British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, new biography


This video from a film about the First World War is called Sylvia Pankhurst in “Oh! What A Lovely War” (1969). It says about itself:

Anti-war speech by Sylvia Pankhurst (Vanessa Redgrave).

By Paul Donovan in Britain:

Monday 25th November 2013

A new biography of Sylvia Pankhurst shows how her activism was grounded in the struggle for working-class rights says PAUL DONOVAN

Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist And Scourge Of Empire

by Katherine Connelly

(Pluto Press, £13)

This excellent book from Katherine Connelly examines the life of political activist Sylvia Pankhurst from her early days in the suffragette movement to fighting colonialism and fascism in the 1930s and ’40s.

One of its particular strengths is that the author appears grounded in the struggle of progressive movements. As a result, she manages to bring home just how parallel many of the battles fought by Sylvia Pankhurst in the last century are to the world today.

An early feature of the book is the split between Sylvia and her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel Pankhurst over the way in which women’s suffrage is to be attained.

All three women were part of the Women’s Social and Political Union but Emmeline and Christabel wanted the organisation to take an elitist approach, with middle and upper-class women in the vanguard. They were to act on behalf of other women, the working classes not being up to the task.

In the longer term this saw Christabel and Emmeline support the war of 1914-18 and back the Conservative Party, with the latter set to stand for the Tories when she died in 1928.

In contrast Sylvia favoured working-class organisation in the labour movement – women’s suffrage was but part of the wider struggle for working-class rights.

So Sylvia founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes that proved more effective, mobilising working-class women, working with new unionism and securing the first meeting with Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in 1914.

The book includes detail of her numerous imprisonments and a vivid description in her own words of how her jaws were forced apart when being forcibly fed while on hunger strike in prison.

Sylvia was anti-war, seeing the suffering that the conflict brought on working-class people generally and women in particular, and she was early to point out through the Dreadnought newspaper how the war merely benefited the wealthy in society.

She grew quickly disillusioned with the Labour Party which she saw as a reformist rather than revolutionary body and this disenchantment reached a height at the outbreak of World War I, with Labour MPs wholeheartedly supporting the war.

Sylvia was an early supporter of the Russian revolution, believing that the soviets based in the working class were the way to bring about real change. They were setting up an alternative government, not seeking to tamper round the edges with an already moribund parliamentary system.

The author highlights some of the inconsistencies of Sylvia, while pointing to her far-sightedness in seeing the fascist threat long before most people.

The final phase of the biography focuses on her anti-colonial struggle, particularly in relation to Ethiopia. She had a strong tie to the country, arguing against the 1930s invasion which Britain allowed Mussolini to undertake. Sylvia spent her final few years in the African country up to her death in 1960.

All in all, an outstanding overview and an excellent read.

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