IWD: Sylvia Pankhurst: suffragette, radical, pacifist and internationalist

5 March 2018

Kingsley Napley is a law firm based in Farringdon, close to Clerkenwell Green. On the Green itself, the Crown Tavern is popular all year round, and the drinkers gather on the pavement outside and on a patch of concrete across the road. There is no grass, and nothing much is green, but by the end of next year, there will also be a bronze statue of one of the key figures in the suffragette movement from the early 1900s: Sylvia Pankhurst.

Planning permission for the statue was granted last year after a long campaign by the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee. It’s often said that Sylvia was the least known of the Pankhursts but she now appears a more modern campaigner than her mother and sister. Like them she fervently believed in gender parity, and in taking direct action to further her cause, but she also believed in taking practical measures (including with regard to housing, education and health) to reduce poverty.

Her ultimate goal was a greater level of social equality, or as Jeremy Corbyn might say “social justice”. She was one of the key anti-austerity campaigners of her day. In 1923, she wrote:

Our desire is not to make poor those who today are rich, in order to put the poor in the place where the rich are now. Our desire is not to pull down the present rulers to put other rulers in their places. We wish to abolish poverty and to provide abundance for all”.

Whilst her politics might now be regarded as extreme (she was one of the founders of the British Communist party), if she were alive today, the words above suggest a place in more moderate political circles.

As a young woman, she was inspired by her parents who were prominent in the labour movement. Her mother Emmeline led the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant suffrage organisation and from the age of 24, alongside her sister Christabel, Sylvia worked for the WSPU. Her commitment to the cause was remarkable. She was frequently locked up in Holloway prison and had the dubious honour of being force fed more than any other activist. She was seen by the British Secret Service as a threat to national security (apparently more so than any other suffragette), but even at this time the government was wary of bad PR. If Sylvia, or any other suffragette had died whilst in prison, their cause would have had all the greater prominence. Accordingly, under the so called ’Cat and Mouse Act’ which was passed in 1913, prisoners weakened by hunger strikes and at risk of death could be released, and then re-arrested once they had recovered.

Despite her commitment, Sylvia’s desire for social equality was increasingly at odds with her mother and sister. Their main focus was on the suffragette cause, and they saw less value in promoting the rights of the working class in general. In 1913, Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU and, with the help of Keir Hardie (a friend since her childhood) formed her own organisation, eventually known as the Workers Suffrage Federation (WSF). The WSF campaigned against poverty and for better social conditions, and her particular focus was on the East End of London.

By the outbreak of war in 1914, the rift in the Pankhurst family had become a chasm.  Emmeline and Christabel suspended their campaign for female suffrage, and the WSPU supported the war effort. Remarkably, there are even accounts of the WSPU handing out white feathers to those who refused to enlist. In contrast, Sylvia was a pacifist and saw the war as a means by which the ruling elite would preserve imperialism and inequality. She rallied support for the Russian Revolution and even met Lenin who by coincidence had previously lived on Percy Circus, less than half a mile north of Clerkenwell Green (and legend has it that around this time, Lenin enjoyed a pint in the Crown Tavern with one Joseph Stalin).

Much has been written over the past few months of the significance of 1918 and the first votes for women. Sylvia was not impressed. She continued to demand the vote for working class men and women (not just propertied middle class women) and this eventually came in 1928. She also had little truck with social convention; in 1927 she had a child, but declined to marry the father. She was a staunch opponent of fascism and campaigned against appeasement. For many years she was a defender and promoter of Ethiopia and moved there in 1956. She died in Addis Ababa in 1960, was granted a state funeral, and she is still remembered in Ethiopia as a key figure in the anti-colonial movement.

Whether or not you agree with her politics, and with the nature of her activism, it’s hard to deny Sylvia’s role in the campaign for women and universal suffrage in the UK, and in promoting wider social change. Apparently Sylvia never visited Clerkenwell or the Crown Tavern, but Clerkenwell Green has hosted many demonstrations and activist gatherings over the years, and so it seems a fitting place to be reminded of her legacy.


IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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