Unfinished Business: Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst received two mentions at the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library, but not for her role with the Suffragette movement, as one might expect. Whilst the curators referenced her involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, their focus revealed the scandal caused by her “illegitimate” child with an Italian man who she lived with but never married. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), despite being a campaigner for women’s rights, disowned her daughter. The exhibition also displayed a painting by Sylvia Pankhurst, inspired by the harsh conditions of women’s workplaces in the early 20th century.

Born in Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May 1882, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the second of three daughters for Richard (1835-98) and Emmeline Pankhurst, future founders of the Independent Labour Party. Estelle, who preferred her middle name Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls with her sisters Christabel (1880-1958) and Adela (1885-1961). The sisters shared a passion for fine art, and all three became suffragettes, along with their mother. Sylvia, who attended the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906 after winning a scholarship, noted the lack of opportunities for women in the art sector. Determined to do something about this, Sylvia and her friends established the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later amalgamated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Aiming to be a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment”, Sylvia produced many of the banners, leaflets and posters for the WSPU, who she began working for full time in 1906. One of her most famous designs for the union is the “angel of freedom” motif that appeared on badges, jewellery, chinaware and printed materials. The trumpeting angel usually appeared on a green, purple and white background. These were the identifying colours of the WSPU introduced by the Bristol-born suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) in 1908.

WSPU Membership Card

Another example of Sylvia’s work for the union is the WSPU Member’s Card. Sylvia drew an illustration of a group of women holding a banner that said “Votes, Votes, Votes!” The date of production is uncertain, but due to the lack of WSPU colours, Sylvia likely designed the card early on in her WSPU career. Below the drawing is written the union’s purpose: “Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty…” All women were issued a membership card on signing up with the WSPU. They were also required to sign another card to pledge not to support any political candidate until women could vote.

Cradley Heath Chainmaker, 1907

In 1907, Sylvia toured the industrial towns in England and Scotland. She discovered the female workers were underpaid and unfairly treated in comparison to their male colleagues. Chainmakers, for example, received a pittance and many worked from home because they also needed to look after their children. In some instance, the children worked alongside their mothers for long hours. Sylvia painted portraits of many of these women, including a chain maker at a shop in Cradley Heath. The artwork reveals the poor working conditions the women faced every day, emphasised by the bucket of boiling water precariously balanced on a pile of bricks.

After her tour, Sylvia settled in Leicester where she met Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette whose statue now stands in Leicester Market Square. Soon, she befriended another suffragette, Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973), “a merry militant saint” with whom Sylvia established a WSPU presence in the city. Unlike her mother and sisters, Sylvia preferred to concentrate on local campaigns rather than national. For this reason, on her return to London, she set up the East London Federation of the WSPU, assisted by fellow campaigner Amy Bull (1877-1953).

Sylvia regularly wrote articles for the official WSPU newspaper Votes for Women. Founded in 1907 by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), the newspaper updated members and supporters of the WSPU on their latest successes and plans. Many suffragettes sold the monthly paper on the street to passers-by for 3d until it became a weekly paper, after which the price dropped to 1d. 

As well as writing for the newspaper, Sylvia documented the history of the WSPU from 1905 until 1910, which she published under the title The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. The book, which is still in print, gives a just and accurate account of the WSPU’s progress, at least from Sylvia’s point of view, and lets the reader see behind the scenes to discover what animated the protestors. First published in 1911, the book does not contain the outcome of the suffragette’s campaign, yet Sylvia aimed to fuel the reader’s passion for their cause. 

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910

In 1913, Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall about the working conditions for workers in Dublin. In so doing, she involved herself with the Labour Party, which went against the rules of the WSPU. The union identified as independent, and its members were forbidden from having political affiliations, at least publically. Worried that Sylvia’s alliance with the Labour Party would damage the WSPU’s reputation, Emmeline and Christabel removed Sylvia from its membership.

