Sylvia Pankhurst Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire

The importance and coherence of Sylvia Pankhurst’s lifelong activism is revealed by Katherine Connelly’s grasp of her political commitments, making this book an important new account her life

Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto 2013), ix, 178pp.

Until the end of the 1980s there was no biography of Sylvia Pankhurst. Her name was rarely mentioned, although her mother Emmeline Pankhurst and her sister Christabel were household names, having formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), known as the ‘suffragettes’. In WSPU memoirs such as Ray Strachey’s The Cause, Sylvia was not referred to sympathetically since she had broken with the organisation. As she had formed an early communist organisation in Britain and set up the People’s Russian Information Bureau (PRIB), right-wing historians were not likely to discuss her with much sympathy, but, despite the importance of her Workers’ Dreadnought journal, she had only very brief entries in, e.g. Cole and Postgate’s The Common People (Methuen 1938) or Pearce and Woodhouse’s A History of Communism in Great Britain (1969). Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History (1973) discussed her with more understanding, but Sylvia Pankhurst whether as suffragette, socialist or campaigner for Ethiopia, remained generally overlooked until the 1990s.

Even so, the first biographies were not sympathetic and had an anachronistic attitude towards her politics. Mary Davis’s excellent Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Politics (1999) was not intended as a biography, and so did not cover all areas of Sylvia’s life. Katherine Connelly’s Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire has rectified the omissions and has also brought Sylvia Pankhurst to life as a human being in a way which, perhaps surprisingly, Shirley Harrison’s more intimate biography (Sylvia Pankhurst: A Maverick Life 1882-1960, Aurum Press, 2003)fails to do.

Connelly’s book presents a Sylvia Pankhurst far more comprehensible than the ‘maverick’ character who, it is often suggested, was constantly flying from cause to cause, passionate but without direction or understanding. Sylvia Pankhurst did, of course, take up a number of causes over a long and active life, but Connelly shows that although her life was not simple, there was a consistent commitment to equality and socialism from her early years. This caused her to fight against sexism, racism and fascism; it gave her a hatred of inequalities and injustice and a passion for improving the conditions of working people which never left her.

Connelly’s biography is well-written and provides a clear and accessible historical background essential for understanding Sylvia Pankhurst’s life and contains much new research. More importantly, Connelly’s political awareness allows her to shed light on areas that have formerly been problematic to those writing about Sylvia. These concerns include why she took so long to leave the WSPU when she so disagreed with the views of her mother and sister, her ‘left wing communism’, and her ‘refusal’ to join the Communist Party (actually she did join it), and her commitment to Ethiopia.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s own superb histories The Suffragette Movement and The Home Front contain autobiography, but many of her papers remain unpublished to this day. Despite Kathryn Dodd’s useful Sylvia Pankhurst Reader, so do much of the Woman’s Dreadnought and its successor the Workers’ Dreadnought. Connelly has thoroughly researched these papers and has presented new material from Ethiopian records which puts Sylvia’s fight for Ethiopia to remain independent into a clear political context of anti-imperialism, anti-fascism and anti-racism, which follows on from her earlier struggles. As this material is supplemented by reference to histories of Ethiopia and discussions with Sylvia’s son and daughter-in-law, Richard and Rita Pankhurst, it is fuller than earlier accounts.

Early Days and the WSPU

Connelly points out that Sylvia was always a fighter against injustice. As a child she hated the inequality which meant that poor working-class children were so much worse fed and clothed than she herself was; she represented her fellow students at the Royal College of Art; it was the discovery while decorating an ILP hall in honour of her father, a campaigner for women’s rights, that the hall would not be open to women which was the initial spark for the organisation of the WSPU. Connelly shows that she was always working fairly independently of her mother and sister in the WSPU, although she did not actually leave until she was thrown out by her sister in 1913. In the early years Sylvia was in an Independent Labour Party (ILP) branch, was close to Labour leader Keir Hardie, but was not involved in the leadership or policy decisions as she was working as an artist.

