics. This language activism is also related to her socialist and pacifist stand.
First World War
During the First World War Sylvia Pankhurst was horrified to see her mother, Emmeline, and her sister Christabel become enthusiastic supporters of the war drive and campaign in favour of military conscription. She was opposed to the war, and was publicly attacked in the newly renamed WSPU newspaper Britannia. Her organisation attempted to defend the interests of women in the poorer parts of London. It set up "cost-price" restaurants to feed the hungry without the taint of charity. It also established a toy factory to give work to women who were unemployed due to the war. She and her comrades also worked to defend the right of soldiers' wives to decent allowances while their husbands were away, both practically, by setting up legal advice centres, and politically, by running campaigns to oblige the government to take into account the poverty of soldiers' wives.
In 1915, Pankhurst gave her enthusiastic support to the International Women's Peace Congress, held at The Hague. This support lost her some of her allies at home and contrasted sharply with the stance of both her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel. Following the Russian Revolution of February 1917 and Alexander Kerensky's rise to power, Christabel journeyed to Russia to advocate against its withdrawal from the war; Emmeline supported military recruitment, spoke against conscientious objectors and women opposing the war.
The WSF(workers socialist federation) continued to move towards left-wing politics and hosted the inaugural meeting of the Communist Party (BSTI). Workers' Dreadnought published Sylvia Pankhurst's "A Constitution for British Soviets" to coincide with this meeting. In this article she highlighted the potential role of what she called Household Soviets – "In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up."
The CP(BSTI) was opposed to parliamentarism, in contrast to the views of the newly founded British Socialist Party which formed the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in August 1920. The CP(BSTI) soon dissolved itself into the larger, official Communist Party, but this unity was short-lived. When the leadership of the CPGB proposed that Pankhurst hand over the Workers Dreadnought to the party she revolted. As a result, she was expelled from the CPGB and moved to found the short-lived Communist Workers Party.
By this time she was an adherent of left or council communism. She attended meetings of the Communist International in Russia and Amsterdam, and those of the Italian Socialist Party. She disagreed with Lenin on his advice to work with the British Labour Party and was supportive of "left communists" such as Anton Pannekoek.
Pankhurst objected to entering into a marriage contract and taking a husband's name. Near the end of the First World War she began living with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio and moved to Woodford Green, where she lived for over 30 years — a blue plaque and Pankhurst Green opposite Woodford tube station commemorate her ties to the area. In 1927, at the age of 45, she gave birth to a son, Richard. As she refused to marry the child's father, her mother broke ties with her and did not speak to her again. She went to the grave having refused to reveal the name of Richard's father, indicating only that he was 53 and "an old dear friend whom I have loved for years."
Supporter of Ethiopia
In the early 1930s Pankhurst drifted away from Communist politics but remained involved in movements connected with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism. In 1932 she was instrumental in the establishment of the Socialist Workers' National Health Council. She responded to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by publishing The New Times and Ethiopia News from 1936, and became a supporter of Haile Selassie. She raised funds for Ethiopia's first teaching hospital, and wrote extensively on Ethiopian art and culture, carrying out research that was published in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History (London: Lalibela House, 1955).
From 1936 MI5 monitored Pankhurst's correspondence. In 1940 she wrote to Viscount Swinton, then chairing a committee investigating Fifth Columnists, and enclosed lists of active Fascists still at large and of anti-Fascists who had been interned. A copy of this letter on MI5's file carries a note in Swinton's hand reading: "I should think a most doubtful source of information."
After the post-war liberation of Ethiopia she became a strong supporter of union between Ethiopia and the former Italian Somaliland, and MI5 continued to follow her activities. In 1948 MI5 considered strategies for "muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst". Pankhurst became a friend and adviser to the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and in 1956 she moved to Addis Ababa with her son Richard at Haile Selassie's invitation. She then founded a monthly journal, Ethiopia Observer, in which she reported on many aspects of Ethiopian life and development.
Pankhurst's writing was a significant influence on British documentary filmmaker Jill Craigie and her interest in the suffrage movement.
Death and posthumous recognition
Pankhurst died in Addis Ababa in 1960, aged 78, and received a full state funeral at which Haile Selassie named her "an honorary Ethiopian". She is the only foreigner buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, in a section reserved for patriots of the Italian war.
Her name and picture (and those of 58 other women's suffrage supporters) are on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018 while a musical about her life entitled Sylvia premiered at the Old Vic in September the same year.
From an early age Pankhurst had an ambition to become a "painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment". She trained at Manchester School of Art (1900–02) and then the Royal College of Art in London (1904-6). As part of her work campaigning for the WSPU, for which she created designs for a range of banners, jewellery and graphic logos. Her motif of the 'angel of freedom', a trumpeting emblem had wider appeal across the campaign for women's suffrage, appearing on banners, political pamphlets, cups and saucers.
An exhibition of her artistic works took place at Tate Modern in 2013–14. Information about the exhibition, together with photographs of the artwork itself, is part of the Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive.
Pankhurst found it difficult to reconcile her artistic vocation with her political activities, eventually deciding that they were incompatible. She said: "Mothers came to me with their wasted little ones. I saw starvation look at me from patient eyes. I knew that I should never return to my art". By 1912, she had all but abandoned her artistic career in order to concentrate on her political activism.
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