Sylvia Pankhurst — pioneer feminist firebrand

Sylvia Pankhurst. PHOTO:
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My own great aunt marched for women’s suffrage in South Carolina, so I read with interest the new biography Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, by Rachel Holmes. A sweeping account of this 20th century unsung hero, it reads like a novel.

Born in England in 1882, Pankhurst came from a family of political activists — from Irish liberation to women’s suffrage. Some relatives even lost their lives in fights for justice. Her mother, Emmeline was a leading suffragist, as were her daughters. By the time Pankhurst was a teen, she was a forceful speaker at street demonstrations.

Homefront radical. Great Britain was deeply undemocratic. Only white, property-owning men could vote. And if they owned land in more than one place, they could vote twice! This incensed Pankhurst and inspired her life-long devotion to the struggle for all workers’ civil rights.

Her deep feminism led to revolutionary, anti-capitalist politics and resulted in an ultimate split with her family. As a young woman she moved to London’s impoverished East End where she set up a childcare center and fought for poor women’s right to vote. Living and working among the most oppressed informed her deepening socialism, internationalism and ultimate anti-fascist work.

After helping establish the Labour Party, Pankhurst was disgusted with its many betrayals by reformist politicians and party leaders. Winston Churchill had her physically removed from a platform where she was speaking, proclaiming he would not be “hen pecked” into supporting women’s voting rights. The extreme misogyny and violence that suffragists endured from authorities left her with a profound distrust of the entire parliamentary process.

Between 1913 and 1914, Pankhurst was imprisoned 13 times. As the movement became more militant, including a mass window-breaking campaign, police stepped up their abuse. They raped, assaulted, and twisted women’s breasts, an extremely intimate form of torture. In prison, Pankhurst suffered solitary confinement, hunger strikes and forced feeding — administered orally and vaginally. Her exposure of these brutish practices was used after her death to protest U.S. forced feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

A revolutionary and world citizen. Pankhurst was overjoyed at the stunning Russian Revolution and sneaked into the country, because authorities had pulled her passport. She met with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917 and had high hopes for immediately advancing communist revolution in Great Britain. She ultimately clashed with Lenin over tactics of engaging in parliamentary activity. He believed that Britain’s working class and leftist forces were not strong enough to boycott capitalist electoral politics. Pankhurst and other European leftists disagreed, which led to Lenin’s famous pamphlet, “Ultra-leftism: An Infantile Disorder” in 1920. She was thoroughly anti-Stalinist, and drifted away from the British Communist Party in the early 1930s.

Pankhurst was among the first to understand the growing threat of fascism. Her life partner, Silvio Corio, was an Italian anarchist who fled his homeland to escape government repression. A gifted writer, Pankhurst wrote steadily for her weekly revolutionary paper, The Workers Dreadnaught (1914-1924). Early on, she warned of the gathering Nazi storm in Germany and Italy. She loudly denounced anti-Semitism and campaigned — unsuccessfully — for England to allow the ships of fleeing European Jews to land.

In 1935 Italian fascists invaded Ethiopia. Pankhurst agitated for the League of Nations to condemn the invasion and head off what she rightly thought would be the next imperialist war. She campaigned non-stop for Ethiopian sovereignty, raising money and starting a newspaper to publicize the issues. She became friends with Emperor Haile Selassie, and an outspoken foe of colonialism in all its forms. In 1956 she moved to Ethiopia with her son, Richard. She died in 1960, and is buried in Addis Ababa.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a revolutionary feminist, socialist, anti-racist fighter and internationalist. Her politics would fit in perfectly with today’s notion of intersectionality — multi-issue, multi-racial solidarity. Her life is a study in implacable strength, physical courage and perseverance. A life profoundly relevant for today’s urgent struggles and hopes.