Undeterred by her family’s rejection, Sylvia continued to campaign for Votes for Women. At the age of 24, the police arrested Sylvia for her militant approaches. Over the next few years, Sylvia found herself in prison on fourteen more occasions. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Sylvia went on hunger strike during her imprisonments and described the painful force-feeding she endured in magazine articles. Despite not being a member of the WSPU, she received the union’s Hunger Strike Medal for “valour”.

During 1914, Sylvia grew concerned about the WSPU’s campaign, which focused solely on women’s rights. She wished to tackle wider issues than women’s suffrage and aligned with the Labour Party. Labour politician Keir Hardie (1856-1915) supported Sylvia’s passions for women’s rights, amongst other things, and the pair developed a close relationship.

Despite her disapproval of the WSPU, Sylvia continued to work with the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation when it broadened its politics. At the suggestion of the American suffragette Zelie Emerson (1883-1969), Sylvia founded the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper (later the Worker’s Dreadnought). The first copies appeared in March 1914 on the same day Sylvia spoke at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. As well as women and workers’ rights, the paper campaigned against the impending war.

When the war began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst enthusiastically campaigned in favour of military conscription. This horrified Sylvia, a staunch pacifist, who expressed her views in articles for the WSPU newspaper, now named Britannia. Although the government encouraged women to take on the work left behind by the male soldiers, many women lost their previous jobs due to the war. Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes established a toy factory and offered work to these women. They also demanded allowances for women whose husbands were away at war. In 1915, Sylvia attended and spoke at the International Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague, but this lost her many followers who believed they should support the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sylvia moved in with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (1875-1954). They lived in Woodford Green in North East London, commemorated by a blue plaque opposite Woodford station. Sylvia and Corio shared left-wing political ideas; in 1920, Sylvia’s organisation, now named the Workers’ Socialist Federation, hosted the first meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). With women’s rights still in mind, Sylvia encouraged her followers to adopt Communism, saying “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.”

In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst (1927-2017). Her mother, Emmeline, held the opinion that children should not be born out of wedlock. Sylvia, on the other hand, objected to marriage and taking a husband’s surname. When Emmeline asked for the name of Richard’s father, Sylvia responded: “an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” She declined to give her mother Silvio Corio’s name, and Emmeline refused to speak to her daughter for the rest of her life.

Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932

By 1930, Sylvia lost interest in communist politics but continued to hold anti-fascist views. She also held anti-colonialism opinions, speaking against British policies in India at a protest in Trafalgar Square in 1932. The same year, she helped establish the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council. The organisation, which had connections with the Labour Party, campaigned for a National Health Service. Since the creation of the NHS, the organisation, now known as the Socialist Health Association, continues to support the health service in politics. As of 2020, the GP Brian Fisher is the chair.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), Sylvia responded by publicly supporting Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the Emperor of Ethiopia. She wrote articles about the invasion in newspapers and raised funds for projects, such as the first Ethiopian teaching hospital. She took a great interest in Ethiopian life and collected information about their art and culture. Eventually, she published her findings in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.

After the liberation in 1937, Sylvia continued supporting Ethiopia and encouraged their union with the former Italian Somalia. MI5 monitored Sylvia’s correspondence closely, fearing her leftist ideals would pose problems for the British government. In a letter written in 1948, the secret service discussed tactics for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”, particularly after learning Selassie considered her a friend and adviser. Nothing much came of MI5’s investigations, and in 1956, Selassie invited Sylvia and her son to move to the capital city Addis Ababa.

Sylvia set up the Ethiopia Observer, a monthly journal documenting the cultural developments in the country. Her son Richard began working at the University College of Addis Ababa and later founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In 1957, Richard married Rita Eldon and had two children, Alula (1962) and Helen (1964). Sadly, Sylvia passed away before she could meet her grandchildren.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s grave

After she died in 1960 aged 78, Sylvia Pankhurst received a state funeral, becoming the only foreigner buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. In a speech, Selassie called her “an honorary Ethiopian”, and provided a burial plot in a section reserved for patriots.

