Pankhurst, Adela (1885–1961)

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Pankhurst, Adela (1885–1961)

Participant with her mother and sisters in the prewar militant British women's suffrage movement, who emigrated to Australia in 1914 where she helped found, at different times, two ideologically opposed organizations, the Australian Communist Party and the Australian Women's Guild of Empire. Name variations: Adela Walsh. Born Adela Constantia Mary Pankhurst in Manchester, England, on June 19, 1885; died on May 23, 1961, in Australia; youngest daughter of Richard Marsden Pankhurst and Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst (1858–1928); sister of Christabel (1880–1958), Sylvia (1882–1960), Frank, and Harry Pankhurst; married Tom Walsh (a socialist labor leader), in 1919; children: Richard Walsh (b. 1919), and daughters Sylvia Walsh (b. 1920), Christian Walsh (b. 1921), and Ursula Walsh (b. 1923).

Death of her brother Frank (1888); death of her father (1898); death of her brother Harry (1910); emigrated to Australia (1914); published influential pacifist booklet, Put up the Sword! (1915); joined the Victoria Socialist Party (1917); death of her mother (1928); founded the Australian Women's Guild of Empire (1929); interned (1942); widowed (1943).

Selected writings:

Put up the Sword! (1915); Betrayed: A Play in Five Acts (1917); The Dawn (1917); (editor) The Empire Gazette (c. 1930–39).

Historical scholarship traditionally has depicted Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst as sharing the political spotlight, with Sylvia Pankhurst standing in their shadow. Adela is nowhere to be seen. Ironically, Adela, the Pankhurst whom history has forgotten, was in many ways the most memorable—she was the most politically radical, ideologically inconsistent, and personally humane of the three sisters.

Adela Pankhurst was born in Choriton upon Medlock, Manchester, Lancashire, England, on June 19, 1885, the fourth child of Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst. As a child, she was quite small for her age and suffered from an almost paralytic weakness of the legs which prevented her from walking until the age of three. Educated at home and at Manchester High School for Girls, she also attended the Disley Road School as a trainee teacher, though she did not complete her pedagogical training. Following the family tradition, she became deeply involved in socialist politics and gravitated toward the pacifist movement.

After leaving school, Adela worked as a primary school teacher until she decided to join her mother and elder sisters in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) where she served as a lecturer and a paid organizer. Although small in stature (she was slightly under five feet tall), she was a tireless worker for the WSPU. She was probably the most likeable of the Pankhurst women, as well as a brilliant speaker and a diligent organizer. She made friends easily and never asked WSPU volunteers to take any risk she was not personally prepared to share with them. For that reason, she was one of the first militants to be arrested, go to prison and be forcibly fed. Described by historian David Mitchell as being "recklessly dedicated" to the cause, she once traveled to Scotland to campaign for women's suffrage in a mid-winter election with a serious case of pleurisy. Nonetheless, according to some sources, her contributions to the movement seldom were recognized by her mother or Christabel, and she faced much sharper criticism from them than did her colleagues.

The major reason for this discriminatory treatment is that Adela, to the great disappointment of her mother, sided with Sylvia Pankhurst against Emmeline and Christabel concerning the proper goals and tactics for the militant suffragists to pursue. Although they welcomed any woman from any socio-economic class who wished to join the WSPU, the senior Pankhursts were determined to build a membership comprised primarily of upper- and middle-class women dedicated to the single goal of women's suffrage even if, initially, it meant that only women who owned property would be enfranchised. Adela, like Sylvia, believed that the WSPU should concentrate its recruitment efforts on working-class women, pledge itself never to accept any form of limited women's suffrage, and include proletarian women's socio-economic concerns on its agenda. Nonetheless, as socialists, Adela and Sylvia Pankhurst accepted the principle of organizational discipline and, when they could not prevail in family counsels, carried out official WSPU policies, grafting on their own touches where possible.

