Pankhurst, Sylvia (1882–1960)

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Pankhurst, Sylvia (1882–1960)

British artist, writer and political activist, primarily for socialist, anti-fascist and feminist causes. Name variations: E. Sylvia Pankhurst; Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst. Born Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst in Manchester, England, on May 5, 1882; died in Addis Ababa on September 27, 1960; second daughter of Richard Marsden Pankhurst and Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst (1858–1928); sister of Christabel (1880–1958), Adela (1885–1961), Frank, and Harry Pankhurst; educated at the Manchester High School for Girls, the Municipal School of Art, Manchester; the Accademia, Venice, and the Royal Academy of Art in London; lived with Italian radical socialist Silvio Corio; children: (with Corio) son, Richard Kier Pethick Pankhurst (b. 1928).

Death of brother Frank (1888); death of father (1898); was one of the original members who began the WSPU (1903); joined the Labour Party (1904); death of brother Harry (1910); founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS, 1912); joined the pacifist movement during the Great War(1914–18) and the British Communist Party in the postwar era; continued to work on art sporadically, but was dedicated primarily to socialist-feminist causes; her mother died and she gave birth to a son, Richard Kier Pethick Pankhurst (1928); thereafter, became more deeply involved in anti-fascist politics; in later life, adopted the cause of Abyssinian independence and helped found Abyssinian Association; moved to Ethiopia (1956), where she died (1960).

Selected art:

the Holloway Brooch and the Suffragette Tea Service. Well known for her paintings and drawings of working-class women, she designed many of the logos, posters, murals, and journal covers for the women's suffrage, socialist, feminist, anti-fascist, and pacifist causes which she championed.

Selected writings:

The Suffragette: The History of the Women's Militant Suffrage Movement 1905–1910 (Boston: Woman's Journal, 1911); Rebel Ireland: Thoughts on Easter Week 1916 (London: Worker's Socialist Federation, 1920); Lloyd George takes the Mask Off (London: Worker's Socialist Federation, 1920); Soviet Russia as I Saw It (London: Worker's Dreadnought Federation, 1921); Writ on a Cold Slate (London: Dreadnought, 1922); Education of the Masses (London: Dreadnought, 1924); India and the Earthly Paradise (Bombay: Sunshine, 1926); Delphos: The Future of International Language (London: K. Paul, 1927); Save the Mothers: A Plea for Measures to Prevent the Annual Loss of about 3,000 Child-Bearing Mothers and 20,000 Infant Lives in England and Wales and a Similar Grievous Wastage in Other Countries (London: A.A. Knopf, 1930); The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (London: Longmans, Green, 1932); The Home Front: A Mirror to Life in England During the World War (London: Hutchinson, 1932); The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst: The Suffragette Struggle for Women's Citizenship (London: T.W. Laurie, 1936); The Ethiopian People (Essex: New Times and Ethiopia News Book Dept., 1946); Ethiopia: A Cultural History (Essex: Lalibela House, 1955). Founded and edited The Women's Dreadnought, The Worker's Dreadnought , and New Times ; edited Ethiopian News (1936–56) and Ethiopian Observer.

From the time she was old enough to understand such things, it must have been painfully obvious to Sylvia Pankhurst that her elder sister Christabel was her mother's favorite. Beautiful, intelligent, graceful, gregarious and talented, Christabel Pankhurst was able to charm and captivate almost everyone around her, including her younger sisters. While Sylvia was intelligent, she also was plain, awkward, serious, determined and contentious, qualities which turn-of-the-century England considered to be more admirable than loveable, especially in young girls. Nonetheless, her considerable artistic talent helped Sylvia to garner a modicum of personal attention and gave her an outlet to express her ideas and emotions. Her art kept her from being totally obscured by her mother's flair and her sister's sparkle.