Sylvia Pankhurst was not as famous as her mother and older sister but her name is listed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Whilst Sylvia did help to improve lives for women, the British Library focused on the reaction caused by her decision not to marry the father of her child. At the time, people looked down on women in Sylvia’s position, yet she did not let this deter her. Sylvia continued to campaign and behave as she did before the birth of her son, albeit estranged from her family.

Richard continued his mother’s work by editing the Ethiopia Observer, and in 1962, founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. From 1976 to 1986, Richard lived in England, where he researched at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2004, he received an OBE for his services to Ethiopian studies and earned the honorary title “Dejazmach Benkirew” by the Union of Tigraians of North America. Sylvia’s grandson Alula is an Ethiopian scholar with a PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University. Her grand-daughter Helen is a women’s rights activist and earned a CBE in 2019 for services to gender equality. 

Sylvia Pankhurst lives on through her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share her passion for an equal world. She also lives on through the musical Sylvia, written in honour of the centenary of Representation of the People Act 1918 and the end of the First World War.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft


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Votes for (Some) Women

“Reasons for supporting Women’s Suffrage … Because – to sum all reasons up in one – it is for the common good of all.” – NUWSS

A hundred years ago, 6th February 1918, a campaign decades-long came to an end with the Representation of the People Act. Until then, women were allowed no say in parliamentary business and were deemed lesser creatures than their male counterparts. The determination of thousands of women turned the tables on this inequality, and this year, 2018, marks the centenary of their greatest triumph.

The campaign for the right to vote began in the United Kingdom in 1867 with a “Ladies Petition” that was presented to the government by Liberal MP John Stuart Mill (1806-73). Despite over 1500 signatories, the bill was immediately dismissed. However, that was only the beginning; by 1918, parliament had received over 15,000 petitions for women’s suffrage, but it was not those appeals alone that achieved one of the most celebrated successes in history.

Even before all the centenary advertising started filling magazines and bookshop windows, most people were already familiar with the term “suffragette”. Coined by the Daily Mail, these were the women who fought for their rights, however, the campaign did not begin with them. Less known is the term “suffragists”, which describes a less violent group of women who named themselves the NUWSS.

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Millicent Fawcett

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed on 14th October 1897 and united many smaller, middle-class suffrage organisations that had already begun to emerge, such as the Kensington Society, which was involved with the original Ladies Petition. Also included in the group were the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage and the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage.

Under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), the NUWSS aimed to campaign in a non-confrontational and constitutional way. This mostly involved petitions, lobbying, and writing leaflets and newspapers.

Millicent Fawcett had grown up in a wealthy family in Suffolk along with her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) who would become the first female doctor in the United Kingdom. Millicent was inspired by the drastic opinions of John Stuart Mill, whose speech on equal rights for women she witnessed at the young age of 19. Impressed by his public and practical support of women, Millicent became an advocate of his campaign.

“I cannot say I became a suffragist,” Millicent later wrote. “I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government.”

It was through her connection to Mill’s politics that Millicent Fawcett, neé Garrett, met her husband, Henry Fawcett (1833-84). Henry also shared the opinion of both Millicent and Mill, however, he died of pleurisy before the campaign for women’s rights really got underway. Left a widow at the age of 38, Millicent threw herself into political campaigning and was quickly elected the president of the NUWSS.

The NUWSS held public meetings for anyone to attend and distributed leaflets to spread their opinion and encourage other women to take up the cause. The main target of the society was the Liberal Party who hoped to win the next election. Their demand was that they receive the right to vote on the same terms “as it is, or may be” granted to men.

Although women’s rights were the organisation’s main concern, the NUWSS also supported the abolition of the slave trade and set up a relief fund for South African women and children during the Boer war. Essentially, their central aim was equality for all, regardless of sex and background.