In 1912, Sylvia Pankhurst, with Adela's assistance, got an opportunity to put her socialist principles into operation when some of the wealthier branches of the WSPU underwrote the opening of a branch office in London's East End, a working-class district. The East London Federation of Suffragettes of the WSPU (ELFS) differed from WSPU standard policy in that it encouraged the participation of working-class men in its demonstrations and work projects, maintained at least unofficial ties with the Labour Party, and sometimes, in addition to pursuing the vote, dealt with other problems faced by working-class women. Sylvia's ELFS organized huge working-class demonstrations in favor of women's suffrage and endorsed the militancy which the WSPU advocated, but the ELFS' quasi-independent policies rankled Emmeline and Christabel.

By 1913, Adela's socio-political views had become almost as exasperating for her mother as were Sylvia's. Her outspoken deviationist opinions concerning proletarian women's socio-economic needs were particularly vexing for Emmeline and Christabel, perhaps because she presented them so eloquently. In 1913, Adela (who, like Sylvia, suffered all of her life from a host of annoying minor physical ailments) was afflicted with a serious case of pleurisy which caused her to collapse and resulted in the loss of her voice. Her doctors warned her that her condition would be aggravated by almost everything she did as a WSPU organizer, especially public speaking, going to prison and being forcibly fed. Therefore, in 1913, she took a hiatus from WSPU work and looked for an alternative career, at least on a temporary basis. Adela decided that she would like to be a gardener (although she had never shown the least aptitude for work of that sort), and her mother offered to pay for her to attend Studley Horticultural College, Warwickshire, if she agreed that she never would speak in public in England again.

Although Adela successfully completed her course, she never learned to enjoy gardening. She wanted to return to the political fray, and grew increasingly despondent because she was hamstrung by her vow to her mother. The solution to this dilemma came when Vida Goldstein , head of an Australian socialist-feminist organization, was visiting England and invited Adela to come "down under" and work as an organizer with the militant separatist Women's Political Association. Therefore, on February 22, 1914, Adela Pankhurst boarded the Geelong with her personal possessions and £20 in cash and emigrated to Victoria, Australia, so that she might continue the work she longed to do without dishonoring her promise to her mother.

In the same year, she worked to form an Australian Women's organization to concentrate on political issues. With the outbreak of the Great War (1914–18), Adela Pankhurst worked assiduously in the Women's Political Association and the Women's Peace Army to organize opposition to both conscription and the war itself. She wrote a number of pacifist tracts, including the influential Put up the Sword! which she published in 1915. Nonetheless, in 1917 she resigned from the Women's Political Association when the majority of its membership refused to endorse a plan which she and Vida Goldstein proposed to broaden its party platform to include more openly Marxist goals. In a letter to Cecilia John , she explained: "I am getting more near to Anarchism and I.W.W. [International Workers of the World] everyday…. I hate the idea of government[,] … and socialist politicians … would abuse power just as liberal and labour."

After breaking with the Women's Political Association, Adela Pankhurst joined the Victoria Socialist Party (VSP) where she took a job as a political organizer and lecturer. She quickly adapted militant suffragist tactics to Australian politics. Especially effective was the technique of unrelenting and strident questioning of opponents' political leaders at public meetings in order to disrupt their activities.

Considered by many to be the VSP's best speaker, she toured Western Australia, wrote for a variety of VSP publications and quickly made a name for herself in radical political circles. Her articles were very well received by the general public as well as by socialists because she avoided traditional left-wing jargon and wrote in a distinctly un-Marxist style.

After the inauguration of military conscription in Australia, she wrote Betrayed: A Play in Five Acts which depicted Australia as a militaristic penal state, and edited The Dawn, a monthly socialist newsletter for children. She became so popular so quickly that by June 1917 the Socialist was advertising a "plaster bust of Miss Pankhurst for sale at 3s 6d."