Sylvia Pankhurst was born on May 5, 1882, in Manchester, England, the daughter of Richard Marsden Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst . Her father doted on her (as he did each of his children) and fondly called her "Miss Woody Way," a play on words from the Latin term for woods, sylvan. Her early school years were unhappy, primarily because she had no friends. She hated school because her schoolmates made fun of her agnosticism and radical political beliefs.

Richard Pankhurst realized that the unorthodox and unpopular social and religious teachings he had instilled in his family were a greater burden for Sylvia than his other children because she took them so seriously and attempted to explain them so earnestly. Whereas Christabel used her charm to disarm those who taunted her, Sylvia attempted to convert them or at least convince them of the legitimacy of her position. Earnest young children seldom are popular with their peers, and Sylvia Pankhurst was no exception. Her father attempted to compensate for Sylvia's unpopularity by paying special attention to her in a number of small ways, such as taking her on long walks where he would sing to her Shakespeare's lyric "Who is Sylvia, What is She?" from Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Her attitude toward formal education changed when she entered the Manchester High School for Girls, an institution which recognized her artistic talent and encouraged her to pursue it at the Municipal School of Art, Manchester. Here she won a variety of medals and awards for art as well as a traveling scholarship which allowed her to study at the Accademia, Venice, before she continued her British artistic education by means of a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Art in London. In 1901, she won the Lady Whitworth scholarship of £30 and tuition fees awarded to the best woman student of the year.

In 1898, her beloved father died of a perforated ulcer. It was an especially traumatic time for Sylvia because at age 16 she was the eldest member of the family at home during his final crisis and was, therefore, the one responsible for the decisions made about his care. Although her mother and sisters never blamed her, she always felt guilty about not replacing their old-fashioned family doctor with a more modern and scientifically trained physician and for waiting too long to summon her mother home from Geneva. The death of her only brother, Harry, from poliomyelitis in 1910 added to this psychological burden because once again she believed she somehow should have been able to help.

In 1903, Sylvia joined with her mother and sister in founding the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The next year, she joined the Fulham branch of the International Labour Party, making a commitment to socialism which she would honor in various forms throughout her life.

The name of our paper, The Women's Dreadnought, is symbolic of the fact that the women who are fighting for freedom must fear nothing.

—Sylvia Pankhurst

While Sylvia was studying at the Royal Academy of Art, her mother came to London to live with her. In 1906, they founded the London Committee of the WSPU which became the movement's national headquarters. Sylvia supported herself by working as a speaker and organizer for the WSPU, activities which supplemented the income she earned as a freelance artist. Her undeniable artistic talent helped compensate for her mother's undisguised preference for Christabel, a bias which may help to explain why Sylvia's later writings on the suffrage movement are subtly critical of her mother and blatantly critical of her sister's policies and actions.

Although this dual career was exhausting, Sylvia was happy, because she was able to combine art with activism by painting murals for WSPU branch office walls, designing posters and banners for suffrage demonstrations, and creating women's suffrage artifacts such as the "Suffragette Tea Service" and the "Holloway Brooch," a pin bestowed on suffragists who had been imprisoned and forcibly fed for the movement. In addition to this political and artistic activity, in 1910 she began writing articles for The Suffragette (the WSPU's official journal) and then launched a career as an international lecturer on women's suffrage topics, speaking in the United States in 1911, Scandinavia in 1913, and Central Europe in 1914. During this period, she bore her full share of privation for the cause. She was imprisoned 13 times and was forcibly fed on several of those occasions when she undertook hunger strikes.

Partly because she was upset with the autocratic structure of the WSPU and the imperious demeanor of Christabel and their mother, in 1912 Sylvia founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes of the WSPU (ELFS) with the help of Flora Drummond and the financial backing of three wealthy WSPU branches, the Kensington, Chelsea, and Paddington offices. This satisfied Sylvia's longtime desire to combine her feminist, pacifist, and socialist objectives so that she could work toward accomplishing all of them within a single organization. From its inception, the ELFS was committed to work for women's suffrage, pacifism, broader women's social issues, and a variety of feminist economic and political goals. As she explained the need for working women's participation in the political process, "'One Woman, One Vote.'… We must get out among the people and make them realize that women need votes, and that men, and the nation, need the equal comradeship of men and women."

