By Jan Neilson
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Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel

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Issue 463

Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, Rachel Holmes Bloomsbury £35
This book is a huge tribute to one of the greatest female socialist campaigners Britain has produced. Like her biography of Eleanor Marx: A Life, Holmes draws extensively on family and social detail to show the key influences on Sylvia’s extraordinary life as an activist who straddled socialist causes and continents. Pankhurst — born into one of Britain’s most famous political families — was “a natural rebel; a talented artist, prolific writer and newspaper editor. A free spirit and radical visionary”. Readers will be familiar with the influence of her mother, Emmeline, whose rallying call for “deeds not words” ignited one of the largest social movements in British history, with the debate about votes for women argued and discussed in virtually every household.
Sylvia produced a wonderful memoir, The Suffragette Movement, in which she wove the history of the movement into the birth of British socialism. in contrast to her mother’s and other suffragettes’ hostility to working-class struggle, and how some trade unionists dismissed female suffrage, Sylvia saw the two struggles as inextricably linked. She realised it was the mass movement that would win the vote, not a handful of middleclass women leading the “ignorant masses” like a stage army. This argument would lead to an inevitable split with her family. In 1913 Sylvia established the East London Federation of Suffragettes, a body strongly influenced by the match women’s strike of 1889. She linked the issue of the vote to social issues such as poverty and housing. Her work with the poor of east London included clinics, communal kitchens, laundries and nurseries.
She edited the Women’s Dreadnought (later to become Workers’ Dreadnought) after the war began. She led a citizens’ army, modelled on that of James Connelly’s, which battled police in the streets of London’s east end. The differences of approach within Suffragette ranks became more marked with the outbreak of war. Sylvia and her mother took opposing sides. The division was further deepened by Sylvia’s support for the 1917 Russian Revolution. She visited Russia clandestinely, and corresponded with, then met and argued with Lenin, resulting in him writing ‘Left Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder, specifically to address what he saw as her ultra-leftism over participating in British elections. Holmes shows how Sylvia was deeply influenced by progressive figures such as her father Richard, a disciple of John Stuart Mill and early member of the Independent Labour Party; Kier Hardy, founder of the Labour Party; and other socialist friends and comrades such as Clara Zetkin and Eleanor Marx.
The book also covers the impact of late unmarried motherhood and Sylvia’s attitudes to free love. She felt honoured to be among the ranks of socialist women such as Zetkin and Mary Wollstonecraft who bravely chose this option when it attracted vitriol from the establishment, and their families. She spent her later life travelling in Africa and, as a committed anti-fascist, became centrally involved in the defence of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) against the invasion of Mussolini’s army. Her loyalty was rewarded with a state funeral and she was buried in front of Addis Ababa’s Trinity Cathedral. At 840 pages this is no quick read, but the breadth and detail only confirm the importance of this inspiring woman.
Jan Nielsen

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