What would Sylvia do? lessons from history
Friday 24th January 2014
LOUISE RAW speaks to writer and activist Katherine Connelly about her new book on Sylvia Pankhurst why her legacy still matters today
Katherine Connelly wants to change the world. While she’s by no means alone in that, the extent to which she’s already had a good crack at it is impressive.
Having talked to her at length, I’m not surprised to learn that her first foray into the proud ranks of the awkward squad came during primary school, where she campaigned, successfully, against a uniform policy that banned girls from wearing trousers.
In fact, the only wonder is that she waited so long and wasn’t organising nursery school walkouts – toddle-outs? – against nap time.
By the age of 17 Connelly was leading a student strike against the Iraq war.
In 2013 she co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign to celebrate the centenary of the suffragette’s death at the Epsom Derby.
Despite a marked lack of enthusiasm from the Derby committee, which rejected the idea of a minute’s silence in memory of Davison’s fatal protest as too upsetting for their well-heeled guests (whether it was her death or the painful reminder of women getting the vote that was potentially distressing remains unclear), Connelly was instrumental in bringing the matter to public attention via the Channel 4 documentary on Davison presented by Clare “National Treasure” Balding.
Even as a PhD student there are no flies on Connelly. Many have studied the writings of Karl Marx, but few made the savvy decision to focus on the influence of Parisian popular culture on the same, necessitating – quel dommage – frequent trips to Paris.
I say this with no trace of bitterness. East London, the locus of my own thesis, being equally lovely in the springtime.
Twenty-thirteen also saw Connelly – still, disconcertingly, only 27 – somehow find the time to produce a significant new work on the life and politics of Sylvia Pankhurst.
Those of us who haven’t even got as far as making new year resolutions may feel slightly exhausted by this persistent polymathery.
However, I must report that Connelly is not only charming and modest in person, but as bracingly and sincerely political as one could wish for.
She is entirely serious about wanting to change the world, and not in a nebulous way – she has refined upon the careers of the likes of past lefty greats in order to extract useful lessons from history.
The Pankhurst book accordingly provides insight into the logistics of building mass movements alongside the biography.
It in part is something of a handbook for today’s activists, and its timing is significant. She tells me: “With the explosion in mass movements, there is a new relevance in Sylvia’s ideas and a new generation of protesters who could benefit from them.”
It’s an intriguing idea – there is, too often, a disconnect between political generations which can lead to hard-won wisdom being lost and necessitate the constant reinvention of various wheels.
It’s all too easy to rest on one’s laurels and criticise new forms of protest and political engagement, but this serves little purpose when the left so badly needs to unite its troops against capitalism, not each other.
If anyone understood the need to concentrate on issues not personalities it was Pankhurst, who grew up with some of the biggest in the suffrage movement.
Her break with her mother and sister, Christabel and Emmeline, and from the Women’s Social and Political Union is well-known, but the complex reasons for it perhaps less so.
Sylvia Pankhurst’s analysis of class had set her apart from Christabel, in particular, well before the ultimate rupture.
Her politics had been strongly influenced by those of her father Richard.
Known, rather wonderfully, as the Red Doctor, Richard Pankhurst was a qualified barrister but campaigned tirelessly for numerous causes as well as suffrage, including – deep breath – Irish home rule, Indian independence, secular education, disestablishment of the Church of England and abolition of the House of Lords.
He was responsible for drafting the Women’s Disabilities Removal Bill, the first women’s suffrage Bill in England.
With his younger wife Emmeline, he formed the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was established at the Pankhurst family home in Manchester in 1903.
Richard Pankhurst stood for Parliament twice, unsuccessfully, before dying suddenly when Sylvia was 16.
But she never forgot the lessons she learned at his side. With him she had met and listened to working-class families. In the late 1800s, it was nothing new for members of the middle and upper classes to be moved by the squalid conditions workers’ endured – indeed it was somewhat de rigueur – but what resulted was often a kind of detached philanthropy, rather than a deeper political analysis.
Pankhurst, by contrast, felt a passionate fury at the injustices she witnessed, far removed from a mere patrician inclination to dispense alms.
“The misery … revealed in those pinched faces … awoke in me a maddening sense of impotence; and there were moments when I had the impulse to dash my head against the dreary walls of those squalid streets.”
Pankhurst’s understanding of the centrality of class stayed with her in the course of her work in the suffrage movement, though her refusal to abandon it would have far-reaching personal consequences for her.
Connelly’s book brings the desperate struggle for the vote vividly to life, exposing the reality behind popular myth. Here, suffragettes are not faintly comedic, scatty middle-class housewives and spinsters – no shades of Mary Poppins’s Mrs Banks – but in deadly political earnest.
Winston Churchill is not a great British hero but aggressively anti-suffrage and, frankly, a bit of an all-round git – something to remember as we face a Govian jingofest around war and nationalism.
And the suffrage movement was faced with a great deal more than polite Edwardian tutting. It was so transgressive and threatening that the state responded with extreme brutality and literal torture.
