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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Unfinished Business: Mary Macarthur

The British Library briefly mentioned Mary Reid Anderson (née Macarthur) in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, which celebrated the milestones overcome by women in their fight for equality. Early trade unions excluded women workers from their members. Unhappy about this, Mary Macarthur established the National Federation of Women Workers, which improved the working lives of many women. She also founded the union’s newspaper The Woman Worker, which gained 20,000 subscribers.

Mary Macarthur

Mary Macarthur, born on 13th August 1880, grew up in Glasgow as the eldest of six children to John Duncan Macarthur and Anne Elizabeth Martin. Her father owned a drapery business and afforded to send his daughter to Glasgow Girls’ High School. During her school years, Macarthur developed a passion for journalism while working as an editor on the school magazine. She decided then that she wanted to become a full-time writer and, after finishing at the high school, continued her studies abroad in Germany. On her return home, Macarthur briefly worked for her father as a bookkeeper, but this was not the position she desired in life.

In 1903, Macarthur moved to London to take up the position of secretary for the Women’s Trade Union League. Established by Emma Paterson (1848-86) in 1874, the league initially aimed to protect wages and conditions of workers, provide benefits for sick and unemployed workers and help settle disputes between workers and employers. When Macarthur became secretary, the league’s new aims included improving the rights of female workers and persuading all-male trade unions to admit women. Whilst the Women’s Trade Union League united women from different trades, their affiliations with activists with different aims hindered their goals.

The badge of the NFWW.

Some activists focused on particular classes rather than women as a whole. Macarthur worried the upper classes would receive preferential treatment, causing the working classes to suffer. In 1906, Macarthur established the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) as a trade union for all women. Whereas the Women’s Trade Union League campaigned to allow women into mixed-gender trade unions, the NFWW was a women-only trade union. By the end of the year, 2,000 women signed up to the NFWW across seventeen branches.

As the founder of the NFWW and as a suffragette, Macarthur helped oversee the founding of the National Anti-Sweating League. This league, run by British politician George Shann (1876-1919), aimed to end the suffering workers faced in “sweatshops” and demanded a minimum wage.

An issue of The Women Worker from 1907

In 1907, fuelled by her passion for writing, Macarthur founded The Woman Worker, a monthly newspaper for the NFWW. In the first issue, Macarthur stated the paper’s aim “To teach the need for unity, to help improve working conditions, to present a monthly picture of the many activities of women Trade Unionists, to discuss all questions affecting the interests and welfare of women. Such, in brief, is our aim and purpose.” Due to popular demand, The Woman Worker developed into a weekly paper for over 20,000 readers.

Although The Woman Worker primarily focused on women’s needs, Macarthur also tackled much broader topics, including the conditions of sweatshops, which affected both men and women. As a journalist, Macarthur visited the poverty-stricken areas of London, speaking to the people who worked for long hours in inadequate settings for minimal money. In 1908, Macarthur presented her findings to the House of Commons. 

Macarthur’s findings alone were insufficient in her strive to end the harsh working conditions but combined with other people’s research, the reports began to make a difference. Encouraged by the National Anti-Sweating League, sweatshop workers went on strike, demanding fairer pay. A photograph taken in 1908 shows Macarthur addressing a crowd of striking men and women in Trafalgar Square. Forty-four women from Corruganza Box Making Works initiated the strike in protest of unfair pay-cuts. Many of the male workers joined their cause, and others donated money to the company to pay their employees an appropriate salary.

In 1909, the British government passed the Trade Boards Act, which allowed boards to establish a minimum wage for particular trades, most notably chain-making, ready-made tailoring, paper-box making, and the machine-made lace trade. Unfortunately, not all companies willingly agreed to the new wages, for instance, a chain-making enterprise in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands.

Macarthur addressing the crowds during the chain-makers’ strike, Cradley Heath 1910

With the help of the NFWW, 800 female chain-makers organised a ten-week strike in retaliation to their employer’s refusal to increase their wages. The Trade Boards Act stipulated the women should receive a minimum of 11s (55p) per week, but they continued to receive far less. From mid-August until 22nd October 1910, the strikers protested on the streets where they gained many supporters. In cinemas across the country, people watched newsreels about the progress of the strike, and the NFWW collected £4,000 (approximately £450,000 today) in donations from several local communities. Eventually, their employer agreed to increase their wages, and the donations collected during the strike helped to fund the Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute.

With two successful strikes under her belt, Macarthur’s fame spread across the country. When troubles occurred in food and drink factories in Bermondsey, Macarthur received a request for assistance. The summer of August 1911 was one of the hottest summers on record, which made working long hours in poor conditions almost impossible. Whilst the Trade Boards Act improved wages for some women, this did not include women in food factories who continued to receive as little as 3 shillings a week. A total of 14,000 women went on strike from 22 factories and marched on London in protest. Macarthur addressed the crowds in Southwark Park, supported by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) amongst others. After weeks of determination, the factory women received a significant pay rise.

