Sylvia Pankhurst

Recently I’ve been really getting into the history of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. There are professional reasons for this, but the reality is it’s been a simmering interest for a very long time. I don’t remember what grade it was, but I know I did a research essay on Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst at school – to my teacher’s complete not-surprise – and was quite inspired. It was probably the first time I had felt that voting was actually something I ought to be interested in. And every now and then when I get discouraged by Australian politics and wonder whether it’s worth voting… well, I remember that although it was easier in Australia, women all over the world fought incredibly hard to get someone like me the opportunity to cast a ballot. Who the heck am I to throw that back in their historical faces?

One of the books I got in a rash of purchasing last year was Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics. I knew Sylvia had fallen out with her mother and sister, and she went on to form her own (somewhat amusingly named) suffrage organisation, ELFS (East London Federation of Suffragettes). Thanks to a biography of Emmeline Pankhurst I knew a bit more about her politics, and her daring/disgraceful child out of wedlock. I also knew, although I don’t remember why, that she was incredibly important to mid-century Ethiopia, of all (seemingly surprising) places. There is, though, a whole lot more to her than these nuggets.

Mary Davis states right out that her intention is not to write a standard biography. Instead, she is aiming to look particularly at feminism and socialism in Britain in the first half of the 20th century via Sylvia. (She calls her Sylvia throughout, and justifies this with pointing that there were four Pankhursts active at the same time as suffragettes, and Sylvia was not the most famous. She also acknowledges that this is a problematic choice, which delighted me for its frankness.) What this book does then is look first at the development of the WSPU (created by Emmeline and Christable Pankhurst, Sylvia also involved); and then how/why Sylvia broke away as her socialist views conflicted with her increasingly right-wing mother and sister. Sylvia worked to meld her feminism and socialism, although this was incredibly difficult – a whole bunch of trade unions wanted nothing to do with feminism or helping oppressed women. As in so many cases, some of the oppressed don’t want to change the system; they want to get to the top of it and take advantage of it. When women eventually got the right to vote (some in 1917, all in 1928) Sylvia was changing her focus to the proletariat – she was a firm supporter, early on, of the Russian Revolution, and was involved in the Communist Party (well, one of). 

Socialism and feminism were, if not acceptable causes, at least ones that other people clearly identified with. But Sylvia was also committed to more intriguing causes, which had fewer proponents in Britain at least: like anti-racism, anti-imperialism and anti-facism. Her newspaper was apparently the first in Britain to have a black journalist write for it. She spoke out on Ethiopia’s behalf when Italy invaded. These things got her some flak, as can be imagined, in Britain. But Ethiopia invited her to live there in the 1950s, and Addis Ababa has a street named after her, and her son still lives there (or did in 1999 when the book was published). 

I love a good bio. Sometimes they can wander aimlessly, and sometimes they can focus too much on one aspect of a life. Davis’ approach seems, to me, to be the best of both worlds. It doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive; it does focus on one aspect, but that’s the whole point. And I really liked that it pointed out some aspects of British history, too, like bits of labour history that don’t often make it into mainstream historical narratives. In fact this is pretty much a checklist for the history of oppression: workers and women and black people are all covered, and all shown to have vital and real histories. Who knew? This book is a really great way into these areas of history, especially the suffrage/socialism aspect (and it’s only 120 pages long!).

2 responses

  1. […] reviewed biographies of Emmeline and Sylvia, as well as other books about suffrage […]

  2. […] taught the British suffrage movement for a few years; I loved the biographies of Emmeline and of her daughter Sylvia, such different women; I’ve enjoyed other books on the movement too. I’ve wished that […]

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