Why Sylvia Matters
How many of you about to read this have heard of Sylvia Pankhurst? Our guess is, not many. She seems to have fallen through the cracks of socialist and suffragette movement literature. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst and sister, Christabel Pankhurst are still looked up to as leaders in the suffragette movement. What is overlooked is the fact that they only supported suffrage for women who had property. This, of course, completely eliminates women in the working class and women who are poor. Sylvia, on the other hand, devoted her life to supporting those women and giving them a voice. We find it ironic that Emmeline and Christabel were considered rebels even though later in life both became pro-war, conservative and religious fundamentalists. However, it was Sylvia who was the true revolutionary. Her name and work should become familiar to all socialists, and especially feminist socialists. Sylvia is an important woman to know about for all women – and men – who want to learn about the history of significant women in the struggle for socialism and women’s equality.
Sylvia lived a life of courage, strength, and conviction. Born in 1882 into an upper middle-class family in Manchester, England, her parents were founding members of the Independent Labor Party. Both Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst were firm supporters of women’s rights. Sylvia grew up attending public talks, demonstrations and was surrounded by friends of her parents who were considered radicals.
We learned all this from reading Rachel Holmes’s book Natural Born Rebel: Sylvia Pankhurst.
In her long years as a socialist and feminist she never stopped working, whether in the arts or in politics. Her early years until the Russian revolution were dominated by the Suffrage movement. After the Russian revolution she devoted herself strictly to socialism and supported the Russian Revolution for the first four years. However, she ultimately split with Lenin over his reinstitution of a partly capitalist economy. Sylvia became associated with the soviets, or workers’ councils, and advocated for them as political bodies over parliaments. She opposed fascism in both the 1920s and 1930s and supported Ethiopia against both Italian and English imperialism.
Sylvia moved to Bow in the East End of London in 1912 when she was 30, a traditionally working-class neighborhood. It was here that she set up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline and Christabel did not approve. She did many things to support working women and women whose husbands were away at war. She established a café that was free, called Cost Price Restaurant. She also put women to work by organizing a cooperative toy factory. She established The Mother’s Arms, a school for toddlers whose mothers were working. At this school the children were taught according to the Montessori method. When the children arrived in the morning in dirty and torn clothing, they would be given uniforms to wear while their clothes were washed and mended.
Sylvia was extremely imaginative in her strategies and tactics in agitating and organizing as a suffragette. She regularly gave public talks and handed out pamphlets, often on the streets, agitating and encouraged women to fight back against the oppressive system in which they lived. She marched in more demonstrations than she could count. In fact, she said later in life that she didn’t like to go on walks unless they were marches of protest. She constantly outfoxed the police who tried to shut these events down and arrest her, smuggling herself into meetings where she was banned. She hid inside furniture, and impersonated a pregnant woman by stuffing newspapers down her dress. She was full of surprises.
Sylvia was arrested 15 times in her life campaigning for the rights of women. It’s been said that the 19th century – extending into the early 20th century – was the century of the penitentiary. Over one 18-month period she was imprisoned 13 times. This had adverse effects on her health throughout her life. In fact, it’s remarkable that she lived to be 78. The first time Sylvia was arrested, for yelling and causing a ruckus in court in defense of other women being sentenced in 1906, when she was only 24, she was placed in the harshest division, the third division. In the third division the women were denied their own clothing, reading, and writing materials, and were fed rotten food. She endured torture through force-feeding because of her fasting as a means of rebellion. All of this changed her life – physically and politically.
She took part in demonstrations where women were dragged down side streets, beaten up, and sexually assaulted by the police, as they were on Black Friday, Nov. 18, 1910. In 1913 the government passed a bill called Temporary Discharge for Ill Health because they feared that too many women would die, turning the public against them. The suffragettes called this bill “The Cat and Mouse Act”. They were released on the terms that they would be returned to prison when they had regained their strength. However, most of them went to “safe houses” till they were stronger, then promptly returned to militancy. They were awarded medals by other suffragettes when they were released which they wore with pride. Emmeline was never subjected to force-feeding because she was too high-profile among the middle and upper-middle classes. Sylvia was subjected to it repeatedly.
