Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the lesser-known (and in someways much more radical) daughter of British suffragist Emmaline Pankhurst and younger sister to the colorful Dame Cristabel Pankhurst. Like her mother and sister, Sylvia campaigned for women’s rights. Unlike them, she understood women’s equality to be part of a much larger struggle for social justice that included hands-on anti-poverty work, socialist politics, and speaking out for anti-fascist and anti-colonialist struggles around the globe.
Born in Manchester, England, in 1882, Sylvia grew up in a household brimming with social and cultural reform and experimentation. Her parents moved in circles that included artists such as William Morris and politicians, including Keir Hardie, founder of the modern English Labour Party, who became a mentor and inspired Sylvia’s socialist politics.
In 1911 she wrote a history of the militant women’s suffrage movement in England 1905-1910, The Suffragette, in which she recalled growing up in an atmosphere of political agitation. “In 1889 my parents helped to form the Women’s Franchise League. My sister Christabel and I, then nine and seven years old, already took a lively interest in all proceedings, and tried as hard as we could to make ourselves useful, writing out notices in big, uncertain letters and distributing leaflets to the guests at a three days’ Conference held in our own home.”
As a student, Sylvia aspired to a career as an artist, and trained in painting and graphic design at both the Manchester School of Art and later the Royal College of Art (London). Her pursuit of art, however, was soon eclipsed by her involvement in political activities — first the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the suffrage organization her family had founded, and then broader social concerns.
By 1913 she had moved away from WSPU leadership to focus her energies on anti-poverty work and labor organizing. She located her efforts in London’s East End, opening a cut-price restaurant, organizing milk distribution for mothers with young children, setting up a medical clinic and a drop-in social center for the area’s impoverished residents. During the Great War she wrote passionately about the devastation visited on the East End by the air-raids — an experience that strengthened her anti-war resolve.
Sylvia broke with her mother and sister during the 1910s and 1920s over a number of political and personal decisions. When war broke out in 1914, Christabel and her mother ceased their suffrage activism in order to support the English national cause; Sylvia refused to stop her political activities or to support the war effort. She was joined in her pacisifm by younger sister Adela (b. 1885), who likewise drifted away from the WSPU during the teens. Sylvia also disagreed with her sister Christabel’s decision to focus on expanding the vote primarily to adult women of the “right” classes; for Sylvia universal suffrage was the goal. On a personal level, Sylvia’s parents disapproved of Sylvia’s relationship with Italian activist Silvio Corio with whom she lived for over thirty years and had a son, Richard, in 1927. The two shared a home in Woodford Green. After Richard was born, and Sylvia still refused to marry Silvio, Emmaline Pankhurst reportedly never spoke to her daughter again.
Beginning in the 1930s and lasting for the rest of her life, Sylvia was involved in anti-colonialism efforts in Ethiopia, eventually moving to Addis Ababa, where she was eventually joined by her son Richard (who continues to make his home there today).
I think Sylvia Pankhurst’s story is fascinating on several levels. One, I think the Pankhurst family is a case study in how feminism (and more broadly social justice activism) can speak to members of a politically-active family in very different ways. All three of the Pankhurst daughters grew up under the influence of their progressively-minded (for their time) parents, and all three went very different ways as independent adults. Two, I think Sylvia Pankhurst’s story is an early example of how feminist activism, however narrow a platform it is to begin with, can inspire people to political and social empathy beyond their own experience. Sylvia’s work in labor activism, peace activism, and anti-colonialism a seem to have grown out of (or grown alongside) her work for gender equality. Third, I think it’s interesting to note the way that Sylvia’s life and work — despite its radicalism — is so often overshadowed by her elder sister’s larger-than-life persona. It is not always the most visible personalities that are the most “out there” in terms of personal life choices and political belief and practice.
I first read about Sylvia Pankhurst in Shirley Harrison’s biography Sylvia Pankhurst: A Crusading Life, 1882-1960 (London: Aurum, 2003), a book I highly recommend if you’re interested in learning more.
Note: I’m off this morning for a three-day weekend at my in-laws cabin in central Maine, where we have no internet access. So everyone feel free to comment on the post but don’t take it personally if I don’t respond in-thread!