During 1911, Macarthur married British socialist politician William Anderson (1877-1919), with whom she later had a daughter, Anne Elizabeth “Nancy”. During the First World War, Anderson sat as the chairman of the executive committee of the Labour party. He fully supported his wife’s determination to improve working conditions for women. When war broke out in 1914, many men left their day jobs to enlist as soldiers. The government encouraged women to fill the men’s positions or work in munitions factories. Over a million women enrolled in these positions, but many found the working conditions inadequate, the hours long and the pay unsatisfactory.

Once again, the NFWW campaigned to improve the working conditions for women. One of the first establishments they targeted was the Ainsworth Mill in Cleator Moor, Cumbria where women produced khaki thread for soldier’s uniforms. For 60 hours of work, the women received a pitiable seven to nine shillings. Supported by the NFWW, 250 women organised a strike, and Macarthur’s husband implored the House of Commons to investigate the low payment rates. After six weeks of campaigning, the women received a 10% War Bonus.

When investigating the munitions factories, the NFWW found men received seven pence an hour, whereas women only earned three and a half. The organisation successfully campaigned for an end to the unequal payment, but one Newcastle factory refused to comply. During 1916, the NFWW encouraged the underpaid women to stage a sit-in, where they knitted socks for the soldiers rather than operating the machinery in the factory. This action angered parliament, and Macarthur received a phone call directly from Winston Churchill (1874-1965) asking her to explain her actions. Twenty-four hours later, the women returned to work and received a back payment of their missing wages. 

As the war continued, many more women went on strike across the country, demanding equal pay or improved working conditions. Each time, they received the support of the NFWW and became a talking point in parliament. With recent Suffragette militancy fresh in their minds, politicians discussed the rights of women in general, which likely contributed towards the decision to grant women over 30 the right to vote in 1918.

After the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 and Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, women were allowed to stand for parliament. Macarthur decided to stand as the Labour Party candidate for the Stourbridge constituency in Worcestershire. She worked closely with John Davison (1870-1927), the Labour candidate in Smethwick, who defeated his only opponent, Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958). Unfortunately, Macarthur did not win due to her opposition to the war. Her husband, who held similar sentiments, also lost his seat.

1st International Congress of Working Women

In 1919, Macarthur’s husband passed away after suffering a short bout of influenza. Despite this sad loss, Macarthur represented the NFWW at The International Congress of Working Women (ICWW) later that year. Women from Great Britain, the USA, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland attended the international women’s congress to discuss working conditions for women. Topics included an 8-hour day, equal pay and maternity leave. By the end of the conference, they had established the Maternity Protection Convention, which adopted proposals concerning “women’s employment, before and after childbirth, including the question of maternity benefit”.

After many successful years of representing women, the NFWW merged with the National Union of General Workers (NUGW) in 1920 to form a union for both male and female workers. Under the motto “You Cannot Afford To Stand Alone”, the NUGW continued to support workers in low paid jobs and ensured they received pay increases to match the rate of inflation. In 1924, the NUGW merged with the National Amalgamated Union of Labour and the Municipal Employees Association to form the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, now known as GMB.

Statue of Mary Macarthur, Mary Macarthur Gardens, Cradley Heath

Macarthur continued to support women through the NUGW, making significant changes in many places of employment. She worked right up until her death from cancer on 1st January 1921, age 40. Although many people in the 21st century are unfamiliar with her name and work, the areas where she made the most impact continue to remember Mary Macarthur. In Cradley Heath, for instance, a statue of Macarthur stands in the Mary Macarthur Gardens, and a nearby road is named Mary Macarthur Drive in her honour.

In memory of her work, the Mary Macarthur Scholarship Fund (1922-2011) and Mary Macarthur Educational Trust (1968-2011) aimed “to advance the educational opportunities of working women”. In Cardiff, the Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust continues to provide “help for women who need a break”. The trust assists women who due to age, poverty, infirmity, disablement or social or economic circumstances require a break from everyday life. There are also three blocks of social houses/flats named after Mary Macarthur in London at Hammersmith, Bethnal Green and Dagenham.

In 2017, English Heritage unveiled a blue plaque at 42 Woodstock Road, Golders Green, where Macarthur once lived and died. Since 2018, Mary Macarthur’s name and portrait have, along with 54 other women and four men, decorated the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square.

Lack of general knowledge about Mary Macarthur highlights how little the country knows about the women that made a difference in society. Without pioneering women such as Macarthur, life would be very different today. Thanks to Macarthur, women receive (almost) equal treatment to men at work and have the right to be represented by trade unions. If Macarthur could witness the life of a British woman today, almost a century after her death, she would no doubt be proud of her achievements.

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

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!