It was only after her tours of America in 1911 and 1912 that she began to think of herself as a potential leader. She saw the campaign for the vote as likely to fail in 1912 as the WSPU had lost sympathy, and she saw the necessity of building the mass movement which the WSPU had abandoned. She made her decision to give up her art and form the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) (The Suffragette Movement, pp.383, 416). Connelly reminds us that in doing so, and for a couple of years before she was expelled, she had a good deal of freedom. Although there was also the understandable reluctance to split with her family, remarked on by other biographers, Connelly suggests that her scope for action with the ELFS was an important reason why she did not leave earlier. Sylvia’s own comment quoted by Connelly at the end of the book is surely relevant here: ‘I have never deserted a cause in its days of hardship and adversity’ (p.147).

American tours

Connelly quotes news reports extolling Sylvia’s qualities as speaker on the American tours (pp.39-40). I believe Connelly is the first to suggest that these gave her confidence and developed her as a political leader, as she undertook the tours independently of the WSPU and saw what she wanted to see. They also opened her eyes to the horrors of racism, and this experience no doubt was the deciding factor which committed her to anti-racism for the rest of her life. Sylvia witnessed a laundry workers’ strike where ‘a union was quickly formed’, and later the pickets released from prison and welcomed with flowers included a woman, a black man and an Italian. This and the high level of organisation suggest the involvement of the International Workers of the World (IWW).

East London

Connelly says that Sylvia already had connections in East London before she took the step of moving to Bow, but Sylvia did find it difficult to interest women there at first. Nonetheless, the remarkable success of Sylvia’s group in East London in organising mass protests, and the deputation of ELFS members to the Prime Minister Asquith, which may have helped change his mind over giving women the vote (he certainly voted for it in 1916), established her in the area by the outbreak of World War One. Although Sylvia did not support this war, many of the women around her did, and she approached this problem with tact, aware of the difficulties war would cause them. The ELFS concentrated on issues such as wages, rents and dangerous working conditions, and provided relief such as a cost-price restaurant and a nursery, doing so as comrades and not as a charity. Those in the group who were against the war campaigned against it and wrote for the ELFS paper Woman’s Dreadnought, Sylvia also publishing information about conscientious objectors. The Dreadnought not only published Siegfried Sassoon’s declaration ‘Finished with the war’ (Davis, pp.55-6) but was able to report the 1917 mutiny at Etaples because of its connections with soldiers at the front.


Sylvia supported the Clydeside and Welsh socialists, although of course, her organisation was far smaller than theirs. Her connections with Russian socialists meant that she was well-informed when the revolution started and she founded the People’s Russian Information Bureau which distributed, among other information, Lenin’s Appeal to the Toiling Masses. This influenced many workers such as Harry Pollitt, later general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). At this stage, of course, there was no communist party and Sylvia was involved in discussions to form one. Like Sylvia, many socialists at the time did not trust the reformist Labour party and there were differences about whether they should join it. However, after discussing the question with Lenin, Sylvia understood his pragmatic argument that communists would be better reaching the majority of workers who were attracted to Labour views, and called a conference of her tiny group ‘where she argued for and won [their] full support for the decisions of the Third International conference in Moscow’ (p.109).

While they were approaching the very newly formed CPGB, however, Sylvia was arrested for ‘causing sedition’ over an article in the Dreadnought and sentenced to six months in prison. She argued that her health was unlikely to stand it having been weakened by her former imprisonments and she was ill when she left prison. The negotiations for joining the CPGB were carried on while she was in prison, and those from her old party disassociated themselves from the Dreadnought since it was thought to be a barrier to their joining. After her release from prison, Sylvia began expressing the views of the Left Opposition in Russia and failed to offer wholehearted support to the councillors in Poplar who went to prison for refusing to raise the rates.

The CPGB felt that it would be divisive for Sylvia to keep the Dreadnought and later that year she was expelled for refusing to hand it over. Mary Davis considers that Sylvia displayed ‘unwarranted impatience’ (Davis, p.83) with the new party, but Sylvia had, after all, shown patience and tolerance in building her movement in East London and building opposition to war, while Lenin had won her to the idea of unity. Connelly’s analysis intimates that she may have had a sense of deep betrayal since there was no campaign to get her released and no welcome on her release from the leaders of the new Communist Party. She remained friends with many of the Poplar councillors after she moved to Woodford.

