Sylvia Pankhurst was the daughter of Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and sister of Christabel Pankhurst, both of whom are memorialised outside the UK Houses of Parliament for their contribution to the fight for ‘votes for women’ in the early 1900s.
Sylvia has not been memorialised outside parliament. And little wonder: she was a thorn in the side of the British establishment, even saying that she wanted to tear down parliament. However, it looks like Sylvia could be about to receive her own statue a few miles east from her mother’s and sister’s, in Islington. This, at least, is the plan of the Trades Union Congress and the City of London Corporation, which are campaigning to erect a statue on Clerkenwell Green to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which first gave the vote to some women.
The plan to build a statue of Sylvia represents quite a turnaround for her. She has long been seen as the ‘less acceptable face’ of the fight for women’s emancipation. And, as a result, her legacy has tended to be eclipsed by the campaigning efforts of other family members – not that their efforts were insignificant. Her mother, Emmeline, led the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Britain’s largest militant suffrage organisation in the early 1900s. It succeeded in making the question of female enfranchisement one of the most widely discussed issues in Britain. At this point, Sylvia was in the process of winning a prestigious Royal College of Art scholarship and, in 1904, she moved to London.
As honorary secretary of the London-based national committee of the WSPU, Sylvia spent her time trying to rouse London in support of the WPSU’s aims. By 1906, she was working for the WSPU full time, organising meetings and marches on parliament to demand the vote for women. Most resulted in violent clashes with the police and, for many, imprisonment. Sylvia herself was locked up and force-fed more than any other activist.
Her suffering was a testament to the depth of her commitment to universal suffrage. But this commitment also led to clashes with her mother and sister. The WSPU wanted votes for women on the same basis as men. But, as Sylvia never tired of pointing out, most working-class men still didn’t have the vote at the beginning of the 20th century. The WSPU’s demand therefore excluded many working-class women and men. Both Emmeline and Christabel clearly thought that working-class women would be of little use to the struggle given their lack of status and education.