Sylvia had constant fights with her mother and sister over her desire to combine feminism with work in the Labor Party. As a result, she was driven to the margins of the suffragette movement in Britain. The gap between she, her sister and her mother widened when she campaigned against British involvement in World War I. The differences became an abyss when Sylvia supported the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.
As early as 1921, Sylvia understood the dangers of fascism and though her involvement in socialist parties waned, she was a life-long fighter against fascism. During the 1930s she became involved in the cause of Ethiopia and its fight against Italian fascism. She defended Ethiopia against all imperialist stirrings, including that of Great Britain. By the end of 1950s, with her 30-year soulmate Silvio Corio dead and constant harassment from the British government, there wasn’t much left for her in England. She was invited by the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to move to Ethiopia. She spent the last four years of her life there involved in plans for improving their educational and health care systems. She was beloved by Ethiopians and when she died in 1960 she was honored and buried along with all the other Ethiopian fighters against fascism.
Skill in the arts
She was multi-talented in the creative arts. She was a good enough artist to receive a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1900. Her drawings and paintings were rooted in the experience of the working class. She created portraits of workers both on and off the job, as well as of women in prison. She used her skills to design leaflets, posters and banners for upcoming protests and strikes. She was conflicted throughout her life about whether or not to focus on her art or to focus on her political activism. In fact, she managed to incorporate both into her work.
She also wrote plays and as she got older, she wrote mammoth sized books on the suffragette movement as well as the cultural history of Ethiopia. She regularly wrote articles for her own and other publications. The first newsletter she published after she moved to the East End of London was the Women’s Dreadnought, which later became the Workers’ Dreadnought. The tile came from a type of rope with a knot at the end of it that women used to protect themselves from attacks by the police and others during demonstrations.
Sylvia’s father, Richard was a radical lawyer whom she loved dearly and who was a significant influence in her life. Her father gave her a great deal of intellectual support and their home was filled with books along with a revolving door of guests from all kinds of social movements. He was a suffragette from before Sylvia was born. Her father was an atheist. He led Sylvia to agnosticism through reading and rational argument. She later became an atheist as well. She met Eleanor Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, many revolutionaries, and radicals, and listened to discussions on Fabianism, socialism, and Marxism in their home.
Sylvia’s relationship with her mother and older sister was stormy from early on. Sylvia spent many long years trying to gain her mother’s approval despite their deep political differences during and after the Russian Revolution.
Sylvia had two major loves in her life. The first was a long affair with socialist Keir Hardie that lasted for about 15 years. Hardie was committed to staying with his wife, and Sylvia grew impatient with his being on the road constantly and his affairs with other women. They were great political collaborators when they worked together and Hardie looked after her when he was in town. He was probably her greatest political influence. However, she had to keep their love for each other secret from the rest of the world. Her second major love was an Italian anarchist named Silvio Corio. Silvio moved in with her and supported her work during the 30 years they were together. He cooked, did carpentry, and they collaborated in the production of newspapers Sylvia founded and wrote for. They never married but had a child, Richard Pankhurst, born in 1927.
Sylvia had many of the quirks that are all too typical of socialists. Her eating habits were terrible and erratic until Silvio started cooking. Her clothes were terribly out of date, and she walked around at times with her blouses inside out. She did not have good boundaries and she went to prison too many times for her to not pay for it with her health. In spite of plenty of positive feedback from all those whom she encountered throughout her life, Sylvia wasted way too much time trying to get her mother’s and sister’s approval. We found ourselves hoping for her mother to die so Sylvia would stop obsessing about her. Despite that, she charmed everyone and her house in East London was a popular watering hole for socialists and Pan Africanists. She created in her home a similar atmosphere as her father Richard created for her growing up.
