By Dave Sewell
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Sylvia Pankhurst – a socialist suffragette who made the workers’ case in art

This article is over 10 years, 5 months old
Issue 2375

If you look for pictures of workers in the Tate gallery, you’ll probably be shown LS Lowry’s dismal stickmen. Depictions of women are more common—but often nude and sexualised.

But something very different is hidden away in a small room on the first floor—where the Emily Davison Lodge has convinced the gallery to display the artwork of Sylvia Pankhurst.

Sylvia was the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who founded the Women’s Political and Social Union (WPSU)—as well as a leading militant in her own right.

Sylvia moved left toward Communism while Emmeline cheered on the First World War and ended up a Tory MP.

Her other “mission” was art, “which gave me satisfaction and pleasure found in nothing else”. 

Sylvia put her talents to good use designing WPSU campaign materials.

When she was jailed for her direct action, she drew detailed sketches to illustrate her arguments for prison reform.

She produced unique portraits of working women, particularly in her 1907 tour of the north of England and Scotland.

Suffragette trade unionists brought Sylvia into their workplaces. 

She was horrified to meet young girls whose lungs were being destroyed by flint dust, and women who worked with toxic paints because their bosses put profits above workers’ safety.

Sylvia’s sympathetic character studies of prematurely careworn faces capture the boredom and concentration of wage slavery. They were also a feat of propaganda.

Like Frederick Engels 60 years previously, she documented the condition of the workers to make a point—that nothing gets done without them.

Sylvia Pankhurst, Tate gallery, London. Free entry, until 26 March 2014

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