During this time, Adela was fined and sent to prison several times for her political activities, and she met and fell in love with Tom Walsh, a militant socialist and union organizer who was 18 years older than she. She also was arrested for leading a large demonstration of women from the Socialist Women's League to demand wartime rationing of food, clothing, and other essential items and for inciting a delegation of unemployed workers to smash the windows of (capitalist) department stores in Melbourne in order to obtain the clothes and blankets they needed. After her release on remand (bail), the Reverend Frederick Sinclaire married Adela Pankhurst and Tom Walsh at the Free Religious Fellowship hall in Melbourne on September 30, 1917, and she became a stepmother to his three daughters. Despite later rumors that she had married Walsh only to avoid deportation, there is no evidence that their union was anything but a loving marriage—a partnership based upon mutual affection which lasted until Walsh's death in 1943. Adela's new domestic responsibilities did not, however, dilute her radicalism, and she was arrested again in late 1917—this time for offensive behavior—and sentenced to nine months in prison. After refusing to accept the government's offer of release if she agreed not to speak in public, she began serving her sentence in Pentridge jail. Despite a petition to obtain her immediate freedom signed by thousands, she was not released until January 1918 when her physicians recommended early release on medical grounds. Adela attempted to resume her strenuous schedule of feminist, socialist, and pacifist activism, but she became mentally and physically exhausted, and had to resign as an organizer from the Victoria Socialist Party in May 1918. That did not stop Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst from printing a "tart" condemnation of both Sylvia and Adela in the pages of their jingoistic newspaper, Britannia.

Put up the sword!

—Adela Pankhurst

In May 1919, soon after the birth of her first baby, Richard, named for Adela's father, the new family moved to Sydney where Tom took over the Australian Seamen's Union which made him first its secretary, then its general secretary, and finally its president (1921–25). During this time, Adela helped with her husband's attempt to mobilize and expand his union. In addition, the couple took an active role in the early meetings which led to the formation of the Australian Communist Party. After its founding, they both were asked to serve on the provisional Executive Committee but, although they professed their belief in Marxism, it was of the utopian, humanistic sort—a vision of the universe which did not blend well with the more hard-line Marxism practiced by the Australian Communist Party. Predictably, they soon turned against the Communist Party's sabotage tactics which involved political obstructionism and industrial disruption.

In October 1920, Adela gave birth to her first daughter, Sylvia, whom she named for her sister. She soon became pregnant again with her second daughter, Christian, in 1921. A third daughter, Ursula, was born two years later. Adela was a poor cook and an indifferent laundress and cleaner, but she insisted on keeping house for her husband and family. Nonetheless, raising four children and three stepchildren did not keep her from raising political Cain. Friends reported that she often could be found grinding out radical political articles with one child on her lap and another at her shoulder. A good example of the work she did is a landmark article in feminist Marxism called "Communism and Social Purity" which traced the evils of prostitution to the economic pressures and emotional blackmail put on young women by capitalism. It was printed in The Worker's Dreadnought by her sister Sylvia in February 1921.

As the Australian Communist Party became increasingly more strident and doctrinaire, Adela and Tom broke with both it and communism in general. They reembraced socialism by rejoining the Victoria Socialist Party in 1923 and remained active and influential in labor politics on both the local and national levels. In fact, during the early 1920s, Tom Walsh was one of the most important left-wing politicians on the continent and, for a while at least, Adela may have been the most influential woman in Australia.

In the mid-1920s, Tom Walsh clashed with a left-wing faction of his union over strategy and politics, a battle which resulted in his losing control of his union in 1928 and retiring from active political life. To the relief of his family, Tom took over most of the cooking and housekeeping for them. This allowed Adela to invest more time in her political work and writing. She began moving increasingly further to the political right and by 1928 former communist Adela Pankhurst had become so conservative that she had begun speaking out in favor of industrial peace, national unity, the British Empire, and the traditional family. By June 1928, she was busily engaged in plans to start an Australian branch of the Industrial Peace Union of Great Britain. By the early 1930s, she had come to believe that the worldwide depression had been caused by economic stagnation which could be alleviated by industrial co-operation which would increase the efficiency and raise the economic productivity of the Imperial economy. In the course of her work, Adela Pankhurst, erstwhile Marxist and union official, routinely crossed picket lines to speak out against strikes—actions which usually brought about a predictably hostile reception from the pickets and crowds.

