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Who is Sylvia?

An illuminating biography of Sylvia Pankhurst reveals a woman of many talents, writes Angela Cobbinah

10 June, 2021 — By Angela Cobbinah

Sylvia Pankhurst. Photo: Spaarnestad photo via National Archive

IN July 1956 aged 74, Sylvia Pankhurst made her triumphant arrival in Ethiopia, where she would complete the final chapter of her life with characteristic flourish, intrepidly travelling to the nooks and crannies of her adopted country in her tiny Fiat in search of stories for her journal, the Ethiopian Observer.

She had come at the invitation of Haile Selassie, who years earlier had named a bustling thoroughfare in Addis Ababa after her in recognition of her support for Ethiopia following Mussolini’s fascist invasion in 1935.

As her biographer Rachel Holmes points out, there were no such state honours for Sylvia in her British homeland despite her contribution to the struggle for universal suffrage, for which she is best known.

There is no doubt that this is due to her radicalism, which in life saw her estranged from her mother, Emmeline, and elder sister, Christabel, both officially commemorated as founders of the suffragette movement.

An all-round militant, Sylvia’s whirlwind activism went far beyond female enfranchisement and touched the major historic milestones of the 20th century, from the birth of the Labour Party and Irish home rule to the Russian Revolution and anti-fascism.

It is a remarkable life, one that Holmes relates in meticulous detail, beginning with her birth into one of England’s most famous political families and ending with her state funeral in Ethiopia at which Selassie stood to attention for its two-hour duration.

At more than 800 pages long and weighing in at just over one and half kilos, it is not exactly light reading. But Holmes’s admiration for her subject is infectious and one can forgive her for being long winded at times.

Sylvia was born in Manchester in 1882, the second of five children of liberal luminaries Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst. At their knee, she imbibed the belief that social inequality could be fought through collective action, a conviction that was reinforced by the many progressive visitors that sat round the family dinner table.

A gifted artist, Sylvia won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art but abandoned a potentially successful career as a painter for activism when she became a full-time worker for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had been founded by her mother and sister in 1903.

Like many suffragettes, Sylvia was imprisoned as an insurgent and subjected to force feeding, a torture regime designed to create physical and psychological torment. In her case, she saw the inside of Holloway Prison 13 times between 1913 and 1914.

Her bravery and unwillingness to compromise her ideals would characterise the rest of her life. As Holmes writes, she always strived to “make the future a place we want to visit”.

After breaking with the WSPU over its bellicose support for the First World War and embrace of Conservatism, Sylvia founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which focused on the rights of working women and ran a number of enlightened community ventures.

The organisation broadened its focus to become the Workers Socialist Federation, a forerunner of the Communist Party of Great Britain, with which she would also cross swords and be expelled from.

Following the Italians’ brutal occupation of Ethiopia, she became increasingly drawn into the wider anti-imperialist movement, befriending the likes of Jomo Kenyatta and Ras Makonnen.

As brilliant a writer as she was an orator, she furthered the cause by authoring books and pamphlets as well as editing the influential Workers’ Dreadnought weekly newspaper for 10 years from 1914, and in the 1930s the New Times and Ethiopian News.

That Sylvia was the natural born rebel of the book’s title was also true of her private life.

She conducted an affair with the married and much older Keir Hardie without much regard, it seems, for his wife and children, and years later brashly announced the birth of her love child with the Italian anarchist Sylvio Corio via the pages of scandal sheet the News of the World.

By this time, she was 45 and far from done with her mission to free the world from the evils of fascism, racism and imperialism.

When she happily relocated to Addis Ababa with her son Richard and his wife Rita it was the culmination of her odyssey as a self-described “citizen of the world”, to a land whose liberation symbolised the international struggle for freedom.

It was a fitting finale. This illuminating biography goes some way to awarding Sylvia Pankhurst her rightful place in history as a major figure of the 20 century.

Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel. By Rachel Holmes, Bloomsbury, £35


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