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Portrait Highlight - Sylvia Pankhurst - English artist, suffragette, and anti-fascist activist

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (1882 - 1960) English artist, campaigner for the suffragette movement, prominent left communist and anti-fascist activist.

Sylvia was born in Manchester, the second child of Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, who both later became founding members of the Independent Labour Party and were much concerned with women's rights. Both she and her sisters, Christabel and Adela became suffragists. Sylvia was interested in the arts from an early age and had an ambition to become a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment” which led her to attend first the Manchester School of Art and then the Royal College of Art in London between 1904-1906 where she not only honed her craft, but also witnessed the lack of gender equality in the art profession.

By 1906 she was working full-time for the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by her mother and sister Christabel, where she applied her artistic talents designing logos, leaflets, banners and posters, including her motif of the 'angel of freedom', a trumpeting emblem which ended up having wider appeal across the campaign for women's suffrage, appearing on banners, political pamphlets, cups and saucers. In 1907 she embarked on a tour of industrial towns in England and Scotland, painting portraits of working-class women in their working environments. Whilst in Leicester she spent time with fellow suffragette Alice Hawkins whom she knew through the Independent Labour Party, and along with Mary Gawthorpe, another suffragette and socialist, they established a WSPU presence in the city. The tour had a profound effect on Sylvia who was finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile her artistic vocation with her political activities, and she eventually decided that the two were incompatible. She said: “Mothers came to me with their wasted little ones. I saw starvation look at me from patient eyes. I knew that I should never return to my art”. By 1912, she had all but abandoned her artistic career in order to concentrate on her political activism.

Sylvia continued to contribute articles to the WSPU's newspaper, Votes for Women and, in 1911, she published a propagandist history of the WSPU's campaign, The Suffragette: The History of the Women's Militant Suffrage Movement. Like many suffragists she spent time in prison - her first incarceration took place when she was twenty-four years old - and was arrested fifteen times while campaigning for the rights of women. During the period between February 1913 and July 1914 she was arrested eight times, each time imprisoned. When she joined the hunger strikes she was repeatedly force-fed. She gave several accounts of her experience of force feeding and time in prison. One such account was written for McClure's Magazine, a popular American periodical, in 1913. She was awarded a Hunger Strike Medal 'for Valour' by WSPU.

Keir Hardie

Her relationship with her family became strained due to Sylvia’s involvement with the Labour Party and things got particularly bad after a speech she gave at the Albert Hall on 1st November 1913 in support of the Dublin workers who had recently gone on strike in order to promote a more humane society. It was her family’s belief that in aligning herself with the Labour party and the Labour politician Keir Hardie, with whom she had a close personal relationship, completely went against WSPU identification of being independent. This frictious relationship and clash of ideas got so bad that her sister Christabel removed Sylvia from their union because of a belief that she was tarnishing their name.

Her expulsion from the Union led to her founding the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914 which over the years evolved politically and changed its name accordingly, first to the Women's Suffrage Federation and then to the Workers' Socialist Federation. Her organisation attempted to defend the interests of women in the poorer parts of London. It set up "cost-price" restaurants to feed the hungry without the taint of charity and established a toy factory to give work to women who were unemployed due to the war. The federation campaigned against the First World War and some of its members hid conscientious objectors from the police.

Toy Factory

She and her comrades also worked to defend the right of soldiers' wives to decent allowances while their husbands were away, both practically, by setting up legal advice centres, and politically, by running campaigns to oblige the government to take into account the poverty of soldiers' wives. During this time she also founded the newspaper of the WSF, Women's Dreadnought (later the Workers' Dreadnought), and employed fellow suffragette and socialist, Mary Phillips to write for it.

During the First World War she was horrified to see her mother and sister become enthusiastic supporters of the war drive and campaign in favour of military conscription. Sylvia was ardently opposed to the war, and was publicly attacked in the newly renamed WSPU newspaper Britannia. In 1915, Pankhurst gave her enthusiastic support to the International Women's Peace Congress, held at The Hague, the Netherlands. This support lost her some of her allies at home and contrasted sharply with the stance of both her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel who supported military recruitment and spoke against conscientious objectors and women opposing the war.

Near the end of the war she began living with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio and moved to Woodford Green, where she lived for over 30 years. Both the blue plaque and Pankhurst Green opposite Woodford tube station commemorate her ties to the area. The WSF continued to move towards left-wing politics and hosted the inaugural meeting of the Communist Party (BSTI). To coincide with the meeting, Workers' Dreadnought published Sylvia's "A Constitution for British Soviets”, an article in which she highlighted the potential role of what she called Household Soviets – “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.” By this time she was an adherent of left or council communism. She attended meetings of the Communist International in Russia and Amsterdam, and those of the Italian Socialist Party. She disagreed with Lenin on his advice to work with the British Labour Party and was supportive of "left communists" such as Anton Pannekoek.

In 1927, at the age of 45, she gave birth to a son, Richard. As she refused to marry the child's father, her mother broke all ties with her and did not speak to her again. She went to the grave having refused to reveal the name of Richard's father, indicating only that he was 53 and "an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” In the same year that she gave birth to her son, Sylvia published a booklet, called Delphos. The Future of International Language, where she expressed the growing need for an international auxiliary language and her support for Interlingua in the early 20th century. Her support for Interlingua can be seen as an example of the scientific humanism that dominated the beginnings of inter-linguistics. Such language activism has strong links to her socialist and pacifist stand.

By the early 1930's Pankhurst had drifted away from Communist politics, but remained involved in movements connected with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism, such as the establishment of the Socialist Workers' National Health Council, drawing attention from MI5 who started monitoring her correspondence. In response to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia she published The New Times and Ethiopia News, and became a supporter of Haile Selassie. She raised funds for Ethiopia's first teaching hospital, and wrote extensively on Ethiopian art and culture, carrying out research that was published in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History (1955). She went on to become a friend and adviser to Haile Selassie, and in 1956 she moved to Addis Ababa with her son Richard at his invitation. She spent much of her later life agitating on behalf of Ethiopia, where she lived until her death in 1960, aged 78. She received a full state funeral at which Haile Selassie named her "an honorary Ethiopian". She is the only foreigner buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.

Her name and picture (and those of fifty-eight other women's suffrage supporters) are on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018 while a musical about her life entitled Sylvia premiered at the Old Vic in September the same year.

There is also a sculpture of Sylvia Pankhurst located in Mile End Park, Bethnal Green, London. The two-dimensional statue silhouette is constructed of Corten steel (which is designed to rust over time) and is one of three located in the park, which together form part of a national project by charity Sustrans to beautify areas used by foot, public transport and cycle commuters. The three figures portrayed were selected by the local community for the contribution they made to local history or culture.


Sylvia Pankurst, pen on paper (2017)

Available as

- an art print (with customisable background)


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