The ELFS was successful, but each of its successes further irritated Christabel who believed that the fortunes of women's suffrage were linked to upper-class "ladies" whose mistreatment by the government would outrage the majority of the British public and bring important financial support to the suffrage movement.

The first major clash between Sylvia and her mother and sister arose over a difference in interpretation of the WSPU's mandate when the elder Pankhursts decided to close the East London branch of the WSPU. Therefore, in 1914, after Sylvia had repeatedly ignored her sister's decrees, she was summoned to a meeting in France with her mother and Christabel. There, she was given orders to end non-suffrage activities, close the office, disband the ELFS, return to the general WSPU and toe its middle-class party line. Sylvia obstreperously refused; this defiance led to her expulsion from the WSPU by her mother and sister. Christabel justified their actions by reminding her sister, "You have your own ideas. We do not want that. We want our women to take their orders and march in step like an army." Clearly, in the estimation of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, there was room in the WSPU for neither secondary issues nor individualism.

Sylvia accepted her sister and mother's decision with regret but she refused to back down. Instead, she removed the words "of the WSPU" from the title of the ELFS, re-established it as an independent organization, found alternate funding, increased her organizing and political efforts, and continued to battle both capitalism and sexism as she worked for the total democratization of British society. After separating from

the WSPU, the ELFS resumed its political activism and began planning a massive rent strike in support of women's suffrage.

Thereafter, however, Emmeline and Christabel simply ignored Sylvia's presence on the suffrage scene. For example, when Sylvia was speaking at Bethnal Green, rotten fish heads and rags soaked in the public urinals were thrown at her by a hostile crowd. Despite the event's obvious propaganda value, The Suffragette, controlled by Christabel, ignored the incident. The Pankhurst family confrontation in 1914 was the beginning of what would become a permanent estrangement between Emmeline and Sylvia.

Sylvia Pankhurst's Memoirs argue that the efforts made by the thousand upon thousands of working-class women and men in the East London Federation were more important in the long run in getting the vote for women than the flagrant violence practiced by the WSPU. Her evidence for this opinion is based on the immediate prewar era. In June 1914, desperately weak after enduring a hunger-and-thirst strike in prison, Sylvia had herself carried to and laid upon the steps of the Strangers Entrance to Parliament where she pledged to eschew food and water until her death if the Asquith government did not make some gesture of commitment to women's suffrage. At that point, Herbert Henry Asquith agreed to receive a deputation of working-class women to discuss suffrage and immediately thereafter seemed to soften his stance on the issue when, after deploring the "criminal methods" of the WSPU, he told Sylvia's East End delegation on June 20 that "if women were to have the vote it would have to be on a wide basis." Sylvia took this as an indication that they had been successful. Since the Great War broke out almost immediately thereafter, and women's heroic war work was to change many minds about women's right to vote, it is difficult to know how serious Asquith was about committing the Liberal government to supporting women's suffrage.

The final straw which severed the familial bond between mother and daughter was Sylvia's unalterable opposition to Britain's participation in World War I (1914–18). The ELFS became an important part of the British pacifist opposition to the war by expanding the limits of Federation concerns beyond women's suffrage and thereby making the group much more politically revolutionary than it had been under the WSPU. It adopted standard Marxist rhetoric which argued that the war was simply a battle between international capitalists for the control of world markets using the working classes as expendable cannon fodder to fight their battles for them. The Federation began organizing public lectures on pacifism and Marxism which portrayed the war as detrimental to the interests of the working class. This attitude was bound to inflame Emmeline's national chauvinism. Indeed, her British jingoism was so all-encompassing that she considered Sylvia's vocal pacifism an indelible disgrace to the family, and she bitterly regretted the fact that she did not have the power to prevent her daughter from using the Pankhurst name. Emmeline would never relent or modify her estrangement from Sylvia, even when her daughter asked for permission to visit her during her final illness in 1928.

