A fitting tribute to the ‘forgotten Suffragette’
A brilliant new documentary about democracy-loving Sylvia Pankhurst reminds us that Everything is Possible.
Pankhurst. It is a surname synonymous the world over with the struggle for women’s suffrage. And for good reason. After all, it was at the Pankhursts’ Manchester family home in 1903 that Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel helped to found the Women’s Social and Political Union, a grouping whose militant tactics were to lead the Daily Mail to give them their now famous pejorative: the Suffragettes.
Yet for Emmeline’s middle daughter, Sylvia, herself a member of the WSPU until 1914, her surname, and the Suffragette struggle with which it is associated, have tended to efface what was a very singular life. Too often, Sylvia’s communism, her internationalism and her anti-imperialism, have been eclipsed by her family’s fight for women’s votes. Her own significance has been lost to that of her family’s. And it is to this historical amnesia that a wonderful new documentary Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible responds.
Not that the fight for the women’s vote was of peripheral importance to Sylvia, as the documentary shows. Born in 1882, we learn that she came of age at a time of growing frustration with the well-meaning but impotent attempts to enfranchise women. Petitions would be submitted; prominent figures such as the philosopher and Liberal MP John Stuart Mill would voice their support. But it was all too easy for the establishment to ignore. More militant action was deemed necessary and Sylvia, along with the other Suffragettes, repeatedly showed herself to be more than willing. In fact, Sylvia was packed off to Holloway prison for the first of her 13 incarcerations in 1906 following an unauthorised protest in the House of Commons.
But as Sylvia Pankhurst shows us, her political impulse was different to that of her mother and sisters. This was not, as is sometimes argued, a difference born of Sylvia’s alleged distaste for the WSPU’s militant tactics. Rather it was a difference born of what the WSPU’s tactics represented – that is, a minority-based, ‘on behalf of’-style politics. Professor Mary Davis, the author of Syliva Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics, puts their differences in bold terms: ‘She didn’t think the vote could be won by the heroism of the few; she felt it could only be won by a mass movement of the many.’ This is backed up by Sylvia’s son Richard, who cites an exchange of letters between Sylvia and her elder WSPU-supporting sister Christabel. While Christabel was keen to curry favour with Britain’s ruling class, turning the Suffragettes into an elite force, Sylvia envisaged something more like the Chartists, a mass movement of men and women.
It was her determination to make the struggle for democracy a mass struggle that led Sylvia to move to London’s working-class East End in 1913 and found the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. There, amid the docks and slum tenements of the East End, the fight for women’s enfranchisement coalesced with a broader struggle against oppression. As Alan Hudson, a lecturer at Oxford University, points out, what Sylvia recognised – and what her mother and sisters did not – was that the struggle for women’s rights was also a struggle for social emancipation in general. To be consistent, it had to coalesce with the workers’ movement. When Syliva was officially expelled from the WSPU in 1914, it was telling that her ‘crime’ was to speak at a mass meeting in the Albert Hall in defence of Irish socialist Jim Larkin and the locked-out Dublin workers.
During the First World War, to which Sylvia was implacably opposed, she continued to edit and sell her newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought – later to become the Workers’ Dreadnought. This was no minor publication. Between 1916 and 1918, it had a circulation of 10,000. Little wonder, as Davis explains, that ‘any radical of note would write to the Dreadnought and would read the Dreadnought’. Indeed, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon chose to make his soldier’s declaration not to the Manchester Guardian or to the London Times, but to the Dreadnought.
The personal trajectory of Sylvia is striking. While her family and former comrades were championing the British state’s war effort, she was busy denouncing it as a barbarous conflict between competing imperial elites, for whom people of all nations were little more than cannon fodder. For Sylvia, the Russian revolution was a source of inspiration. ‘Our eager hopes are for the speedy success of the Bolsheviks of Russia’, she announced in the Dreadnought: ‘May they open the door that leads to the freedom for people of all lands.’ The East London Federation of Suffragettes, by this stage renamed the Workers’ Socialist Federation, affiliated with the Third International and became, in effect, Britain’s first Communist party.
Throughout the film, Sylvia’s internationalism, her willingness to identify her political struggle with the struggles of people thousands of miles away, shines through. So, for example, Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 prompts her to take up the Ethiopians’ cause in the form of the New Times and Ethiopia News. Twenty years later, having become a publication campaigning for the anti-colonial struggles across Africa, it was still going strong.
There’s no doubting that Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible is splendidly edifying stuff. An impressive amount of research, evident in the commentary, is spliced with fascinating interviews with historians, archivists and, of course, Sylvia’s own son, Richard. But what really lends the piece its force is the extent to which it offers up striking contrasts with the present. Sylvia’s life story transcends its status as biography and becomes something universal, too.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the recurrent theme of internationalism and solidarity. Take for example the case of the Jolly George, a munitions-carrying ship bound for Russia in 1920. With the Dreadnought ceaselessly telling everyone where the Jolly George was going, and its purpose – to arm the White Army against the Bolsheviks – the dock workers at Stepney refused to load the arms on to the ship. It was a striking mark of solidarity, of people putting their lot in with their comrades in Russia. Hudson explains its importance well: although the example of the Jolly George is often wheeled out as an example of international solidarity, an indication unfortunately of its rarity, that does not make it any less instructive. For what it captures is a form of political solidarity entirely at odds with the contemporary meaning of solidarity. Today, it too often takes the form of charity, of pity. Its objects are victims, its subjects – us – often little more than donors. But in Sylvia’s East End in 1918, solidarity took a different form. The Bolsheviks appeared not as objects of pity, but as subjects in a struggle that was, at a high level of abstraction, of consciousness, our struggle, too. Their fight was not foreign, despite the dockers never having been to Russia. It was a fight in common.
It is fitting for such a genuine internationalist as Sylvia Pankhurst that, upon her death in 1960, the tributes flooded in from across the world. One place did not pay a tribute, however. Fifty-one years on, this enlightening film goes some small way to making up for Britain’s neglect.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked. Sylvia Pankhurst is available to buy from WORLDwrite.
Watch the trailer for Sylvia Pankhurst.