As Connelly points out, Pankhurst had cause to give considerable thought to the roles and effectiveness of mass demonstrations and direct action in the fight against oppression.
The famous split in the WSPU, and in the Pankhurst family, was far more complicated than a division between those who favoured civil disobedience and those who did not.
Pankhurst’s position was nuanced, but always anti-elitist.
Her uneasiness with her mother and sister’s leadership of the WSPU was not over the increasing violence of their tactics per se, but their move away from inclusivity.
The perceived failure of a mass demo in 1906, which despite its size was completely ignored by the government, led the WSPU leadership to question the usefulness of mass protest.
This was the beginning of a shift towards a more middle-class movement which Pankhurst could not support.
Hers was an eternal mission to explain and, accordingly, to include. If you wished to win hearts and minds, she believed, it was vital to ensure the wider world understood both your cause and your tactics.
Thus when Christabel initiated a secret arson campaign, Pankhurst opposed it largely because she felt it could be misconstrued and alienate public opinion.
While the courage of suffrage activists enduring imprisonment and force-feeding was plain to see and had won considerable sympathy for the cause, arson was far less heroic, especially should it have innocent and unintended victims.
Pankhurst herself experienced horrifically brutal force-feeding, but it was not only in prison that suffrage campaigners faced violence.
Pankhurst was constantly attacked while campaigning with the WSPU’s East London Federation of Suffragettes (delightfully known as the ELFS). Meetings were frequently disrupted and Pankhurst herself was “never free from numerous bruises.”
Pankhurst had deliberately chosen London’s East End as the locus of her efforts to rebuild the ailing women’s movement.
East London was just one of many large, extremely poor working-class communities but crucially positioned.
It was close enough to rich London that the more affluent and powerful could not turn a completely blind eye to it and within marching distance of Parliament.
She was not the first to capitalise on this – the matchwomen and dockers who struck in 1888 and 1889 also used their east London location to great effect.
Pankhurst’s desire to build a “strong, self-reliant” working-class movement was at increasing odds with WSPU policy. As working-class ELF Annie Barnes later recalled, “Sylvia wasn’t like her mother … only interested in getting the vote for rich women. Sylvia disagreed. ‘My father launched the campaign for … all women … and I’m carrying it on’.”
Released from prison under the Liberal government’s pernicious Cat and Mouse Act – which ejected imprisoned suffragettes whose health was failing due to hunger strike and force-feeding so that they could recuperate at home, only to be rearrested – Pankhurst went to live with her friends Mr and Mrs Payne, who were shoemakers, in a small room in their house in Old Ford.
The inevitable breach with the WSPU – and with her mother and sister – came in 1913.
Pankhurst spoke in support of the Dublin lockout, while the increasingly right-wing Christabel made alliances with the Ulster loyalists.
Pankhurst was summoned to Paris, where Christabel had been living in comfortable exile for two years, and was told the ELF must sever completely from the WSPU.
The rift would be permanent, and the breach with her mother caused Pankhurst much pain.
Back in east London, Pankhurst continued to work tirelessly for the community, more than once giving the food from her table and blankets from her bed to those in extreme need.
She distributed free milk for malnourished babies and worked for compensation for soldiers wounded on the front line – in a war she had opposed vocally and constantly from its beginning, in the face of an initial wave of semi-hysterical patriotism.
However she was careful never to stray into mere charity – her aim was always to empower working-class women to fight for themselves.
The winning of the vote was by no means an end for Pankhurst. She spent her entire life campaigning and was a committed anti-fascist and anti-imperialist throughout two world wars and beyond.
She was also a thorn in the side of the British government to the end.
She lobbied tirelessly in support of Ethiopia after the Italian invasion and received death threats from London Italian fascists for her trouble – ‘”You will pay with your life if you publish any [fascist's ] name in your paper.”
She died in 1960, having championed the cause of the oppressed all her days.
Connelly’s book is no hagiography and does not shy away from assessing the degree to which Pankhurst was a voluntarist rather than revolutionary.
However she provides a welcome insight into the life and mind of an extraordinary campaigner.
As a very active activist herself, Connelly knows her territory and wants the lessons of Pankhurst’s political life to inform and guide us today.
After the book was published, Connelly received a disconcerting object lesson in how little things have changed for those who challenge the status quo.
Her friend and flatmate is Sam Fairbairn of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.
As the Star exclusively reported, their home was the target of what seems to have been an organised raid, in which cash and valuables were untouched, but documents rifled in a methodical manner.
Connelly’s mother, the playwright Ros Connelly, overheard the police called to the scene saying they “wouldn’t be surprised if that was us” as they left.
Though understandably alarmed, Connelly is undeterred – and perhaps recalling her subject’s own words at the end of her life, “I have never deserted a cause in its days of hardship and adversity.”
Something of an understatement, but a typically clear-eyed and modest summary of, and by, a remarkable woman.
Louise Raw is the author of Striking a Light: The Bryant & May Matchwomen and their Place in History (Continuum Bloomsbury).
Katherine Connelly’s book Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto Press) can be purchased from www.plutobooks.com.