During the war, while her mother and sister became bombastic patriots, Sylvia and her younger sister Adela Pankhurst (who had emigrated to Australia) were actively involved with both pacifist agitation and war-relief work. Within the East London Federation, Sylvia founded a pacifist and socialist paper, The Worker's Dreadnought (1914–24), set up medical and maternity welfare clinics, a Montessori school, a co-operative toy factory, a garment factory for unemployed women workers, a day-care center, inexpensive restaurants where the poor could eat at or below the cost of the food, and founded the League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives to attempt to improve military pensions and allowances. She also was actively involved in the antiwar movement through the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and continued to agitate for women's right to vote through the Labour Council for Adult Suffrage.

By war's end, in November 1918, votes had been granted to British women over age 30, but Sylvia remained in the thick of activist radical politics. She had steered the ELFS further to the Marxist left after Lenin had usurped power in Russia during the Russian Revolution of 1917. When the war ended, she was able to convert the Federation into an organization ready to take its place in the vanguard of organizations struggling to achieve the world revolution which both Marx and Lenin had prophesied. As usual, Sylvia was prepared to lead her troops into the political fray.

As a result of her Marxist activism, in November 1920 a seriously ill Sylvia Pankhurst was fined and sentenced to a six-month Second Division prison term for incitement to sedition and antiwar propaganda. In that same year, the East London Federation of Suffragettes formed the organizational basis for the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

During the next year, she traveled to Moscow to attend the Second Congress of the Third International and to meet Lenin. Upon her return, she founded a People's Russian Information Bureau and published Soviet Russia as I Saw It in 1921. She remained a prominent member of the CPGB until her fierce individualism overcame her Marxist discipline and she began attacking a number of Lenin's policies in print in The Worker's Dreadnought. Her refusal to turn the paper over to the party leadership when ordered to do so in 1921 led to her expulsion from the party. Ironically, in 1924 The Worker's Dreadnought went bankrupt, and she was forced to close it. During this time, she also worked on and published four books, Writ on a Cold Slate, a volume of poems which first appeared in print in 1922; Education of the Masses (1924); an academic study of India called India and the Earthly Paradise (1926); and Delphos: The Future of International Language (1927).

Although Sylvia continued to work avidly for a variety of feminist and socialist concerns, for a short time she stepped out of the political limelight in order to retire to a cottage outside London where she lived openly with her lover, the Italian radical socialist Silvio Corio whose views had forced him into exile at the turn of the century. After migrating from Rome to Paris to Holland, he finally settled in London. Corio was a brilliant political journalist who continued to write in exile for the rest of his life. In him, a man eight years her senior, Sylvia found not only a lover and companion, but an equal revolutionary partnership much like that of her parents. In 1924, they opened a workers' cafe called The Red Cottage at Woodford. Although Sylvia contributed her share to the enterprise, the bulk of the work was done by Corio, especially after December 3, 1927, when, at the age of 45, Sylvia Pankhurst gave birth to her first and only child, Richard Kier Pethick Pankhurst. She named her son for the three men most dear to her—Richard, her father; Kier Hardie, her political mentor who also may have been her lover; and her closest male friend, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, the erstwhile "Prince Consort" of the WSPU and husband of Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence . Although her relationship with Corio was common knowledge, she always refused to name the father of her child officially in order to protest against what she considered the social oppression of unmarried mothers.

In addition to raising Richard, Sylvia worked steadily on her writing and in 1930 published Save the Mothers: A Plea for Measures to Prevent the Annual Loss of about 3,000 Child-Bearing Mothers and 20,000 Infant Lives in England and Wales and a Similar Grievous Wastage in Other Countries, a fierce argument demanding better obstetric care for pregnant women.