Italy, Ethiopia

Sylvia’s connections with Italian workers, particularly through her lifelong partner Silvio Corio, the father of her son Richard, meant that she was well-informed about fascism and Mussolini, and her analysis was politically sharp. She helped found the friends of Italian Freedom League and set up a campaign for the relief of the widow of socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti, shot by the Fascists. This anti-Fascism and the awareness of Italy’s imperialist designs in Africa led her to demand that Britain and France impose sanctions on Italy when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and force him to withdraw. Her argument that appeasing fascism would not prevent Mussolini declaring war on Britain was of course correct. She agreed emphatically with Trotsky’s analysis of fascism and, although she was concerned about the civil war in Spain, she felt that racist attitudes were preventing awareness of Ethiopia (Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst and the Civil War, p.2).

She established another newspaper, New Times and Ethiopian News, to influence politicians and campaigned from 1934 on Ethiopia’s behalf. This included welcoming its emperor, Haile Selassie, when he arrived in England, attempting throughout World War Two to get Ethiopia recognised as an ally, even to getting the Ethiopian national anthem played on the BBC. The reaction of most politicians was racist and imperialist. There was a plan to make Ethiopia a British protectorate after the war, which Sylvia opposed, and her campaign for Ethiopian independence was successful. It is difficult to know how she could have built it had it not been for valuable connections she had made throughout a life in politics.

After Corio died, Haile Selassie invited her to live in Ethiopia as a mark of gratitude and as her son was to take up a university position there. She was then 74, and, far from being a courtier, she was busy with new work, starting another newspaper and campaigning for a hospital which had been opened with funds she had raised in England. She died there in 1960.

I feel that Connelly could have made more of Sylvia’s art since, as an artist, she was political and capable of a broad range. I disagree slightly with Connelly’s assessment of the artistic designs for the WSPU. The style Sylvia used for these was indeed that of Walter Crane in his ‘Triumph of Labour’, a work she greatly admired from childhood. Many IWW posters were in similar style. It was not uncommon for political art at the time. However, the ‘strong muscular’ workers of Sylvia’s WSPU membership card were perhaps ahead of her time: such workers became the dominant style of the Soviet poster in the Stalinist era, whereas Crane’s style is now associated more with the children’s books he illustrated. Sylvia used a different style again in painting women workers, similar to that of the Newlyn school in their paintings of fisherwomen, such as Maria Tuke Sainsbury’s Beating the Nets at Newlyn, 1884. Sylvia may have given up her art, but she turned to writing and, as Connelly remarks, her work as an editor has never been appreciated. It is a mark of the neglect she has suffered that many of her papers remain unpublished, but Connelly makes good use of these.

This book is a remarkable achievement. Sylvia Pankhurst lived in the turbulent first half of the twentieth century, through two world wars, the Russian revolution and the revolutionary periods in Europe following it. She travelled widely and ended her days in Africa. She was an artist as well as a political figure, and she was involved in politics ranging from the suffrage movement, the Labour movement, revolutionary communism and international anti-fascism. She knew most of the major political figures of the day. Connelly has covered these movements in order to set Sylvia Pankhurst in her times rather than allow inappropriate contemporary judgments to be made. She has therefore made a re-assessment from which Sylvia Pankhurst’s politics and character emerge more clearly and which will inspire others to seek for further information on her life and times. I do not think this is by any means the final book on Sylvia Pankhurst – too much remains unpublished and unresearched – but I think it is a very important book.

Jacqueline Mulhallen’s play Sylvia toured for five years with Lynx Theatre and Poetry, and will be revived in 2014. Lynx has a slide archive of Sylvia’s paintings. Jacqueline’s articles on Sylvia’s art have appeared in the Women’s History Magazine (summer 2009) and on the website She gave the 2009 Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Lecture.

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