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Sylvia Pankhurst

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sylvia Pankhurst
Sylvia Pankhurst 1909.jpeg
Sylvia Pankhurst (1909)
Born Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst
(1882-05-05)5 May 1882
Old Trafford, Manchester, England
Died 27 September 1960(1960-09-27) (aged 78)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Burial place Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa
Alma mater Manchester School of Art
Royal College of Art
Occupation Political activist, writer, artist
Partner(s) Silvio Corio
Children Richard Pankhurst
Parent(s) Richard Pankhurst
Emmeline Goulden
Relatives Christabel Pankhurst (sister)
Adela Pankhurst (sister)
Helen Pankhurst (granddaughter)
Alula Pankhurst (grandson)

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (5 May 1882 – 27 September 1960) was an English campaigner for the suffragette movement, a prominent left communist and, later, an activist in the cause of anti-fascism.

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Early life

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (she later dropped her first forename) was born in Manchester, a daughter of Dr Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, who both later became founding members of the Independent Labour Party and were much concerned with women's rights. Sylvia and her sisters, Christabel and Adela, attended Manchester High School for Girls, and all three became suffragists.

Sylvia trained as an artist at the Manchester School of Art, and, in 1900, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington.[1] In 1907 she toured industrial towns in the North of England and in Scotland, painting portraits of working-class women in their working environments.[2]


 Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policy in India, 1932.
Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policy in India, 1932.

In 1906, Sylvia Pankhurst started to work full-time for the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her sister Christabel and their mother. She applied her artistic talents on behalf of the WSPU, devising its logo and various leaflets, banners, and posters as well as the decoration of its meeting halls.[3] However, in contrast to Emmeline and Christabel, she retained an affiliation with the labour movement and concentrated her activity on local campaigning. She and Amy Bull founded the East London Federation of the WSPU.[4] Sylvia also contributed articles to the WSPU's newspaper, Votes for Women and, in 1911, she published a propagandist history of the WSPU's campaign, The Suffragette: The History of the Women's Militant Suffrage Movement.[5]

By 1914, Sylvia had many disagreements with the route the WSPU was taking. It had become independent of any political party, but she wanted it to become an explicitly socialist organisation tackling wider issues than women's suffrage, and aligned with the Independent Labour Party. She had a close personal relationship with the Labour politician Keir Hardie. On 1 November 1913, Pankhurst showed her support in the Dublin Lockout and spoke at a meeting in London. The members of the WSPU, particularly co-founder and her sister Christabel, did not agree with her actions, thus expelling her from the union.[6] Her expulsion led to her founding of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), which over the years evolved politically and changed its name accordingly, first to the Women's Suffrage Federation and then to the Workers' Socialist Federation. She founded the newspaper of the WSF, Women's Dreadnought, which subsequently became the Workers' Dreadnought. It organised against the First World War and some of its members hid conscientious objectors from the police.[citation needed]

First World War

 Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910.
Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910.

During the First World War Sylvia was horrified to see her mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel become enthusiastic supporters of the war drive and campaigning in favour of military conscription. She was opposed to the war, and was publicly attacked in the newly renamed WSPU newspaper Britannia. [7] Her organisation attempted to organise the defence of the interests of women in the poorer parts of London. It set up "cost-price" restaurants to feed the hungry without the taint of charity. It also established a toy factory to give work to women who had become unemployed because of the war.[citation needed] Sylvia and her comrades also worked to defend the right of soldiers' wives to decent allowances while their husbands were away, both practically, by setting up legal advice centres, and politically, by running campaigns to oblige the government to take into account the poverty of soldiers' wives.

In 1915, Sylvia gave her enthusiastic support to the International Women's Peace Congress, held at The Hague. This support lost her some of her allies at home and contrasted sharply with the stance of her sister Christabel, who, following the Russian Revolution of February 1917 and Alexander Kerensky's rise to power, journeyed to Russia to advocate against its withdrawal from the war.[8]


The WSF continued to move towards left-wing politics and hosted the inaugural meeting of the Communist Party (BSTI). Workers' Dreadnought published Sylvia Pankhurst's "A Constitution for British Soviets" to coincide with this meeting. In this article she highlighted the potential role of what she called Household Soviets – "In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up."[9]

The CP(BSTI) was opposed to parliamentarism, in contrast to the views of the newly founded British Socialist Party which formed the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in August 1920. The CP(BSTI) soon dissolved itself into the larger, official Communist Party, but this unity was short-lived. When the leadership of the CPGB proposed that Sylvia Pankhurst hand over the Workers Dreadnought to the party she revolted. As a result she was expelled from the CPGB and moved to found the short-lived Communist Workers Party.