Veering even further to the political right, she grew increasingly dogmatic and chauvinistic and, in 1928, founded the Australian branch of the extremely successful Women's Guild of Empire, a conservative imperial organization which had been founded in the mid-'20s by a former suffragist, Flora Drummond . The Australian branch of the Guild actively raised money to relieve suffering among working-class women and children. In addition to administrative work, Adela took on the task of editing the Guild's publication, The Empire Gazette, and did a good deal of writing for it until she resigned as editor on October 1, 1939.

To reward her for this Marxist apostasy, in 1937, Adela was awarded a King George VI Coronation Medal for her work in the Women's Guild of Empire. By this time, she had moved so far to the political right that she was afraid Britain might abandon its commitment to Australia. As a part of her newly launched anti-Bolshevik campaign, she flirted with fascism, joined W.J. Miles' and P.R. Stephensen's isolationist "Australia First" movement, and visited Japan in January 1940 as a guest of the Japanese government. Upon her return, she actually recommended that Australia sign a trade agreement and a treaty of friendship with the Japanese empire, a political position which made her very unpopular in the fall of 1940. Nonetheless, she decided to stand as a candidate for the Australian Federal Senate on a pro-Japanese, semi-fascist platform. Her campaign was a miserable failure, but she continued, unrepentantly, to dress in Japanese gowns as late as the fall of 1941. Although she recanted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and resigned her membership in the isolationist Australia First movement, in March 1942 she was interned. When she learned that her husband was dying, she was prepared to sacrifice her principles in order to be with him during his final days and petitioned the government for her release on humanitarian grounds. Adela's appeal failed and her release was delayed until October 13, 1942—two days after she had begun a suffragist-style hunger strike in internment.

Upon her release, she studied nursing, a profession which she practiced after the death of her favorite daughter, Sylvia, and that of her husband in 1943. She devoted her long nursing career primarily to caring for developmentally challenged children. Just before her death on May 23, 1961, at the Home of Peace Hospital in Wahroonga, Sydney, she received religious instruction and was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church. Adela Pankhurst was buried with Catholic rites and laid beside her husband in the Unitarian section of Northern Suburbs cemetery—a maverick even in death.


Castle, Barbara . Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. NY: Penguin, 1987.

Damousi, Joy. "Socialist Women in Australia: 1890–1920," in Melbourne Historical Journal. Vol. XVII, 1985, pp. 59–68.

Liddington, Jill, and Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women's Suffrage Movement. London: Virago, 1984.

Mitchell, David. The Fighting Pankhursts. NY: Macmillan, 1967.

——. Women on the Warpath. London: Jonathan Cape, 1966.

Pankhurst, Christabel. Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote. Ed. by Lord Frederick W. Pethick-Lawrence. London: Hutchinson, 1959.

Pankhurst, Estelle Sylvia. Life of Emmeline Pankhurst: The Suffragette Struggle for Women's Citizenship. London: T.W. Laurie, 1935.

——. The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals. London: Longmans, Green, 1932.

Pankhurst, Richard. Sylvia Pankhurst: Artist and Crusader. NY: Paddington Press, 1979.

Romero, Patricia. E. Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a Radical. London: University Press, 1987.

suggested reading:

Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910–1914, c. 1935 (NY: Capricorn Books, reprint, 1961).

Rosen, Andrew. Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women's Social and Political Union 1903–1914. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

related media:

"Shoulder to Shoulder," produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), based on the documentary book of the same name compiled and edited by Midge MacKenzie , was shown in the U.S. as a 6-part series on "Masterpiece Theater," 1988. Adela Pankhurst appears in Episode 1 but very little attention is devoted to her.

Nancy Ellen Ellen , Associate Professor of History and Director of Women's Studies, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee