Sylvia Pankhurst – political campaigner who stayed true to her principles

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.


Irena Sendler – unsung heroine of World War II who saved 2,500 Jewish children

The story of Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during World War II, is known to everyone, but a social worker saved 2,500 Jewish children in Warsaw, and remains relatively unknown. Irena Sendler was born near Warsaw in 1910. Her father, a doctor whose treated impoverished Jews, died from typhus contracted from his patients when Irena was only seven, but his influence on her was profound. She later said, ‘I was taught that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.’

During World War II, Irena worked for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department but soon began helping Jewish families by giving them clothing, medicine and money, as well as leading a group that provided Jews with false documents. This was a hugely risky undertaking: assisting Jews in German-occupied Poland was punishable by death. In 1942, the Nazis herded 500,000 Jews into a 16-block sealed-off area, known as the Warsaw Ghetto, where they awaited death in the Treblinka camp. Conditions in the Ghetto were appalling – 5,000 people died each month from starvation and disease. Irena was so shocked by the conditions that she joined Zegota, the underground organization that helped Jews. She obtained a permit to enter the Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, and became the prime mover in a remarkable operation to rescue children. A baby was smuggled out in the bottom of a tool box. Larger children were taken out in coffins, body bags, potato sacks and suitcases; others escaped through the sewer system. An ambulance driver kept a dog beside him in the passenger seat, and trained it to bark to cover any sounds the children made. Irena was a mother herself, and found the task of persuading families to part with her children horrendous. But she successfully placed children with Polish families, orphanages and convents, and the network ultimately saved 2500 children.

Like the celebrated Schindler, Irena kept a record of the old and new identities of all the children she smuggled out. But the Nazis became aware of Irena’s activities and in October 1943 she realized that the house was surrounded by the Gestapo. Thinking only of her list, she gave it to her colleague, who hid it in her underwear. Irena was imprisoned and tortured but despite having her legs and feet broken, she refused to betray her comrades or the children. She was sentenced to death by firing squad but Zegota saved her by bribing the guards on the way to her execution. She returned to her work under a new identity and managed to evade the Nazis for the rest of the war. Her first priority, however, was to safeguard her list, which she buried in a jar under a tree in her neighbour’s back yard. She dug it up after the war ended, with the intention of reuniting the children with their families, but most had been killed during the Holocaust.

Irena was imprisoned from 1948-49 and brutally interrogated by the communist secret police, and as a result gave birth prematurely to a son, who did not survive. She later became a teacher and vice-director of several medical schools, and was also active in social work programs. She founded orphanages and care centres, as well as a centre for prostitutes. However, her public support for Israel in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War forced her into retirement. In 1980 she joined the Solidarity movement. She died in 2008, aged 98.

Irena never thought of herself as a hero and didn’t seek credit for her actions “I could have done more,” she said. “This regret will follow me to my death.” In fact, her achievements went unnoticed until 1999, when a group of students in Kansas discovered her story and turned it into a short play, entitled ‘Life in a Jar’. Since then she has received Poland’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.