By this time she was an adherent of left or council communism. She attended meetings of the Communist International in Russia and Amsterdam, and those of the Italian Socialist Party. She disagreed with Lenin on his advice to work with the British Labour Party and was supportive of "left communists" such as Anton Pannekoek.[citation needed]

Partner and son

Sylvia Pankhurst objected to entering into a marriage contract and taking a husband's name. Near the end of the First World War she began living with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio[10] and moved to Woodford Green, where she lived for over 30 years. (A blue plaque and Pankhurst Green opposite Woodford tube station commemorate her ties to the area.) In 1927, at the age of 45, she gave birth to a son, Richard. As she refused to marry the child's father, her mother broke ties with her and did not speak to her again.[citation needed]

Supporter of Ethiopia

 Pankhurst's grave
Pankhurst's grave

In the early 1930s Sylvia Pankhurst drifted away from Communist politics, but she remained involved in movements connected with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism. In 1932 she was instrumental in the establishment of the Socialist Workers' National Health Council.[11] She responded to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by publishing The New Times and Ethiopia News from 1936, and became a supporter of Haile Selassie. She raised funds for Ethiopia's first teaching hospital, and wrote extensively on Ethiopian art and culture, carrying out research that was published in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History (London: Lalibela House, 1955).

From 1936 MI5 monitored Sylvia Pankhurst's correspondence.[12] In 1940 she wrote to Viscount Swinton, then chairing a committee investigating Fifth Columnists, and enclosed lists of active Fascists still at large and of anti-Fascists who had been interned. A copy of this letter on MI5's file carries a note in Swinton's hand reading: "I should think a most doubtful source of information."[12]

After the post-war liberation of Ethiopia she became a strong supporter of union between Ethiopia and the former Italian Somaliland, and MI5's file continued to follow her activities. In 1948 MI5 considered strategies for "muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst". Pankhurst became a friend and adviser to the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and in 1956 she moved to Addis Ababa at Haile Selassie's invitation with her son Richard. She then founded a monthly journal, Ethiopia Observer, in which she reported on many aspects of Ethiopian life and development.[13][14]


Sylvia Pankhurst died in Addis Ababa in 1960, aged 78, and received a full state funeral at which Haile Selassie named her "an honorary Ethiopian". She is the only foreigner buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, in a section reserved for patriots of the Italian war.[13]

Writings (selection)

Secondary literature

  • Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: Artist and Crusader, An Intimate Portrait (Virago Ltd, 1979), ISBN 0-448-22840-8
  • Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: Counsel for Ethiopia (Hollywood, CA: Tsehai, 2003) London: Global Publishing ISBN 0972317228
  • Ian Bullock and Richard Pankhurst (eds) Sylvia Pankhurst. From Artist to Anti-Fascist(Macmillan, 1992) ISBN 0-333-54618-0
  • Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst, A Crusading Life 1882–1960 (Aurum Press, 2003) ISBN 1854109057
  • Sylvia Pankhurst, The Rebellious Suffragette (Golden Guides Press Ltd, 2012) ISBN 1780950187
  • Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst, Citizen of the World (Hornbeam Publishing Ltd, 2009), ISBN 978-0-9553963-2-8
  • Barbara Castle, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst (Penguin Books, 1987), ISBN 0-14-008761-3
  • Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family (Penguin Books, 2002) ISBN 0099520435
  • Patricia W. Romero, E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Portrait of a Radical (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987) ISBN 0300036914
  • Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996); ISBN 0-312-16268-5

See also


  1. ^ "Pankhurst, (Estelle) Sylvia (1882–1960)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/37833.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Chambers, Emma. "Women Workers of England". Tate Gallery. Retrieved 3 March 2014. 
  3. ^ Winslow, Barbara Winslow (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 409. 
  4. ^ Elizabeth Crawford, ‘Bull , Amy Maud (1877–1953)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 1 Jan 2017
  5. ^ Mercer, John (2007), "Writing and Re-Writing Suffrage History: Sylvia Pankhurst's 'The Suffragette'", Women's History Magazine
  6. ^ Bell, Geoffrey (2016). "Sylvia Pankhurst and the Irish revolution". History Ireland. 24: 38–41. 
  7. ^ Edmund; Frow, Ruth (1994). The Battle of Bexley Square: Salford Unemployed Workers' Demonstration - 1st October 1931. Salford: Working Class Movement Library. ISBN 978-0-9523410-1-7. 
  8. ^ Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (Pluto Press, 1999); ISBN 0-7453-1518-6
  9. ^ Workers' Dreadnought, Vol. VII, No. 13, 19 June 1920.
  10. ^
  11. ^ "The Annual General Meeting". The Socialist Doctor. 1 (4). June 1932. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. 
  12. ^ a b Communists and Suspected Communists: Sylvia Pankhurst file ref KV 2/1570 Archived 16 September 2009 at,; accessed 13 April 2009
  13. ^ a b Fifty Years Since the Death of Sylvia Pankhurst, Ethiopians Pay Tribute – Owen Abroad
  14. ^ "New Times and Ethiopian News - Oxford Reference". doi:10.1093/acref/9780192804396.001.0001/acref-9780192804396-e-301 (inactive 2017-12-21). 

External links

This page was last edited on 21 December 2017, at 23:25.
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