Katherine Connelly’s edition of previously unpublished writing by Sylvia Pankhurst shows her deepening socialist politics, finds Lindsey German

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E Sylvia Pankhurst, A Suffragette in America, ed. and introduction, Katherine Connelly (Pluto Press 2019), xxiii, 188pp.

The suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst has become a well-known historical figure on the left over the past forty years. We know from her own writings and those of a number of mainly sympathetic biographies (including by the editor of this collection) that this woman played an important role in politics and agitation in the years before the First World War. She also actively organised against that war and against the fascism which grew in the decades after it, was the subject of a famous polemic by the Russian revolutionary V I Lenin, and ended her life an honoured citizen of Ethiopia. 

Katherine Connelly’s previous work on Pankhurst has helped illuminate our understanding of this woman whose political life took a number of turns. Unlike two other major socialist figures who remain of contemporary interest, Rosa Luxemburg and Eleanor Marx, Sylvia came more from an ILP or left-Labour tradition than a Marxist one. But Connelly applies her extensive knowledge of the subject and her skills as a Marxist historian to bring out the importance of this period of Sylvia’s life and to analyse her significance.

Sylvia and workers in the USA

This new collection of writings focuses on Sylvia’s visits to another continent and her impressions, passions and concerns which arose from those trips in 1911 and 1912. They are drawn from letters that she wrote, many to her friend and lover Keir Hardie, the Labour-left politician, and they form an eclectic but engaging summary of life in the US at that time. 

And what a time it was. Visitors to the US were amazed at the buildings, the energy, the wealth and the poverty. US capitalism, largely controlled by a handful of magnates, was brutally rampant and determined to squeeze every possible ounce of surplus value out of its workforce. F. W. Taylor was perfecting his ‘scientific management’ techniques at this time. By the time Sylvia visited, there was open class warfare. Some of the most famous strikes in US history took place in those years, especially the ‘Bread and Roses’ strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and the Uprising of the 20,000 young, New York garment workers in 1909, led by Yiddish speaking young Jewish women. 

These strikes mirrored those taking place in Britain in the same years in the period known as the Great Unrest, and Sylvia supported and showed solidarity with these industrial struggles. So her visits to the US were marked by strike support, a very inquisitive view of how women in particular lived and worked, and a keen awareness of the vast number of ethnicities and nationalities that made up a US working class which had been formed by waves of immigration from every part of Europe and farther afield. 

When she first arrived, she came across the funeral procession of the 146 women killed in the triangle Shirtwaist factory when a fire broke out and some of the exits were locked. This terrible tragedy was symptomatic of the rapaciousness of US capitalism. She met the striking laundry workers of New York, and fully supported them.

The US tours were in themselves a major achievement. Helped by a railway timetable with night-sleeper trains which would put modern schedules to shame, she threw herself into getting across her message with great enthusiasm. She travelled across the country, commenting on Native Americans in New Mexico, who lived in the terrible ‘reservations’ assigned to them by the US government, the levels of racism in Tennessee, where she spoke at an all-black college (this was much frowned upon by her hosts), and caught up with the experience of a socialist council in the Midwest’s Milwaukee.  

In all her writings she shows a keen socialist understanding, a tremendous humanity and a very hands-on sense of what needs to be or should be done to change things. She criticises the Milwaukee socialists for being too cautious once in office:

All the atmosphere and tradition of politics, all the influence of politicians, make for inaction, compromise, delay (p.135).

She also makes some interesting points about migrant and US workers. She obviously approaches the US with the idea that the migrants are the most exploited and downtrodden of the workforce, and there’s a lot of truth in this. But she also points out that those workers born in the US, particularly those drawn from rural areas, suffer the same exploitation and oppression. In this, she understands implicitly that the enemy of the US worker is not the Jewish, German, Italian or Swedish worker but the employers who treat them so badly in this land of plenty. 

Suffragette divisions

These visits coincided with the growing divisions in the suffragette movement in Britain. Sylvia was concerned at the turn which her mother and sister were taking, away from any notion of broad mass organisation which linked with other forces fighting for change, such as the emergent Labour Party, and towards more individual ‘militancy’ which involved high levels of personal commitment and threats of imprisonment. Sylvia herself had suffered imprisonment and was highly sympathetic to those in US prisons. But her political trajectory was towards the strikers and the socialists, the mass organisations which combined to attempt to deal a death blow to capital. 

These differences sharpened in her mind during her US visits, no doubt during the long nights of train travel and the contact with other campaigners in the US. Katherine Connelly emphasizes the importance of this development, and as it turned out on her return to Britain, events moved quickly. Against a background of growing class struggle in Britain and Ireland (still a part of the British state but about to be famous for its rising in 1916 and its struggle for independence), Sylvia increasingly backed those fighting for change which went well beyond the franchise, and so was forced out by her mother and sister.

Her work in the East End of London after this was remarkable and pathbreaking and she campaigned from then on as a socialist. This period in the US helped to inform her about the reality of capitalism and about the possibilities of fighting against it. Katherine has done an excellent job of pulling all this together in a scholarly yet accessible way. So, buy and read this book. You will enjoy it. Sylvia was a talented artist and writer and her descriptions bring scenes to life, whether she is describing New Mexico or New York.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.