BOOK REVIEW: Sylvia Pankhurst: Rebellious Suffragette

by Shirley Harrison (with a Foreword by Richard Pankhurst)

“Many people enjoy having their hearts touched, then pass to the next sensation quite unchanged.”

sylpank coverSylvia Pankhurst died in 1960, five years before I was born, but I don’t recall a time when her name, along with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, weren’t instantly familiar to me.

Like my maternal family, the Pankhurst’s were Mancunians, or natives of Manchester, a city long associated with radical politics. Here, the most infamous demonstration in English history (Peterloo) took place in 1819; it was a major centre of Chartism; the cradle of the Labour Party; and the birthplace of hugely influential works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

In 1903, Emmeline and her daughters cofounded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with the aim of giving women the right to vote in public elections. The Union became widely known as the Suffragettes (after the suffrage movement), and quickly gained a reputation for militancy – the campaign becoming hostile after the British Government repeatedly thwarted female political emancipation: this leading to mass rallies, damage to property, arrests, hunger strikes and force-feeding of the women by the authorities.

Sylvia was imprisoned many times for standing up for her beliefs. Indeed, she was arrested on fifteen separate occasions between 1913 and 1921, and endured more hunger, sleep and thirst strikes than anyone else.

Shirley Harrison’s Sylvia Pankhurst: The Rebellious Suffragette is a paean to a remarkable woman who devoted her life to fighting for the poor and downtrodden, particularly slum-dwellers in London’s East End. It was she who designed the WSPU logo, and produced a great many pamphlets, posters and banners for the organization. She toured industrial towns speaking at meetings, wrote articles for the WSPU’s newspaper, Votes for Women, and in 1911 published a history of the campaign, The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement . However, unlike Emmeline and Christabel, she remained affiliated with the independent Labour Party after the WSPU made the decision to become independent of any single political movement.

Sylvia was a great believer in socialism (she was fascinated by Communism for a period, too) and refused to limit herself to the fight for female suffrage, which led to disagreements with her mother and sister. She was finally expelled from the Union after publicly supporting the Dublin Lockout in 1913, leading to her founding the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). This development also enabled her to tackle wider issues like prison reform, pacifism and anti-fascism, and to publish the Women’s Dreadnought (later the Worker’s Dreadnought).

Harrison cannot conceal her distaste for the suffragist’s more militant tactics and does not attempt to hide her indignation at Sylvia being overshadowed by Emmeline and Christabel within the movement. She clearly (and rightly, I feel) holds Pankhurst in high regard, although she concedes that the sheer force of her personality sometimes compromised her most worthy efforts. Harrison’s descriptions of Sylvia’s lack of domesticity and culinary skills are amusing – although this mattered not at all to her friends and supporters who recognised her considerable gifts as an orator, propagandist and artist.

Far from being a man-hater, as anti-suffragists sometimes liked to suggest, Sylvia believed that men and women should be equal partners. She idolised her father, adored her son and loved her partner, Silvio Corio. (Her closest friend until his death in 1915 was Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party.) She was, however, highly driven and exceptionally brave. More surprisingly, perhaps, is that she was revered throughout Africa and the black world for her unstinting support of the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, when he was forced into exile by Mussolini, eventually moving to the country at his invitation with her son and daughter-in-law.

By the end of the 1930s, Pankhurst was, according to Harrison, a “national institution”. She made her first plane flight to Ethiopia in 1944, much to the disgust of the British Foreign Office, and was given a bells and whistles state funeral in Addis Ababa upon her death at the age of 78.

Shirley Harrison’s comprehensive biography is an insightful, absorbing analysis of the life and achievements of one of history’s great activists. It is respectful of its subject, but not entirely without criticism of the some within the women’s suffrage movement. I would, nevertheless, recommend it to anyone with a keen interest in 20th century history, politics or feminism.

Many thanks to Sapere Books for providing an advance review copy of this title.

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19 replies

  1. Very clear and brilliant review.

  2. This review is a really comprehensive and illuminating one. The suffragette movement was not just important in securing women the vote. It illustrated how the British establishment will stop at nothing to suppress militancy created by its own intransigence. The force-feeding of women who wanted to be full citizens should not be forgotten in a hurry. I wondered if the book mentioned that Pankhurst received a letter from Lenin in 1919, reflecting how involved she was in the international struggle for socialism:

    “I am personally convinced that to renounce participation in the parliamentary elections is a mistake on the part of the revolutionary workers of Britain, but better to make that mistake than to delay the formation of a big workers’ Communist Party in Britain out of all the trends and elements, listed by you, which sympathise with Bolshevism and sincerely support the Soviet Republic.”

    Pankhurst must have shared in the optimism that was spreading from the Russian Revolution, and she could not have predicted what Stalin would do.

    • Thank you for the quote. Yes, there is quite a bit in the book about Sylvia’s association with Lenin and Communism in general (also her opinion of Stalin etc.). There’s a brilliant description of her taking a treacherous voyage to Russia and arriving to the surprise of everyone at a political gathering (I forget which one for the moment). She was very plucky!

  3. Excellent overview of a book that sounds to be highlighting both how far we’ve come in according universal rights and yet how much the establishment and other reactionary elements seek to not only stop but to send into reverse such achievements as Pankhurst’s contemporaries and successors have accomplished.

    • Thank you, Chris. I was dubious the biography might be a bit dry and heavy-going, but it kept me fascinated by its subject to the very last page. She was such an interesting character – my review doesn’t really do her justice. 😊

  4. A very insightful review. Definitely sheds a clear light in the subject matter, which I find quite interesting. The suffragette movement is such a rich story of its own.

  5. Wonderful review, Paula! This sounds like one I’ll have to pick up in the future. I’m fascinated by the Pankhursts and would love to read more about Sylvia in particular.

  6. Sounds like an excellent read! I do wonder though why we are having to become apologists for the suffragettes damaging of property. If it was being done by revolutionary men it would be lauded and called iconoclasm…

  7. A fantastic review. Thanks for sharing this. Found out so much.


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