The recent movie Suffragette has brought the story of the Pankhursts to public attention once more and, as usual, it’s Emmeline that gets the most attention. But for me, Sylvia is the most interesting member of the Pankhurst family. Like her more famous mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel, she was active in the fight for women’s suffrage, but she preferred a more peaceful approach, presenting her ideas in journalism and books. And unlike them, she remained true to the socialist principles that her father taught her.
Sylvia was born in 1882 in Manchester and was a talented artist, winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1900, but was also interested in politics and in 1903 joined the new organisation founded by her mother: the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In 1906 Sylvia gave up her art studies to devote more time to the WSPU, and over the following years was frequently imprisoned for nonviolent protests. She was also active in the Labour party and became close to its leader, Kier Hardie. Although she was only 24, while he was 50 and married, it seems that their relationship went beyond friendship. By 1910, Sylvia became concerned that the violent methods used by the WSPU were not proving effective and she left the organization. As well as disagreeing with the violence, Sylvia disagreed with her mother and sister’s support for a limited franchise to gain middle class support. In 1913 Sylvia was imprisoned for two months, went on hunger strike, and was placed under the Cat and Mouse Act, repeatedly released to recuperate and then rearrested. She then formed the East London Federation of Suffragettes, a group that combined socialism with the campaign for women’s suffrage.
Following the outbreak of World War I, the WSPU supported the war effort and conscription, another move opposed by Sylvia. Instead she joined fellow pacifists to form the Women’s Peace Army, and helped open four mother and baby clinics in London, pointing out that while 75,000 British soldiers died during the first year of the war, over 100,000 babies (more than 12 percent of all births) in Britain had died. She helped and campaigned for soldiers’ wives who had become plunged into poverty. She also published a newspaper, the Workers’ Dreadnought, which featured Siegfried Sassoon’s famous anti-war statement in 1917.
Sylvia believed in universal suffrage and, once the campaign to gain votes for women was starting to succeed, she widened her political activism. She supported communism and even visited Russia, where she argued with Lenin over his views on censorship. Political campaigning became a lifelong pursuit; she supported many anti-fascist and anti-colonialist causes and was a thorn in the side of the British government; in 1948 M15 considered ways of ‘muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’.
In the 1920s Sylvia began a relationship with the Italian socialist Silvio Corio, but refused to marry him because she disagreed with the concept of marriage and taking her husband’s name. At the age of 45, she gave birth to her only child, Richard Kier Pethick, enraging her mother, who never spoke to her again.
During the Second World War, Sylvia became a supporter of Haile Selassie, who was in exile in Britain after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. This gained her the respect and friendship of the Ethiopian royal family and, following the death of Silvio Corio, she accepted an invitation to move to Addis Ababa, at the age of 74. She died there four years later, and was so revered that she received a state funeral. In her homeland, however, she hasn’t received the recognition she deserves. While Emmeline and Christabel have been honoured for their role in gaining women’s suffrage, Sylvia’s, arguably more effective strategy has been ignored.