International Women’s Day 2019: Sylvia Pankhurst

As part of a month long build up to International Women’s Day Celebrations on the 8th of March, the YCL will be publishing daily articles highlighting the exemplary role played by women in the international communist & working class movement. 

At #19 we remember a hero of Britain’s Communist movement, suffragette and anti-fascist, Sylvia Pankhurst.

YCLers are encouraged to host, support and participate in celebrations locally to bring the message of International Women’s Day into our workplaces, colleges and schools, and communities.

Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) was born in Manchester to Emmeline Pankhurst, the famous suffragette. Along with her father, Richard Pankhurst, both her parents were members of the Independent Labour Party. She was exposed to socialist politics and the struggle for rights for women at a young age.

Pankhurst attended Manchester School of Art and later won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London. At the age of 24 she began working for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which was tightly controlled by her mother. This was the beginning of a lifetime of political activism.

At the time all suffragette societies and WSPU supported the limited demand of voting rights on the same terms as men. Despite the fact that at the time only 40% adult men could vote and therefore the formula would also exclude most women. Criticism of the limited demand came from working class women since suffrage on this basis would not enfranchise them.

Within the WSPU Sylvia Pankhurst became critical of this long accepted women’s suffrage demand, which had been drafted by her father. Hence we can witness, on the most fundamental strategy of the suffrage campaign, a tension between class and gender politics.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s writings suggest that she regarded the limited demand as a profound tactical error from as early as 1906 for two reasons. First, because the women’s movement’s rejection of adult suffrage fuelled the rift between it and the labour movement. Second, she regarded the precise nature of the women’s suffrage “magic incantation” as “no longer appropriate after 1906” since it was undemocratic and exclusive.

For her therefore the issue of the women’s franchise was a class question and meant that it had perforce to be an issue for the labour movement and vice versa. However the rift between the WSPU and the labour movement, including the ILP, was complete and final by 1907.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s decision to form a suffrage organisation in the East End of London was not motivated solely by her frustration with the WSPU but more positively by her desire to create a mass women’s movement. This, she said, would be accomplished “not by the secret militancy of a few enthusiasts, but by the rising of the masses.”

Like many suffragettes she was subjected to multiple periods of imprisonment which included the infamous force feeding which did much to turn public opinion against the government.

The outbreak of the WWI in 1914 propelled the WSPU away from feminism in favour of patriotism. It suspended its activities on suffrage to focus attention on the war effort, leaving the East London Federation as almost the only active group in the suffrage campaign. Sylvia was passionately anti-war. In 1914 Sylvia and her organisation, the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), were expelled from the WSPU.

The government’s Franchise Bill, introduced in 1917, was, of course, unacceptable to Pankhurst and to all socialists since, although, for the first time women were included in its provisions, it proposed to enfranchise only women over 30 on the basis of a small property qualification.

Pankhurst was an ardent Communist and a staunch support of the Bolshevik Revolution which she saw as a victory for workers everywhere and an opportunity to end the imperialist war engulfing Europe. She edited the radical socialist newspaper the Worker’s Dreadnought.

Sylvia campaigned against propaganda attacking the new workers’ state, organising radical groups in the East End of London. She was imprisoned several times but helped establish a group who would later join the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain. Pankhurst’s correspondence with Lenin on the situation in Britain remain important texts for Communists in Britain.

Although Pankhurst would later leave the Party she remained committed to anti-imperialism and anti-fascism. In the 1920s she was one of the first to recognise the danger posed by the rise of fascism in Italy at a time when Churchill was expressing his admiration for Mussolini. She was a strong supporter of Ethiopia in its struggle to oppose fascist Italy. MI5 would continue to monitor her a significant period following the end of WW2.

Sylvia Pankhurst, the often forgotten suffragette, was an inspiring leader, who more than anything recognised that injustices and discrimination against women are part and parcel of the capitalist system. She led the courageous struggles mobilising working class women in the fight for suffrage and women’s liberation. Pankhurst is an important forbearer of our Party and remains an inspiration to all young Communists today.