The experience of the wave of workers’ militancy before the First World War (known as the Great Unrest) and then the war itself transformed women’s rights campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst from radical suffragette to revolutionary socialist. It was a journey that would transform her politics, and relationships with her mother and sisters.
Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was born in 1882 into a family whose social network included, among others, socialists and radicals such as George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter. Her father, Richard, was a noted radical lawyer and campaigned for votes for women.
Keir Hardie, who became first leader of the Labour Party, was Sylvia’s political mentor. Their relationship, despite his marriage, developed into long-term intimacy which lasted until his death.
Together with her mother Emmeline, and sisters Christabel and Adela, Sylvia founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), commonly known as the Suffragettes. From 1905 the Suffragettes agitated for votes for women under the slogan “Deeds not words”. They held mass demonstrations, heckled Tory and Liberal MPs and organised mass petitions.
Their posters, flags and the suffragette colours were designed by Sylvia, a promising artist who dropped an art scholarship to dedicate herself to the fight for equality.
From 1910 the then Liberal government faced growing unrest from widespread strikes, the campaign for Irish Home Rule and agitation for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile across Europe the war drums were beginning to beat.
The refusal by successive governments to grant the vote generated increased agitation. Under the leadership of older sister Christabel and mother Emmeline, the Suffragettes adopted more militant tactics — including stone-throwing and window-breaking, as well as arson and bomb attacks — to which Sylvia and younger sister Adela were opposed. They favoured open mass agitation.
In the crackdown that followed, hundreds of suffragettes were arrested. They launched hunger strikes demanding the right to be treated as political prisoners. Sylvia was imprisoned nine times between 1913 and 1914 and was subjected to a cruel regime of force feeding in Holloway prison.
While Sylvia and many others faced constant harassment and arrest, Christabel fled to Paris. The rift with Sylvia grew until, in January 1914, Emmeline and Christabel expelled Sylvia and Adela from the WSPU. Adela, who shared Sylvia’s socialist views, was packed off to Australia and never saw her mother or sisters again.
War at home
Following the split Sylvia set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), working closely with Labour Party socialists such as George Lansbury. She actively supported Irish independence and campaigned in solidarity with the 1913 Dublin lockout.
Despite Emmeline’s and Christabel’s militancy, when war was declared they suspended campaigning and embraced nationalism and jingoism, even handing out “white feathers” to shame the men who had not volunteered to fight in the “Great War”.
In September 1914, barely a month after the outbreak of war, Sylvia wrote, “When first I read in the press that Mrs Pankhurst [her mother Emmeline] and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nations.”
Sylvia wrote to her mother in protest and received the reply that Emmeline was “ashamed to know where you and Adela stand”. She suffered another blow when Keir Hardie died in 1915. He was deeply demoralised after being branded as a coward and traitor for opposing the war when in May 1915 the Labour Party joined the wartime coalition government.
Life for working class women changed dramatically during the war. Millions of women were drawn into the munitions and engineering factories. Hundreds of thousands of them joined unions for the first time. For such women the war meant more financial independence, but also long hours of gruelling, often dangerous, work.
For women with children whose husbands were away in the forces the war meant insecurity, rising prices and greater poverty. In Glasgow resentment at these disparities erupted in the great rent strike of 1915, led by women.
Sylvia threw in her lot with the working class in the East End of London. The ELFS set up Cost Price restaurants for hundreds of poor people every day and a free clinic for mothers and children. She founded a communal nursery and set up a toy factory to raise funds.
Her Women’s Dreadnought paper (later re-named the Workers’ Dreadnought) carried anti-war articles. She opposed the Defence of the Realm Act in 1914 that undermined civil liberties, and supported strikes against the introduction of conscription.
In 1916 the paper condemned the executions of James Connolly and others following the Easter Rising in Dublin against British rule. The East London Federation was the only organisation still campaigning for votes for women during the war.
Initially her anti-war agitation was small scale and was often unpopular, but as losses at the front mounted and stories of horror and carnage filtered back, the anti-war movement began to gain support.
In 1916 the ELFS was transformed into the Workers’ Suffrage Federation (WSF), and in 1918 it became the Workers’ Socialist Federation under the slogan “For International Socialism”.
Her paper carried the works of Marx and Lenin, as well as articles on imperialism and the causes of war. The paper’s offices were raided and two issues — October and November 1917 — were suppressed, following a call by Sylvia urging soldiers not to fight.
In understanding the roots of women’s oppression she had come to recognise that while votes for women might be won within capitalism, women’s liberation could not.
She saw how one of the first acts of the 1917 Revolution in Russia was to give legal equality to women, such as divorce and abortion, and to encourage the creation of public nurseries, communal kitchens and laundries.
Women’s role in the war undercut the arguments against extending the franchise, and by February 1918 the government conceded votes for women, although on a restricted basis. It was not until 1928 that women in Britain could vote on the same basis as men.
During the turbulent post-war period of revolutions, mutinies and strikes the WSF became the first British socialist organisation to affiliate to the Third (Communist) International.
Sylvia became British correspondent for the International, founded the People’s Russian Information Bureau in 1918 and co-founded the Hands off Russia Campaign that protested against British support for the counter-revolutionary armies attacking the revolution.
In July 1920, despite constant surveillance, she managed to slip out of England to attend the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. She met Russian Revolution leader Lenin to discuss their political differences over parliament and elections, which were an obstacle to the unity of the various socialist and revolutionary groups in Britain at the time.
In Britain the socialist organisations were small and the labour movement, including the influential shop stewards movement that developed during and after the war, was hamstrung by treating the economic and political struggle separately.
At its worst this meant that often even the best trade unionists had failed to link issues of pay and working conditions to the war. This also bred hostility to the idea that revolutionaries should contest elections.
Sylvia’s ultra-left view was shared by large numbers of newly radicalised socialists and communists. It was a key question and Lenin took them to task in his 1920 pamphlet “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder”.
Lenin strongly criticised Sylvia for boycotting parliamentary elections, and urged her to unite with others into one communist party. He argued that the communists should take part in elections so as to be better placed to win over the majority of workers who were attracted to reformism and the Labour Party.
In 1920 an article in Workers’ Dreadnought by Harry Pollitt, future leader of the Communist Party, led East End dockers to refuse to load arms bound for Russian counter-revolutionaries. Another article urging sailors to mutiny over poor conditions led to Sylvia, as editor of the Workers’ Dreadnought, receiving a six-month jail sentence for sedition.
While she was in prison the executive committee of her party merged with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and the Workers’ Dreadnought ceased to be the official paper. Sylvia, however, refused to step down or wind up the paper and remained outside the new party.
The Workers’ Dreadnought continued publishing until 1924. However, as the 1920s progressed Sylvia found herself increasingly out of step with the Communist International, for example criticising the Russians’ New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, a partial reintroduction of small-scale capitalist enterprises.
Nevertheless, until her death in 1960 she remained a socialist and fought injustice and imperialism. She was one of the first to understand the dangers of Italian and German fascism. She was an anti-colonialist, especially championing the struggle of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) against Mussolini. In her final years she moved to Ethiopia, where she died.
Often only recognised for her suffragette years, Sylvia Pankhurst deserves to be celebrated as part of the revolutionary socialist tradition and a key campaigner against the First World War.
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