In the first of a series on influential women from the East End in celebration of Women’s History Month, ELL looks at the life of suffragette, socialist and Bow-resident Sylvia Pankhurst.
The name ‘Pankhurst’is indelibly ingrained in the British memory of the campaign for women’s suffrage. It was Emmeline Pankhurst who famously headed the radical split from the ineffective Suffragists, and led middle class women in a campaign of arson, window-smashing and hunger strikes.
Often overshadowed by the legacy of her mother, however, Sylvia Pankhurst was in many ways a remarkably progressive woman. A tireless campaigner for universal suffrage and workers’rights, and a voice for the marginalised and underprivileged in the East End and beyond, Sylvia proved a controversial figure in her lifetime.
“She had an unbounded and quite unconcealed contempt for official opinion, judgement and authority,”friend and playwright George Bernard Shaw once said. “There were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous. The other that she was unbearable.”
Growing up in Manchester, Sylvia was surrounded by political activism from an early age. She was the second daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and barrister and early feminist Dr Richard Pankhurst, who drafted the first Women’s Suffrage Bill in 1869 and was responsible for the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884. Family friends included American suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch and founder of the Independent Labour Party, Keir Hardie.
At the age of 25, she moved to east London with her family and began to campaign full time for the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) and soon became one of the most frequently arrested women in the party.
But involvement in the Suffragette movement and relations with her mother and elder sister Christabel soon became difficult for Sylvia. She grew uneasy about the increasing violence of the WSPU’s militant tactics, and its move away from socialism towards the exclusion of the working classes.
“Sylvia’s forays into the East End of London opened her eyes to the harsh reality of life amongst the labouring classes,”says Rosemary Taylor, author of In Letters of Gold: The Story of Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of the Suffragettes in Bow. “With it came the realisation that if the working man did not have the right to vote, the working woman stood even less of a chance of obtaining the franchise.”
In 1913, Sylvia left the WSPU and, with the help of friend Keir Hardie, set up her own organisation: the East London Federation of Suffragettes, based in Bow, Tower Hamlets. Unlike the single issue cause of her mother and elder sister, Sylvia began a multi-issue campaign for universal suffrage and workers’rights.
“She saw the relationship between oppression and exploitation early on,”says author of Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics, Mary Davis. “She wanted working class women to be active in the fight for the vote.”
With the outbreak of war in 1914, the Government released all Suffragettes from prison on the condition that they ceased militancy, and Emmeline and Christabel turned their attention to supporting the war effort.
But Sylvia was a pacifist. “If she was to witness all of this celebrating of World War One we do today she’d be turning in her grave,”Davis says. “She saw it as an imperialist war.”
Sylvia continued her campaign for universal suffrage and worked for relief in the lives of women in the East End. The East London Federation of Suffragettes opened a milk distribution centre, launched a cost-price restaurant which served over 400 meals a day, founded a toy factory to provide jobs for women, and opened a drop in nursery and clinic in a converted pub which she called The Mothers’Arms. It is little wonder that East Enders took to calling her ‘our Sylvia’.
Long after Emmeline’s WSPU was disbanded in 1917 and the Representation of the People Act was passed the following year, Sylvia continued her political activism.
“The limited franchise in 1918 was a failure in Sylvia’s eyes,”says Taylor. “She expected more, and did not end her struggle there. She continued to work for the cause of socialism, and for the underdog.”
“I believe that without Sylvia’s determination and doggedness in taking on the might of the government in the fight for universal suffrage, it would have taken years to achieve that goal.”
Even after universal suffrage was achieved in 1928, Sylvia was not going to go away quietly. There is a file in the MI5 Archives, written in 1948, titled‘Muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’, and even Hitler included her on his list of people to be arrested on the invasion of England.
Not content with being a socialist and Suffragette, Sylvia was also progressive in her ideas about race and world-citizenship. In her personal papers, now held in an archive in Amsterdam, there is a handwritten note, titled ‘How I would like to be remembered’: “Let me be counted among the citizens of the world who owns no barriers of race or nation.”She employed the first black journalist in England, Claude McKay from Jamaica, on her paper The Workers’Dreadnought, and started The Ethiopian Times to raise awareness about the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-6.
In 1956, Sylvia left England for Addis Adaba, Ethiopia, at the personal invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie. After her death, four years later, she became the first foreigner to be given a state funeral in Ethiopia, while the papers in Woodford Green where she had lived for 30 years after leaving the East End, printed only a short obituary to mark this extraordinary life.
“She was anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and she was a feminist,”says Davis. “What more can you say? A thoroughly modern woman.”