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Sylvia Pankhurst – a rebel in the fight for votes

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Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst is well known as a fighter for votes for women. But a new book describes how struggles turned her into a revolutionary, writes Isabel Ringrose
Issue 2723
A mural commemorating the life of Sylvia Pankhurst in Bow, East London
A mural commemorating the life of Sylvia Pankhurst in Bow, East London (Pic: Loco Steve/Flickr)

Sylvia Pankhurst is well known as a leading suffragette in the struggle for votes for women.

She was also a committed socialist, feminist, pacifist, anti-fascist, anti-racist and author who understood the significance of class relations.

With her sister Christabel and her mother Emmeline Pankhurst they founded and led the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU)—the Suffragettes.

Sylvia also worked with leading socialist figures including Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Vladimir Lenin and Labour Party figures Keir Hardie and George Lansbury.

In a new biography Natural Born Rebel, author Rachel Holmes tells the story of Sylvia Pankhurst’s political and personal life.

Born into a middle class family, Pankhurst described her Manchester home as “a centre of socialist agitation”.

When the WSPU was formed by her mother in 1903, Pankhurst became a key activist, despite her dream of a career in art.

The WSPU wanted votes for women on a limited franchise—voting rights for those who owned property.

Pankhurst wanted universal suffrage—voting rights for all men and women regardless of wealth, gender, social status or race.

“She believed without a class analysis, feminism was a minority campaign group for rich and middle class women,” says Holmes.

Pankhurst was also a key writer for the WSPU newspaper Votes for Women, which later became The Suffragette.

Many suffragettes were arrested for their militant protest methods. In prison they would protest with hunger strikes—and were violently force fed.

Pankhurst’s resilience in prison shows that she was a persistent fighter. She first suffered force feeding in February 1913. By the end of the year “she would hold the unenviable record for being the prisoner most frequently subjected to this form of torture”.

In 1913 the government brought in the Cat and Mouse Act.

It meant Suffragettes could be released from prison when their health was severely weakened from hunger strikes.

They were then re-arrested to complete their sentence when they had recuperated.

Holmes describes Pankhurst as “the nation’s most ‘moused’ militant”. Her health suffered her entire life as a result.


Pankhurst spoke in many interviews about the conditions in prisons. But, Holmes writes, “Christabel did not want votes for women to get lost in campaigning for prison reform.

“Sylvia and Christabel were of entirely different minds when it came to class-consciousness.”

For years Pankhurst expressed her discomfort at Christabel’s separatist strategy.

“The question of class, socialism, and men’s participation in the women’s movement chipped away their internal family alliance,” Holmes says.

Pankhurst also disagreed with Emmeline and Christabel’s rejection of debate within the WSPU.

Pankhurst wanted “to fight capitalism even if it kills me”. For her it was “wrong that people should be comfortable and well fed while around you people are starving”.

In May 1913 the East End WSPU was formally constituted. Its first local initiative was to organise a rent strike.

Pankhurst studied the dire conditions in the sweated industries where women worked for a pittance in the East End. She ensured the branch focused on women’s votes but insisted that this must include working women. Men were also welcomed to join and the branch worked alongside the Labour Party.

In November 1914 Pankhurst spoke at the Albert Hall at a mass rally in support of the victims of the Dublin lockout.

As a result she was called to Paris by her mother and sister, where they were in exile.

They demanded the East End WSPU become a separate organisation.

Pankhurst was told that “a working women’s movement was of no value”.

Following the expulsion the branch was renamed the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). Pankhurst told members that “mass communal action would be more effective than individual and dramatic acts of terror”.

With Pankhurst as the editor they launched a newspaper, Woman’s Dreadnought, on International Women’s day in 1914. It reported “from working women’s point of view”.

The group also added a red stripe to their purple, green and white flag.

In March 1916 the ELFS became the Workers’ Suffrage Federation. The following year Woman’s Dreadnought became Workers’ Dreadnought.

And a year later, the organisation became Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF).


Holmes describes Pankhurst as entering the First World War a socialist, reformist and Labour Party-supporter and emerging from it a left wing revolutionary communist.

Pankhurst “possessed no hatred of foreign enemies. For her, the enemy was the ­capitalist war on the home front”.

ELFS anti-war activity used the same methods as the suffragette campaigns, with large gatherings and marches.

When the war began, the conditions for women and children in Britain became Pankhurst’s “political priority”.

Pankhurst opened a subsidised Cost Price Restaurant in East London and set up two model factories in the East End.

They ran as non-profit co-operatives.

The ELFS also set up day-care centres, nurseries, milk and food programmes, baby clinics and libraries. It demanded immediate nationalisation of all food supplies.

Pankhurst was inspired by the Russian Revolutions. The Dreadnought welcomed and supported the October Revolution, and cut all ties with the Labour Party.

From 1919 Pankhurst took on an anti-parliamentarian approach—believing revolutionaries should not participate in parliamentary activities.

Holmes says Pankhurst felt “the potential for a soviet-run society created unprecedented opportunities to eradicate and transform existing models of social and political organisation”.

But Pankhurst struggled to determine how to integrate existing industrial workers’ organisations with her idea of soviets based around the community. She argued that soviets based on workplaces excluded women.

Russian revolutionary Lenin urged Pankhurst to work with and seek to affiliate to the Labour Party. Labour had a different organsiational structure to today and it was a chance to engage in political discussion with workers.

Lenin understood, as Pankhurst did not, that revolutionaries had to seize such opportunities.

Holmes criticises Lenin and the Bolsheviks over their disagreement with Pankhurst.

But Pankhurst was a revolutionary and she should not be used as a stick to beat the Bolsheviks with.


Lenin’s pamphlet, Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, was directed towards Pankhurst among others. It showed he took her seriously as a political figure, even though he disagreed with her.

The Russian Revolution changed the direction of Pankhurst’s politics.

In 1920 she was a leading founder of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), which joined with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in January 1921.

She was expelled from the CPGB in 1921 over her continued anti-parliamentarian views.

Throughout the 1920s Pankhurst argued that women should have control over contraception, and advocated for national state provision for maternity services.

She attacked the notion that so-called “moral soundness” was provided only by marriage. Pankhurst was living, unmarried, with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio.

In 1928 she gave birth to a son who she gave her own surname to.

During the next part of her life she was a committed anti-fascist and anti-imperialist. “There will be no peace in the world until these dictators come down,” she said.

According to Holmes, Pankhurst understood “that her anti-fascism was inseparable from her anti-colonialism”.

And she believed the fight against racism had to be at the heart of the labour, socialist and feminist movements.

The biography shows that Pankhurst understood the importance of class and the limitations of parliamentary politics.

Her failure to engage in every sphere in order to connect with more working class activists, and her understanding of class consciousness, were limitations.

Yet she remains an important revolutionary who championed women’s rights and a fairer society for all.

Read more

Sylvia Pankhurst—Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes, £35

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Sylvia Pankhurst—selected writings on the Marxists Internet Archive

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