Sylvia Pankhurst 1882 – 1960
The Pankhurst name is inextricably linked with the suffragette cause. However Sylvia was involved in other major political movements of the turbulent first half of the twentieth century, including campaigns against fascism and colonialism, and for workers’ rights.
A talented artist, in 1900 Sylvia won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. In 1907 she toured mill and factory worker communities in northern England and Scotland documenting the lives of women. Check out Art in Parliament which features some of her amazing paintings.
Sylvia was commissioned to decorate the Independent Labour Party’s local Salford headquarters. On completion of the job she was horrified to learn that women were barred from entering the building. This discovery fuelled her mother and sister’s desire to fight for rights for women.
Sylvia became an active votes-for-women campaigner: causing disruption; damaging property; anything to draw attention to the cause. She served many jail terms, and was force fed whilst on hunger strike in Holloway.
Whereas her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel just wanted voting rights extended to posh, privileged women, Sylvia believed that working class women and men deserved the vote. In 1913 Sylvia moved to the east end of London. Appalled by the hardship she witnessed around her she set up a mother-and-baby drop-in centre and free milk distribution. East-enders took the feisty northerner to their hearts, calling her ‘Our Sylvia”.
The Pankhurst clan also had different attitudes towards the First World War. Emmeline and Christabel put their suffragette campaign on hold and became enthusiastic supporters of military conscription. Sylvia on the other hand was opposed to the war. In the east end she set up subsidised, cost-price cafes, as well as a toy factory to enable local women to support themselves.
Sylvia had a long-term relationship with Italian anarchist Silvo Corio. She was against the principle of marriage and taking a man’s name, so the couple never wed. Sylvia’s refusal to marry, even after giving birth to a son, led her disgusted mother to cut all ties with her.
Sylvia was fervently anti-Empire, and MI5 kept tabs on her international, anti-colonial campaigning work. She was especially passionate about Ethiopia’s right remain independent, and did all she could to lobby politicians to prevent it falling under British protectorate after the Second World War. She raised funds for Ethiopia’s first teaching hospital, wrote extensively on the country’s art and culture. A friend and advisor to Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, she eventually moved there at his invitation. She died in Addis Ababa and received a full state funeral as an “honorary Ethiopian”.