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.


Clementine Churchill – behind every great man …

A new biography of Winston Churchill’s wife has just been released, timed to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of VE day, and Clementine’s story is a good one. She was far from the ‘little wife’ you might imagine: their rows were legendary and Winston was usually the first to surrender.

Clementine was born in 1885 and her childhood was unhappy. Her paternity was uncertain, her mother was a serial adulterer and gambler who repeatedly uprooted the children, her beloved sister died of typhoid when she was fourteen, and her mother couldn’t afford the university education recommended by her teachers. She briefly had to earn her living sewing and teaching French.

When she was nineteen, she first met Winston, ten years her senior. At that time, the gauche man didn’t impress her, but by the time they encountered each other again four years later, Clementine had been engaged several times, always to older men. Their mutual attraction was instant, Winston proposed a month later and they were married later that year. Although she was the granddaughter of an earl, she had to deal with plenty of snobbery from Winston’s aristocratic family when they became engaged, partly because she made her own clothes.

Clementine had five children but maintained a keen interest in politics and refused to sit back and play the passive role expected of a political wife. Sadly, this had traumatic consequences for her children; her own difficult childhood made her a distant mother. During World War I, Clementine organised canteens for munitions workers. Politically, she supported the Liberal party and hated the ‘brash, vulgar Tories’. At this stage Winston, was also a Liberal and she became his social conscience, supporting him in his work to establish the welfare state. When he changed parties, she didn’t follow him. They also fell out over women’s suffrage; Clementine was a keen supporter.

It’s no surprise that their marriage was turbulent. Winston wasn’t the easiest man to live with, egotistical, selfish and with an extravagance that strained their finances. Between the wars, Clementine briefly considered divorce and fell in love with another man. She argued with Winston during the Edward VIII abdication crisis when she recognised that Winston’s views were out of step with those of the public. But their marriage was strong, and her influence on her husband considerable. She re-wrote his speeches, toned down angry letters and helped him recover from political mistakes. During the Second Word War, as well as being the most trusted advisor to a man whom Clement Atlee described as ‘Fifty percent genius, fifty percent fool’, she was active on the home front, gaining the respect of the allies and the government and became a life peer. It has even been suggested that her hospitality helped to negotiate America’s entry into the war.

Clementine’s loyalty to Winston, however, could never be questioned. In 1951, she opposed Winston taking another term of office. He ignored her, though her advice turned out to have been astute. When the House of Commons commissioned at portrait to commemorate Winston’s eightieth birthday, he hated it, saying that it depicted him as a ‘down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand’. Later she secretly destroyed it, ensuring it would never be put on public display. After Winston’s death in 1965, she took up her place in the House of Lords, though increasing deafness limited her political activity.

She died aged 92 in 1977, having outlived three of her children. But her achievement in making Churchill the greatest world leader in history should not be underestimated. Churchill’s chief of staff, General Ismay, said that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story”.

Victoria Woodhull – first woman to run for the US presidency

This week’s blog starts with question for my quiz-loving friends. Who was the first woman to run for presidency of the United States? Hillary Clinton, right? Wrong! It was, in fact Victoria Woodhull, and she was quite a colourful character and the most famous woman of her generation. She was born in Ohio in 1838, had next to no education and spent most of her childhood with her family’s travelling medicine show, working as a clairvoyant

She was married to an alcoholic at fifteen, a mother at sixteen, divorced at seventeen and remarried at nineteen. In these years, she made a living by fortune-telling, selling patent medicines and spiritualist act with her sister. But better things were to come, She and her sister moved to New York, became Wall Street’s first female stockbrokers, and made a fortune, even though women weren’t allowed a seat on the New York Stock Exchange until 1967. They earned the nicknames: “The Queens of Finance” and “The Bewitching Brokers,”and used the money to publish a journal which, although it had a reputation for muckraking and ranting, promoted radical causes, including women’s suffrage, graduated income tax, an 8 hour work day and profit sharing. In 1870 the journal published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto.

Victoria gained such a reputation that she was nominated as the presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party, running for president when most women couldn’t even vote. She got nowhere of course. Friends of the president, Ulysses S Grant, launched a smear campaign against her, accusing her of having affairs with married men and taking drugs. She suspected the family of the prominent minister Henry Ward Beecher of being behind it and fought back, publishing a story about Beecher’s affair with another woman. This led to her being arrested on obscenity charges. The press weren’t sure whether to side with the government or fight for free speech: everything Victoria had published was known to be true. A Chicago editor admitted that “Editors know that all she has said about Beecher is true, and we must either endorse her and make her the most popular woman in the world, or write her down and crush her out; and we have determined to do the latter.”

The whole affair blew up into a huge scandal, involving arrests, court cases, and Victoria spending election day in jail. No-one knows how many votes she received because they weren’t counted. Even though she was found not guilty, the press savaged her. She was described as a ‘vile jailbird’, and impudent witch’, and ‘Mrs Satan.’ In the end, she was acquitted, but the legal costs ruined her.

Victoria had a talent for causing outrage, and in her published lectures said that women should have the right to escape bad marriages and control their own bodies. She also believed in free love, and at one stage lived in the same apartment as her husband, ex-husband and lover. It was too much for other suffrage activists, such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who described her as ‘lewd and indecent.’ In fact, when they published a history of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1880’s they left her out.

In 1877, Victoria and her sister decided to make a fresh start in England, where she married a wealthy banker. In her remaining years she wrote books, established a newspaper, and volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I. She died in 1927, some say without leaving a mark on history. But it seems a shame that such a fascinating woman is forgotten. Many of the reforms she proposed to help the working classes at the time are now taken for granted. Since the US seem no closer to electing a female president, it’s fair to say that notorious Victoria was way ahead of her time.