In this extract from her book, Katherine Connelly explains the context and continuities of Sylvia’s many political engagements - too often ignored in standard accounts of her life
Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto 2013), ix, 178pp.
The solitary Suffragette who presented herself was able to walk quietly in unnoticed and to take a seat in the middle of the room. If her heart beat so loud that it seemed that all must hear it, if she felt sick and faint with suspense, no one knew.
In the midst of the vast Liberal Party rally just before the 1906 general election, the suffragette waited to ask her question, steeling herself for the violent ejection that invariably followed.
The speaker was Winston Churchill, well-known for his particularly ‘insulting attitude’ towards women’s suffrage. When the suffragette stood up and asked her question, ‘Will the Liberal Government give women the vote?’, he just ignored her. The ‘votes for women’ banner in her hand was snatched from her, but when some of the men in the audience demanded an answer the chairman invited the suffragette to ask her question from the platform. After doing so, Churchill took her roughly by the arm and forced her into a seat on the platform saying, ‘No, you must wait here till you have heard what I have to say’, and told the audience ‘Nothing would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise.’ Suddenly all the men on the platform stood up, blocking the suffragette from view, while others pushed her into a back room.2 One man went to find a key to lock her in, while another, standing against the door, ‘began to use the most violent language and, calling her a cat, gesticulated as though he would scratch her face with his hands’.3 She ran to the barred window and called out to the people in the street. The threatening man left and the crowd pointed out a window with some bars missing which the suffragette climbed through and then, at the crowd’s request, delivered an impromptu speech of her own.
Forty-two years later, and 20 years after all women in Britain won the right to vote, Winston Churchill was still in the House of Commons. On the road outside was a 62-year-old woman in a group holding placards demanding an end to British colonialism in Africa.
In both instances the woman was Sylvia Pankhurst. But what, other than the woman involved, connected the militant suffragette movement to the struggle against colonialism after the Second World War? Sometimes biography enables us to see an alternative political history that upsets the dominant narrative about how political change is achieved.
Standard syllabuses of British political history tend to portray an ascending trajectory of political reform – the reforms drawn up on the Parliamentary benches – punctuated briefly by a few, seemingly unlinked, protests. The story of Sylvia Pankhurst’s life – the story from the perspective of the protester locked out of the political meeting and demonstrating on the streets – shows this was never the case. She was a leading suffragette who broke away from the elitism of the suffragette campaign organised by her mother and sister by building a women’s suffrage campaign that put working-class women at the forefront of fighting for the vote. In the First World War she campaigned against the intensified exploitation and suffering it brought to working people. She was among the first socialists to champion the Bolshevik revolution, inspired by the soviets which placed direct democracy in the hands of ordinary people. In the 1920s she was one of the first people in Britain to identify the danger posed by the rise of fascism in Italy to democratic freedoms and to peace.
At a time when Churchill was proclaiming his admiration for Mussolini she was campaigning against British appeasement of fascism. Her uncompromising opposition to fascism enabled her to be in the forefront of raising awareness about the horror of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935; a campaign that led her into resisting British attempts to colonise Ethiopia and other parts of Africa after the war.
Despite her lifelong political activism it is for her work as a suffragette, over a period of only ten years of her life, that she is best known. Her role has been written out of not only the dominant historical narratives of twentieth-century politics, but also many studies of the left. In part, this is because after 1921 she was not affiliated to any organisation and so has been difficult to ‘claim’ as part of a tradition. Many studies of British anti-fascism fail to even mention her unique contribution to this struggle.
Sylvia was above all profoundly committed to a radical, far-reaching conception of democracy for women, for workers and for people struggling to overthrow the dominance of Empire.
Her experience of this struggle was that change had to be forced on the privileged classes at Westminster and the gains had to be constantly defended. For those in today’s social movements who want to change the world, Sylvia’s ideas, campaigns and the dilemmas she was confronted with are more important than we have been led to believe.
This extract is from the Introduction (pp.1-3).
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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