Sunday, 10 April 2016

30 Blogs of Night: Someone I Admire Sylvia Pankhurst


Image result for sylvia pankhurstSylvia Pankhurst was one of the famous Pankhurst family, stalwarts of the Suffrage movement in Great Britain. From an early age she was involved in the fight for women's votes, as early as 1906 taking a pivotal role in the campaign, but was also closely aligned with the nascent Labour movement, and was close friends with the Labour MP Keir Hardy (who famously refused to swear allegiance to either Queen or God - proving that our caricature of the pre Great War age as one of Royalist tendencies and devout worship are probably inaccurate). Much of her work focused on East London and by 1914 she had broken with her mother Emmeline's organisation, in part because of the support she showed for the war and for conscription, handing out white feathers to men who had not signed up to fight. During the war she founded 'cost price' restaurants, so that women in the East End of London could get enough to eat without the stigma or charity, and set up toy factories for women who were made unemployed by the war. Identifyng more with the Suffragists than Suffragettes (i.e. those women who used more conventional means to make their points, and didn't chain themselves to railings or throw themselves under the hooves or horses), Sylvia focused on make women's lives better and campaigning not just for the vote but for socialist values in general. She founded the Women's Dreadnought, a newspaper to support the Suffrage cause. 

Day Ten


It's been suggested that her meeting with Asquith was one of the reasons for women getting the vote in general elections on an equal footing with men (as the property requirement was abolished, allowing universal suffrage in Britain for the first time) when the war ended. It's one of those victories where both the militant and moderates claim victory, though I suspect myself that the Russian Revolution coupled with a fear of an army of men returning from the front, well organised, and potentially angry because of the sacrifices they had had to make was probably the main cause of suffrage extension.

Nothing motivates like fear, after all.

For her part Sylvia became more involved with Socialism and Communism after the war, continuing to publish the Women's Dreadnought, and later the Workers Dreadnought until the Communist Party of Great Britain suggested she give it up at which point she revolted. She became involved in attempts to develop an International Auxiliary Language and gave birth to her son Richard in 1927. Her refusal to marry her son's husband led to her mother disowning her.

Perhaps the strangest part of her life was her campaign to drum up support for the Ethiopian King who fled his country for Britain in the 1930s after the Italian invasion. This is an odd development given his patriarchal tendencies; Ethiopia was hardly a friend to feminism or socialism and it was Pankhurst's anti imperialist feelings that prompted her involvement in the cause to liberate the country. Again her work took the form of journalism, and communication, publishing papers to support the resistance, and working hard to make sure the victory was an Ethiopian one, rather than the West getting involved. After liberation she was invited to live in the country,

She died in 1960 and was buried in Ethiopia, with a full state funeral. She is the only non Ethiopian buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral.

What I admire about her is in part the fact that she lived a truly radical life, rejecting marriage, war, and the blandishments of the state throughout her life, attracting the attention of MI5 in the process. The causes she supported inspire me too, I may not believe in big state Communism but I do passionately believe in universal suffrage, and would say that I'm a socialist. I find her determination inspiring, and the fact that she did so much to support the women of the East End fills my heart with pride, it's such a contrast to her Mother and sisters who only engaged in campaigning. It feels like she really put her money where her mouth was, and I respect that enormously.

She is an inspiration.