A Suffragette in America

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Sylvia Pankhurst took two life-changing lecture tours around America, three months in 1911 and then again in 1912. On return from her second trip she broke politically with her mother and sister. She was supposed to charm the progressive elite; instead she identified with the poor and oppressed.

Katherine Connolly has put together what would have been Sylvia Pankhurst’s unfinished “letters from America book”, mostly made up of those she wrote to Keir Hardie and her friend, Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) treasurer, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, who was expelled from the WSPU in 1913 for disagreeing with Sylvia’s sister and mother.

Sylvia’s visits to America took place as its economy was expanding at a furious rate. Huge wealth was being accumulated by the few thanks to the exploitation of the many. This resulted in an increase in the level of class struggle.

In her speeches she describes the possibility that the expansion of capitalist production could have brought with it a different reality. “As I have gone through your country, I have been filled with admiration for its ingenuity and wonderful progress and enterprise. But everywhere I see poverty, such overcrowding of cities, such wretchedness of many.”

She develops this theme further in her writings, contrasting the possibilities of new growth with its cruel waste of precious human energy.

The most grotesque example was the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York, where doors were locked to prevent workers stealing, and 146 workers, mostly from immigrant backgrounds, were killed. Around 100,000 joined the funeral procession with another 300,000 lining the streets.

Sylvia found herself challenging her American hosts over the issue of racism, dominant in the American suffragette’s movement. She was warned by her hosts not to speak at Fisk University, a college for black students which was then in Tennessee. She ignored them. She was astonished to find that every newspaper in the land was condemning her actions.

Sylvia shares a lesson for the class today, “We would establish headquarters in your capital, divide each state into districts with sub-headquarters in each, and begin a series of demonstrations. We would hold daily meetings, parade the streets, chalk the sidewalks, have torch-light processions, hold home meetings much like your weekly house prayer meetings, and resort to every possible means of awakening and holding public interest.”

Sylvia’s second trip to America coincided with the New York Laundry workers’ strike. On the day after she landed, she made contact with the strikers in her determination to connect the suffrage struggle with the women’s labour movement.

“When I first landed in America, I was told by numbers of people that women were not sweated there and practically all the women factory workers were foreigners. Anyone who makes even a superficial investigation must soon learn as I did that such a statements are quite untrue”

If you are looking for a book about Sylvia Pankhurst’s time in America, how she challenged the racism of her hosts, involved herself with a number of strikes going on at the time, then this is the book for you.

Reading the book (of which a substantial part is written by the editor) made me want to read more of the actual writings of Sylvia.

She is an artist by trade, and her writings are beautifully descriptive.