Socialist Worker

Sylvia Pankhurst: demanding liberation

Lindsey German looks at how Sylvia Pankhurst saw the fight for women’s liberation as a struggle for the whole working class.

Issue No. 2025

Sylvia Pankhurst was active in the East End of London speaking at many meetings and organising for change

Sylvia Pankhurst was active in the East End of London speaking at many meetings and organising for change

One hundred years ago this week, Sylvia Pankhurst found herself in prison for the first time. The crime of the 24 year old? Campaigning for votes for women.

This was a cause Sylvia was to devote herself to for more than a decade. But the course of her political development was very different from the two more famous Pankhursts - her mother Emmeline and her older sister Christabel - and the political conclusions she drew led her towards socialist organisation.

Sylvia was born into a political family in Manchester. Her father, Richard Pankhurst, was a well known lawyer, a campaigner and a leading member of the Independent Labour Party.

After his death, his widow Emmeline began her campaign for votes for women, forming the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. This organisation rapidly became known by the nickname given to it by the Daily Mail - the Suffragettes.

The aim of the WSPU was to right a great injustice and to win women the same rights as men to play a full part in public life, especially through the vote. By the beginning of the 20th century hardly any country in the world had granted this right.

In 1905 Christabel and the northern mill worker Annie Kenney were arrested at the Manchester Free Trade Hall at a meeting addressed by the Liberal shadow foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey.

When they demanded, “Will the Liberal government give women the vote?” they were dragged from the hall, arrested and - refusing to pay their fines - imprisoned. This sparked widespread agitation around the country.

The WSPU really took off with the election of the Liberals in 1906 and the Pankhursts moved to London to confront the government. There were stunts, demonstrations, and a weekly paper. Women stormed parliament and chained themselves to railings.

Sylvia’s arrest in October 1906 was one of the earliest in this campaign. She was a young student at the Royal College of Art who had dropped out to focus on the cause.


The Pankhursts held a protest meeting in the House of Commons lobby. They were evicted and ten women were arrested. In court the magistrate refused to hear their defence and bound them over for six months.

Sylvia spoke outside the court in protest at this. She was dragged back into the court and charged with obstruction. Refusing to pay the fine, she was sent to Holloway prison for 14 days.

It was the first of many prison terms for her and other suffragettes. They soon resorted to hunger strikes to make their protest known and to oppose the terrible conditions in the prisons.

The authorities reacted in a way that today defies belief but which was defended to the hilt by the Liberal government. Demonstrators were frequently physically and sexually assaulted.

Hunger strikes were met by brutal and dangerous force feeding. Some women’s health never recovered from prison, hunger strikes and force feeding.

In 1913 parliament passed the Temporary Discharge of Prisoners Act - known as the Cat and Mouse Act - which allowed the authorities to release prisoners who were weakened by hunger strikes, only to rearrest them when they had made a recovery.

The writer Rebecca West summed up her contempt for this disgusting treatment:

“Twenty five years ago London was sick with fear because a maniac crept through the dark alleys of Whitechapel mutilating and murdering unfortunate women… But today Jack the Ripper works freehanded from the honourable places of government. He sits on the front bench at St Stephen’s or in those vast public sepulchres of conscience in Whitehall, and works not in secret but through home office orders and scarlet-robed judges.”

The courage of the Suffragettes should not be in doubt, nor should the way that a respectable government and its friends in the media and establishment tried to criminalise and scapegoat them at every turn.

But this vibrant movement with its masses of public meetings and its huge demonstrations, contained a number of political weaknesses which opened up cracks in its ranks, and eventually led to a split.

Emmeline and Christabel were increasingly autocratic, demanding complete loyalty and obedience from all who worked with them, and breaking with their allies if this was not forthcoming.

Working class

There was also the question of what they were fighting for. The WSPU wanted votes for women on the same basis as men, but 42 percent of men still didn’t have the vote at the beginning of the 20th century, so such a demand excluded many working class women and men.

There were lengthy and acrimonious arguments over this, especially in the fledgling Labour Party. Many working women, especially in Lancashire and Cheshire where most women trade unionists were organised in the mills, wanted working class suffrage and not just women’s suffrage, although they had campaigned long and hard for women to get the vote.

They also felt the increasingly individualist tactics embraced by the Pankhursts, such as setting fire to buildings, simply alienated working class women.

The WSPU split from its Labour roots. Christabel in particular made it clear that she had no loyalty to Labour and didn’t care if the Tories got in.

The growing polarisation in society in the period up to the First World War, and especially the strike movement known as the Great Unrest brought matters to a head.

Emmeline and Christabel were unsympathetic - Christabel argued that these men had the vote and should use it rather than take strike action. They ignored the large number of women workers who came out on strike - a militant movement which could have been harnessed to the campaign for the vote.

Sylvia took a very different path. A socialist and activist, she was politically very close to the left Labour leader Keir Hardie. Increasingly at odds with her mother and sister, she broke with them in 1913 after speaking in support of the locked out Dublin workers, one of the greatest causes of its day at a time when Ireland was still ruled from London.

Sylvia supported the Irish and the striking workers, and believed that the fight for votes was not a struggle for women alone but for the whole working class.

Working women

She founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes, aimed at organising working women and men. As well as agitating - she produced a paper called the Workers’ Dreadnought, after the state of the art battleship of the day - she took over a pub in Bow and turned it into a nursery called the Mothers’ Arms, and campaigned to improve women’s lives in the East End.

When the First World War began in 1914, Sylvia bitterly opposed it, whereas Christabel and Emmeline fell in behind the government’s war effort. In 1917 Sylvia welcomed the Russian Revolution, whereas her sister and mother backed the counter-revolution.

She had long debates with Lenin over the formation of the Communist Party in Britain. Lenin’s pamphlet Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder is a polemic directed at Sylvia among others, showing he took her seriously as a political figure, even though he disagreed with her arguments.

The wartime government was forced to reluctantly concede the vote for propertied women over 30 and those women voted for the first time in 1918. The government feared social unrest if they did not make concessions. Full suffrage wasn’t granted until 1928.

The first woman elected was Constance Markiewicz, whose victory as a Sinn Fein candidate in Ireland was part of the wave which swept Ireland towards independence. She refused to take her seat. The first woman to do so later was Lady Astor, a Tory.

That fact, and the lives of the Pankhursts themselves, shows the two sides of the vote. It was a central and important struggle, but its achievement revealed the limits of political equality when it is not connected to the wider fight for social and economic change.

Emmeline and Christabel increasingly opposed such change. Sylvia saw that only if the people at the bottom of society organised to change the world could real liberation take place.

Sylvia later abandoned left wing politics and moved to Ethiopia for many years. While there, she opposed Mussolini’s invasion. She once said she hated fascism and lipstick, which she saw as representing the “slave mentality”. No doubt today she would be accused of refusing to integrate into society.

She would certainly be dissatisfied with a society where many of the problems she found 100 years ago are still there in the East End of London and other working class areas. She might also be surprised that nearly 100 years after the vote we are still so far from liberation.

Further reading

There are several books that look at Sylvia Pankhurst’s life and the struggle for the vote:

  • The Vote: How It Was Won And How It Was Undermined, Paul Foot (£9.99), charts the struggle for working class democracy and has a very good chapter on the Suffragettes.
  • Rebel Girls: Their Fight For The Vote, Jill Liddington (£14.99), looks at some of the women involved in the struggle for the vote and how it changed their lives.
  • Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life In Radical Politics, Mary Davis (£14.99), is a political biography.

These are all available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Article information

Sat 4 Nov 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2025
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