Published on Thursday, 08 March 2012 00:00 Written by Sonia Gable
Today is International Women’s Day and Searchlight joins in celebrating the important role played by women in the labour movement and as activists. One such was Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), who was imprisoned more than any other suffragette for her tireless campaigns for social change. Unlike her mother Emmeline and older sister Christabel, who dropped the fight for votes for women to support the war effort, Sylvia refused to sacrifice the fight for universal suffrage until it was won. Her opposition to the war and her internationalism were and remain exemplary.
A socialist feminist, Sylvia not only braved the horrors of hunger striking and forcible feeding during the campaign for the right of women to vote, but also founded and built a remarkable women’s organisation in the East End of London. This group, the East London Federation of Suffragettes, was composed of working class women who campaigned for the vote and for social change in the period 1912-1920.
Their weekly paper The Women’s Dreadnought (later The Worker’s Dreadnought), owned and edited by Sylvia, had an enviably high circulation and was influential outside London. Sylvia’s strategy, which linked class and gender, did not find favour with the most famous of the suffragette organisations, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), to which she belonged and to which the East London Federation was affiliated. The WSPU (popularly known as the Suffragettes) was founded in 1903 and led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. They expelled Sylvia from the WSPU in 1914.
The WSPU abandoned its early links with the labour movement in 1907 and in 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, it abandoned the suffrage campaign itself. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst ardently supported the war effort and urged all women to do the same. Sylvia did not take their advice. Her organisation was one of the very few to maintain the fight for the vote (its first instalment was granted in 1918).
Sylvia Pankhurst was a pioneer in other ways. Apart from the fact that during her long and active life she founded and edited four newspapers, wrote and published 22 books and pamphlets not to mention literally countless articles, she was a founder and tireless activist in a variety of women’s, labour movement and international solidarity organisations. She was a deeply committed antiracist and antifascist and involved for over 30 years in campaigning on such issues, which included the cause of Ethiopia – the country that became her home for the last four years of her life and in which she was buried.
The independence of Ethiopia, “the black man’s last citadel”, ended when it was invaded and conquered by Fascist Italy in 1935. Sylvia, almost alone among the white left, rallied to its cause and in 1936 launched the first edition of the New Times and Ethiopia News, a weekly paper which remained in circulation for 20 years and which at its height sold 40,000 copies a week. This included an extensive circulation throughout West Africa and the West Indies. Sylvia’s relentless campaign for the restoration of Ethiopian independence, first against the Italians and then against the British, was warmly appreciated. In 1956, aged 74, she accepted an invitation by the Ethiopian government to live there. She was an honoured guest. When she died in Ethiopia in 1960 at the age of 78, she was given a state funeral.
Although her work on Ethiopia, informed as it was by antiracism and anti-imperialism, passed largely unnoticed in Britain, it was widely appreciated by black people in Africa and in the diaspora. W E B DuBois, arguably one of the most important black leaders of his day, expressed the view of black radicals in the following tribute he paid to Sylvia. “I realised … that the great work of Sylvia Pankhurst was to introduce black Ethiopia to white England, to give the martyred Emperor of Ethiopia a place of refuge during his exile and to make the British people realise that black folks had more and more to be recognised as human beings with the rights of women and men.”
We believe that Sylvia’s strategy, based as it was on an alliance between class and gender, did far more to win the vote for all women than the more elitist and ultimately diversionary politics of her mother and elder sister.
Adapted from an introduction to Sylvia Pankhurst by Professor Mary Davis, a member of the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee. For more information visit sylviapankhurst.gn.apc.org.
A film about Sylvia Pankhurst, made in 2011 by WORLDwrite, an education charity committed to global equality, includes exclusive testimony from Sylvia’s son Richard Pankhurst and his wife Rita, as well as interviews with key writers, academics and thinkers. It was filmed in various East End locations and beyond to produce an in-depth epic and do justice to an inimitable woman. For more information go to www.worldwrite.org.uk/sylviapankhurst.
Readers in London might like to visit the exhibition All Work and Low Pay: The Story of Women and Work at the Women’s Library until 25 August 2012. All Work and Low Pay puts paid to the myth that the majority of women did not work until the second half of the twentieth century brought social change, the Women’s Liberation movement and equality legislation. In fact, most women have always worked, in paid jobs or in the home, but their work has consistently been unrecognised and undervalued. This exhibition shows the extraordinary range of jobs done by women over the past 150 years, from forging iron chains to assembling fine electrical components.
The Women’s Library is at London Metropolitan University, 25 Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT. For more information visit www.londonmet.ac.uk/thewomenslibrary, email email@example.com or phone 020 7320 2222.
Women’s history month is an annual event running throughout March. For too long women’s history and achievements have been forgotten, overlooked, erased and devalued. Women’s history month discovers, documents and celebrates women’s achievements, and envisions a diverse society in which everyone’s contributions are celebrated and recognised equally. For more details go to www.womenshistorymonth.org.uk.
Women in our society have fought hard for their rights. As antifascists we must ensure that these rights are not eroded through a failure to challenge cultures where women have not yet achieved equality.