In reading her biography, we realized we have mixed feelings about her. There are obviously things we love about her. We love her move towards socialism and even militancy. Her refusal to remain attached to the original suffragette mantra or votes for middle and upper-middle class women took tremendous courage, particularly as it meant going against what her mother and older sister promoted. She steadfastly rejected the institution of marriage, and while she had two great loves in her life she never married. She was brave to have a child out of wedlock in moralistic Britain in 1927. Her artistic skills and how she used them in the service of promoting issues she valued were considerable. She had the ability to move people and be persuasive with her speeches. Her speech impediment, which made her pronounce her ‘r’s as ‘w’s – she talked about “wevolution” and the “misewies of the industwial worker”, only made her more human and lovable. She was an excellent, indefatigable writer, and spread the value of socialism and equality in her own publications and those of others. Her relationship with her son, Richard was a strong one, and she led by example, helping him to grow into as much of an activist as she was. She even went on Richard’s honeymoon with his wife Rita (with Rita’s permission). They moved with her to Ethiopia and are all buried in the same sacred place in Ethiopia.
We also were impatient with the amount of time Sylvia spent focusing on the suffragette movement before she moved closer to socialism and anti-militarism. While she supported the working and lower classes, she did not spend time systematically organizing the entire working class, not just women. Even though she knew socialists like Eleanor Marx, Karl Liebknecht,
Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn she never committed fully to being part of a socialist organization after she lost interest in the Russian Revolution. Instead, she wasted her time dogging the likes of Winston Churchill, writing letters, and sending petitions for change in parliament. What does this have to do with socialism? Britain has consistently proven itself to be extremely conservative and reactionary. Why couldn’t she understand that?
Finally, her insistence on going on hunger strikes, water strikes, even sleep strikes while in prison – all of which ruined her health, was hard to read. This, to us, smacks of martyrdom. We believe that in order to be effective in creating change, the individual must take care of themselves. It’s much more difficult to lead a revolution if you are strong in spirit but weak in flesh.
Quality of the book
Size of the book
Sylvia Pankhurst had a long and eventful life, so it is understandable that her biography would be a big book. What do we mean by big? Between 400-600 pages. Rachel Holmes’ book is 976 pages. There is just too much unnecessary detail, such as the names of every person she engaged with and every event she took part in. One of us had to have her book broken down and bound into 3 separate books so she could more easily hold it.
Jumping around within a single chapter
A second problem is that the chapters don’t stick with simple chronology. For example, a chapter roughly covering the period of 1917-1918 will have references to events that happened ten years before and 10 years after. We were constantly trying to figure out exactly what period the author was describing.
Lack of structure within or across chapters
When we read, we like to see the skeleton of a chapter in the form of subheadings that are clear and not cutesy. In other words, within a 20-page chapter there might be five subheadings. That way, before reading the chapter we tie the subheadings together so we can say to ourselves, “Ah – so this is where this is going”. There was none of that.
We also would have really appreciated a list of her milestones – bullet points of years and events that might cover 3 or 4 pages. Is it too much to ask to be given a map before beginning the journey? We don’t like mysteries. We want to know where we are going to determine if we want to go there at all.
The distribution of focus
We felt there was way too much time spend on the suffragette movement for the first half or more of the book. We also felt there was too much time spent on Sylvia’s relationship with her mother and sister. We found it surprising that the life of Sylvia’s romantic companion of thirty years, Silvio, was given so little time. Lastly, Sylvia’s relationship with socialism was essentially dropped after about 1927. Surely Sylvia has opinions about what became of the Soviet Union. What did she think about the Spanish Civil War and the anarchist collectives and the workers councils in Spain which lasted for 3 years and involved millions of people? Would she not care about worker self-organization which was like the soviets on a much grander scale? How she might have felt about Khrushchev’s revelations?
In spite of these criticisms Rachel Holmes is a good writer and kept us engaged. We were very happy and pleased to learn about the life of a wonderful heartful revolutionary as Sylvia Pankhurst. She was, indeed, a natural born rebel.