 

 

 

The NUWSS’ progress was slow and some members began feeling restless, impatient and disillusioned with the lawful methods of campaigning. These women began to break away from the group to join a more radical organisation, the WSPU. Founded in Manchester in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), the Women’s Social and Political Union preferred to raise public awareness of their campaign by using militant tactics.

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Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst came from a family with a history of radical politics; furthermore, she married the lawyer Richard Pankhurst (1836-98) who had strong views about the rights of women. Richard was the author of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women the right to keep their earnings and property in their own name after marriage. Their daughters Christabel (1880-1958) and Sylvia (1882-1960) also became a vital part of the WSPU’s campaign.

The members of the WSPU are the women the Daily Mail christened “suffragettes” and they became the talk of the media for the following decade.

With the motto “Deeds not Words”, the WSPU gained notoriety with their aggressive demonstrations, many of which resulted in police intervention. Christabel and her friend Annie Kenney (1879-1953) snuck into a Liberal Party meeting and shouted their demands until forcibly removed, whereas, other suffragettes became involved in window smashing and arson. Some were even arrested for making bombs with the intent to blow up buildings. Nevertheless, the WSPU did not wish to harm other people, targetting empty properties instead.

Women refused to let being arrested hinder their campaign. Whilst detained behind bars, the suffragettes refused to eat to the point that they were seriously malnourished. In fear of being accused of murder, attendants began force-feeding the prisoners, a torturous and painful method involving tubes thrust up noses or down throats. This abusive treatment created an uproar among campaigners and other members of the public, therefore, the Cat and Mouse Act was developed.

The Prisoner’s (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913, most commonly referred to as “Cat and Mouse Act” allowed for the release of hunger-striking prisoners into the community to be nursed back to health, at which time they would be rearrested. Many suffragettes found themselves repeatedly in and out of prison during this time.

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Emily Wilding Davison

By 1913, the WSPU was at the height of its campaign. They were conducting as many violent acts as they could get away with in order to show how serious they were about receiving the same voting rights as men. One suffragette went a step further resulting in the loss of her life in honour of the women’s movement. Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) attended the Epsom Derby in June 1913, kitted with a banner stating “Votes for Women” which she intended to attach to the King’s horse as it raced by.  A teacher who had given up her career to be a suffragette, Emily stepped out onto the race course and was fatally trampled by the horse’s hooves. At the time, women proclaimed Emily to be a martyr for the cause, throwing herself to her death, however, today it is believed that her death was an unintended, unfortunate accident.

The WSPU’s militancy came to an end, not with the success of the campaign, but with the outbreak of World War One in 1914. Emmeline Pankhurst called an end to the protests and encouraged women to support the war effort. Millicent Fawcett, although a pacifist, also asked the NUWSS to help in any way they could. Many women took on the roles the fighting men had left behind, whereas others worked in munition factories.

With the war entering its final year, women were finally granted the right to vote when the Representation of the People Act was passed on 6th February 1918. This allowed men over the age of 21 and certain women over the age of 30 the right to vote. Whilst any man could vote, women had to be householders or occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or a graduate from university. Whilst this was not equal, many women felt successful, however, certain women from the NUWSS continued campaigning until 1928 when women were granted equal voting rights with men.

Although many women were left out of the original Representation of the People Act, the country is busy celebrating the centenary of the suffragette and suffragist success. Many museums, publications, television channels and so forth are celebrating in various ways throughout the year. The following are a handful of things that are currently going on or something to look forward to:

Votes for Women at the Museum of London

 

 

Free to enter, the Museum of London has a temporary display until January 2019 commemorating the Act of 1918. It is dedicated to the hundreds of women who campaigned for the right to vote over 50 years, particularly focusing on the final decade. As well as this display, the museum has a permanent exhibition of suffragette memorabilia, including Emmeline Pankhurst’s Hunger Strike Medal, handwritten letters, banners and sashes in the suffragettes’ iconic colours (green, white and purple), weapons used for window smashing, and belts and padlocks used to chain themselves to railings.

