Suffragette City

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Review of ’Sylvia Pankhurst‘ by Shirley Harrison, Aurum Press £20

Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the outstanding women activists in British history. She was the most courageous of the Suffragettes, who fought for votes for women. But she was also a socialist who devoted her huge energies to improving life for working class women and men. Throughout her life Sylvia remained passionately committed to challenging racism. She employed the first black journalist in Britain, Claude McKay, on her socialist paper, The Workers‘ Dreadnought.

Sylvia‘s family was absorbed in left wing politics. Her father and mother, Richard and Emmeline, and all her brothers and sisters, were active in the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The story of her early life, told in rich detail in this biography, is also the story of how working class politics in Britain struggled to be free of the Liberal Party.

The Pankhurst family relationships were complex. Christabel, Sylvia‘s older sister, was selfish and domineering and closest to Emmeline. On 10 October 1903, the Pankhursts and a few friends established the Women‘s Social and Political Union. The motto of the WSPU was ’deeds not words‘ and their daring tactics have all but eclipsed the other suffragist campaigns.

In 1904 Sylvia went to study art in London and Emmeline and Christabel soon followed. The transformation of the WSPU was not just geographical. It became a professional organisation, and one that sought the support of influential middle class women. Sylvia was heartbroken when the Suffragettes broke from the ILP. She stayed loyal to the WSPU, even when its tactics alienated many in the working class movement. They chained themselves to railings, ’rushed‘ parliament, broke windows, vandalised paintings and set off bombs. They were often beaten up, abused and imprisoned. In 1909 the first Suffragette in prison went on hunger strike. Sylvia went on more prison hunger strikes than any other Suffragette. Christabel chose to direct operations from the safety and comfort of France.

Sylvia was not at home in the drawing rooms of Belgravia. At the heart of her political life was the plight of working class women in London‘s desperately poor East End. In 1914 she wrote, ’I am a socialist and want to see the conditions under which our people live entirely revolutionised, but because I believe nothing will be achieved without the help of women I feel my first work must be to do what I can to secure for them entrance into the political scheme.‘ She wanted to create a mass movement, selling her paper and even organising a citizens‘ army that marched down Roman Road. The story of how Sylvia fought to build that organisation is fascinatingly told here.

Her socialism set her on a collision course with her family. Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU in 1913 for speaking at a meeting for workers from Dublin locked out by their employers. When the First World War broke out, Emmeline and Christabel became recruiting sergeants for the British Army. Sylvia saw this as a great betrayal of everything she, and her father, had stood for.

This account of the agitation in the East End during the war is inspiring - it uncovers a hidden tradition of resistance that Sylvia was central to. It shows how Sylvia welcomed the Russian Revolution of 1917, changing her organisation from the East London Federation of Suffragettes to the Workers‘ Socialist Federation. Sylvia became a revolutionary and went to Russia to meet Lenin. On trial for sedition in 1920, Sylvia declared from the dock, ’Capitalism is the wrong system of society and it has to be smashed - I would give my life to smash it.‘

At this point the book goes rapidly downhill. The author does not understand the complex debates in the socialist movement and gives more weight to Sylvia‘s love affair with an Italian anarchist than her becoming a revolutionary. And Sylvia‘s life also went downhill in her later years.

This is a great account of the big struggles of pre-war Britain and the life of a talented socialist who had the courage to defy all morals and prejudices of her society. But stop reading around the chapter called ‘Silvio and Sylvia’.