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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire--A Biography of My Favorite Suffragette

I first discovered Sylvia Pankhurst when I read Suffragette Autumn, Women's Spring  by Ian Porter which I joint reviewed with my co-blogger Tara on Flying High Reviews here.   It's not that I didn't know she existed.  I knew that she was part of the celebrated Pankhurst family who were so influential in the women's suffrage movement in England, but I didn't  know any more than that.   Katherine Connelly, the author of  Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire, says that Sylvia was written out of suffrage history.   I saw that she was barely mentioned in the movie Suffragette which I reviewed here.  It was so ironic that a movie about working women in the suffrage movement portrayed them as followers of Emmeline Pankhurst who despised them and didn't include them in her organization.

Connelly thinks that Sylvia was written out of suffrage history because she wasn't a member of organizations.    I think this is inaccurate.  Connelly mentions  a suffrage organization that Sylvia founded called ELFS (East London Federation of the Suffragettes) which was for working women.  I contend that  Sylvia was written out of  suffragette history because she made the classist suffragettes of her day uncomfortable. She was too far ahead of her time.  Connelly's biography shows us why Sylvia Pankhurst was so extraordinary.


It appears evident from this biography that the most influential figure in Sylvia's life was her father, Richard Pankhurst. He taught her to stand by her principles without regard for the opinions of others.  Richard Pankhurst was a lawyer and a radical political activist.  He left the Liberal Party and  unsuccessfully ran for Parliament as an independent. He was the author of the first women's suffrage bill in England in 1869.   He also wrote the Married Women's Property Act which became law in 1882.  Before that, a married woman couldn't own anything.   Any assets she brought into the marriage became her husband's.  This was related to the suffrage issue.   Since only men who owned property could vote in Britain at that point,  the idea of women becoming the equals of men when it came to the vote meant that only women who owned property would have that right.  Before the Married Women's Property Act, the vote on equal terms with men would only apply to single women who owned property. Richard Pankhurst believed that married women should also be able to vote.  He died in 1898 when Sylvia was sixteen.

I found out that Sylvia was an artist when I first researched her online after reading Ian Porter's novel.   There's a section on dealing with her art at Sylvia's Art.   As someone who is interested in woman artists, I took note of Connelly's account of the discrimination she dealt with in studying art.  She had the same issue that art patron Adele Bloch-Bauer experienced that I discussed in my review of  Stolen Beauty which I reviewed here.

When her snobbish sister Christabel was abroad, Sylvia was asked to take over the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union) which was founded by their mother, Emmeline.   So she recruited working class and labor activists.  She held massive rallies with Labour Party speakers even though her mother and sister were strongly identified with the Conservative Party.  She also involved suffragettes in strikes and sent them to speak at union locals.  When Christabel learned what Sylvia was doing, she summoned Sylvia to Paris.   The result was a complete break between the Pankhurst sisters, but I'm sure that Sylvia was on the right side of history.   She built alliances and refused to exclude anyone on the basis of class.

Sylvia  wasn't perfect.  She went through a period when she was enamored with Russian Communism because she was impressed with Lenin, but she was disillusioned by the NEP (New Economic Program) which brought back private enterprise, and totally alienated by Stalin who she called counter-revolutionary.  I think that many left of center idealists in the West went through a similar process of disillusionment and separation from Communism during this period.   Sylvia was anti-fascist and she recognized that there was no difference between Stalin and other fascist dictators.

Fascist Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia was what first got her interested in that African nation.   No one else in England was writing about Ethiopia at the time. The post-war occupation of Ethiopia by Britain also drew criticism from Sylvia because she was opposed to Africa being colonized.  She was in favor of  Haile Selassie's rule.  Africans in London were tremendously supportive, but Whitehall was not pleased. Connelly commented "More than thirty years after the end of the suffragette movement, Sylvia Pankhurst was still driving the British government to distraction."  Sylvia moved to Ethiopia in 1956 and spent her final years there.   She was buried in Ethiopia.

 Her son, named Richard after the original Richard Pankhurst, became an expert on Ethiopia.   When I ran a search for Richard Pankhurst as part of my research for this review, almost all the results were dealing with Sylvia's son and how respected he was as an academic. He died in February 2017.  His daughter Dr. Helen Pankhurst became an advisor on Ethiopia for  the Care International organization , and  a women's rights activist. See Helen Pankhurst's article on Wikipedia.  Helen Pankhurst has a daughter named Laura who is also a feminist.   So the Pankhurst legacy of activism founded by the first Richard Pankhurst back in the 19th century continues.

I consider this book the best non-fiction that I've read so far in 2017.  Sylvia Pankhurst is such an inspiring figure.  




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