The main aspect of the display is a powerful film reflecting on the militant campaign and how these women have inspired and shocked the world. The items on show highlight the extremes the suffragettes went to and bring the realities of the lives of these women to the fore. To emphasise that these women were real and not just stories, the museum has revealed handmade items a few campaigners put together both at home and in prison, for example, an embroidered handkerchief and Ada Flatman’s (1876-1951) scrapbook.

The museum’s gift shop contains a wide variety of suffragette items from books and postcards to hats and badges. Look out for the board game Pank-a-Squith, a replica of the original produced by the suffragettes to entertain themselves whilst in prison.

Votes for Women at the National Portrait Gallery

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Henry Fawcett; Dame Millicent Fawcett by Ford Madox Brown

Until 13th May 2018, the National Portrait Gallery is displaying a complimentary showcase highlighting Victorian pioneers of the movement as well as paintings, works on paper and photographs representing key figures in the campaign for women’s suffrage, both for and against.

With educational details, photographs and paintings are explained in order to inform visitors about the significant events from the campaign. Photos include those of Emmeline Pankhurst, documenting her speeches and arrests.

 

Voice and Vote in Westminster Hall

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From 27th June until 6th October 2018, Westminster Hall will be home to the Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition featuring unseen historic objects, photographs, and documents from Parliamentary collections. A large amount of the exhibition will involve interactive technologies to help tell the story of the women’s campaigns, protests and eventual success.

Curators have recreated historical places of the Palace of Westminster to emphasise what a woman’s experience of Parliament would have been like at the time of the suffragette movement. These include a Ladies’ Gallery with restricted views of the chamber and a loft space where women once sat to listen to the goings on in the room below.

The exhibition is free to enter, however, tickets must be booked in advance due to the limited capacity of the hall.

Processions

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On Sunday 10th June, women in the cities of London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh are invited to walk together in celebration of the suffrage movement. Wearing green, white and purple, marchers will be showing off artworks that have been produced specifically for the event. In workshops throughout the UK, women are producing colourful centenary banners and plan to turn the city streets into a river of colour during the procession.

Participants must register to take part in advance of the date of the procession.

Millicent Fawcett Statue, London

 

 

For the very first time, a female statue will stand in Parliament Square, London. In honour of her work and determination, Millicent Fawcett will be honoured forever as she takes her place amongst politicians such as Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. Designed by Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing, the statue will be surrounded by 52 photographic etchings on tiles depicting 59 key women who played a significant role in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Emmeline Pankhurst Statue, Manchester

img_1265In Manchester, her home city, Emmeline Pankhurst is also being honoured with a statue. Scheduled to be completed in December 2018, sculptor Helen Reeves has designed the bronze tribute to “stand guard as an enduring reminder of the struggle for the vote, beckoning us to keep going forward as we continue the journey towards gender equality.”

 

 

Many more celebratory events will be happening around the country. Regardless of what they are, their focus is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. Unfortunately, most of these tend to lean more towards the suffragette influence and forget about the passive campaigns of the NUWSS. Also, many of the working class women who joined the campaign were unable to vote, either due to their age or lack of property. Nonetheless, this was the first time women could vote and, whilst it was not equal to the rights of men, it was a significant success in the emancipation of women.

The centenary has sparked debates about the importance of the suffragists and suffragettes. Some argue that women got the vote due to their war work and others claim it was to make up for the loss of lives on the battlefields. Others dispute the celebration claiming that the suffragettes were guerilla terrorists and should not be honoured for their violence, whereas, some suggest they should be pardoned. It is doubtful that the suffragettes would wish to be pardoned for their crimes, they were openly and deliberately committing them to express their views – they knew exactly what they were doing.

Regardless of these debates, the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is one of the biggest turning points in British history with similar Acts occurring at different times throughout the rest of the world. Women (and men) have every right to celebrate, reflect on how far society has come, and push forward with the determination to achieve equal rights for all.

“Once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.”