The death of her mother and the birth of her son within a year of each other apparently put Sylvia in a reflective mood. In 1931, she began to come to terms with her past by writing a richly detailed, if obviously biased, history of the WSPU, The Suffragette Movement, presenting her side of the family political controversy. In 1932, she wrote The Home Front, a study of women's participation in the Great War, and in 1936 she published a biography of her late estranged mother, The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst, probably as much for personal reasons as for posterity. In the first two books, she criticized both her mother's and sister's policies, an editorial decision which did little to endear her to Christabel.

Although she never abandoned her crusades for feminist and socialist concerns, after Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933 she became deeply involved with the anti-fascist movement in Britain. At the urging of Corio, she decided to concentrate on the cause of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) which Benito Mussolini had invaded in 1935.

On May 5, 1936, Sylvia returned to active political work by founding a paper called New Times and Ethiopia News which she intended as a voice for the underprivileged and oppressed throughout the world. In fact, during World War II she briefly changed the title of the New Times to the National Anti-Fascist Weekly in order to underscore this commitment. Nonetheless, her heart was with the cause of Abyssinia, and she played an active role in the worldwide effort to restore its independence. In particular, she edited the Ethiopian News from 1936 to 1956, helped to establish the Abyssinian Association, actively led the crusade to raise funds for an orthopaedic unit and a rehabilitation wing for a hospital in Addis Ababa, and wrote several books and pamphlets on the Ethiopian situation. The most important of these works were The Ethiopian People (1946) and A Cultural History of Ethiopia (1955).

Sylvia did not visit Ethiopia until 1944, but once there she became deeply committed not only to the plight of Abyssinia but to Ethiopia itself. Two years after the death of Corio in 1954, she emigrated to Ethiopia with her son Richard. He became an instructor at the University in Addis Ababa where she edited the Ethiopian Observer until her death. During the five years of his exile, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie had counted on Sylvia as one of his most trusted advisers, and when he returned to Ethiopia he kept up their connection.

In the midst of her fund-raising and editorial activities in Addis Ababa, death took Sylvia Pankhurst unexpectedly. She had been busily making plans to go camping with her son and daughter-in-law when a coronary thrombosis forced her to postpone the trip. She died from heart failure on September 27, 1960. Emperor Haile Selassie broke precedent by attending her funeral as a tribute to her quarter-decade of dedication to Abyssinia and her lifetime dedication to humanity.


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

Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910–1914, c. 1935 (NY: Capricorn Books, reprint, 1961 [Dangerfield's interpretation of the British Women's Suffrage movement, based upon Sylvia's interpretation of it, became the standard source on the movement for at least a generation of both historians and the general public]).

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

Marcus, Jane, ed. The Fighting Pankhursts. NY: Macmillan, 1967.

——. Suffrage and the Pankhursts. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

——. 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, Emmeline. My Own Story. NY: Hearst's International, 1914 (London: Virago, reprint, 1979).

Pankhurst, Estelle Sylvia. The Suffragette: The History of the Women's Militant Suffrage Movement 1905–1910. London: Gay and Hancock, 1911.

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

——. A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader. Ed. by Kathryn Dodd. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1993.

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:

Blease, W. Lyon. The Emancipation of English Women. NY: Arno Press, 1977.

Garner, Les. Stepping Stones to Women's Liberty: Feminist Ideas in the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1900–1918. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984.

Raeburn, Antonia. The Suffragette View. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1976.

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

Tickner, Lisa. The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907–1914. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

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. The episodes are titled, "The Pankhurst Family," "Annie Kenney," "Lady Constance Lytton," "Christabel Pankhurst," "Outrage," and "Sylvia Pankhurst." While Sylvia Pankhurst is included in all 6 parts, she is emphasized in the first and last episodes which portray her as the "hero" of the women's suffrage movement.


Of particular interest is the collection of Sylvia Pankhurst's papers on deposit in Amsterdam and available in the U.S. through microfilm.

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