A reader writes : “You picked the wrong Pankhurst; Sylvia is much more interesting that Emmeline!”
Earlier in this coronablogging series, I offered some thoughts on the ten figures from history that I would like to include in my coronavirus ‘bubble’. Amongst my selection was Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the UK suffragette movement that was instrumental in securing the vote for women. Barely had the digital ink dried on the digital page (these analogies don’t work so well in a blogging context do they?), than I received a message from a reader suggesting that I’d picked the wrong Pankhurst. The much more interesting choice would have been Emmeline’s second daughter, Estelle Sylvia.
Now – I’ll confess that I had never heard of Sylvia before receiving this message, but having now read up a little bit more about her, I have to admit that the feedback was correct. Sylvia’s was an even more extraordinary life than that of her mother. Born on this day in 1882 in Old Trafford, Manchester in 1882, she attended Manchester High School for Girls and then the Manchester School of Art before relocating to London to attend the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906. It was towards the end of her time at the RCA that she began full time work for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the official organisational title of the suffragist movement. Although the WSPU campaigned on a militant agenda in pursuit of female suffrage, it was strictly non-partisan – something that led to an increasingly strained relationship with her mother and elder sister. Sylvia was an active member of the Independent Labour Party (the forerunner of the modern Labour Party in the UK), and supported a range of socialist causes alongside her calls for political reform.
In common with many members of the WSPU, Sylvia was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for her activities in support of votes of women. In just 17 months from February 1913 to July 1914, Sylvia was imprisoned on eight separate occasions, immediately going on hunger strike in prison, and being repeatedly force-fed. In November 1913, Sylvia was one of a number of speakers at a rally in the Albert Hall in support of Dublin workers who had gone on strike seeking the right to join trades unions and in protest generally at the appalling conditions that many Irish labourers were forced to endure at the time. This overtly political stance by Sylvia led to her expulsion from the WSPU. Undaunted, Sylvia was a founder of the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) in East London.
Sylvia was opposed to the First World War and the WSF was active in providing safe-houses for conscientious objectors as well running various schemes to support the wives of killed or injured soldiers. She was also instrumental in the creation of advice centres to support women seeking access to decent allowances to support themselves and their families while their husbands were away on military duties.
In the immediate period after the end of the First World War, Sylvia was involved in the formation of various forms of a communist party of Great Britain. At this time, she also began living with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio.
During the 1930s, Sylvia drifted away from communism and became more interested in anti-fascist and anti-colonialist movements on the international stage – in particular seeking to highlight the cause of Ethiopia after that country’s invasion by Italy in 1935. It was at about this time that Sylvia came under surveillance by MI5 (the UK’s internal security service).
Sylvia’s interest in and support for Ethiopian independence and subsequent development continued for the remainder of her life, and she spent the final years of her life living in Addis Ababa at the invitation of the country’s Emperor Haile Selassie. Sylvia died in Ethiopia in 1960 and received a full state funeral.
Her role in the women’s suffrage movement was formally marked through inclusion on the plinth of a statue of Millicent Fawcett that was unveiled in Parliament Square in London in 2018.
As my reader quite rightly points out : “Sylvia understood that no-one is really free until all are free – hence throwing her weight behind working class struggle for both men and women.” Truly, an inspirational woman and one that I am pleased to have learned more about.