To remember Sylvia Pankhurst’s legacy, we’ve created a short biography of her life and accomplishments within the women’s suffrage movement as well as her later affiliations with anti-facism and local campaigning.
Also featured in this post are a few of Sylivia Pankhurst’s quotes. From these quotes you can tell Sylvia Pankhurst was dedicated to the causes she believed in, and perhaps why the movements were successful.
To find out more about women’s suffrage, take a look at our women’s suffrage timeline, which gives all the details about the movement in the early 1900s.
Sylvia Pankhurst in 1909 (Image source: Wikimedia)
Sylvia Pankhurst was a campaigner for the suffragette movement in England, a famed left communist as well as an activist in the anti-fascism cause.
Born in Manchester in 1882, Sylvia Pankhurst began working full-time for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her sister, Christabel, and their mother in 1906. The WSPU had just one goal – to have equal voting rights with men. She created the WSPU’s logo, designed leaflets, banners, posters and even the decoration of meeting halls used.
Unlike her sister and mother, Sylvia maintained her affiliation with the Labour movement, and therefore concentrated her activity on local campaigning.
Pankhurst and Amy Bull founded the East London Federations of the WSPU, where she contributed to the WSPU’s newspaper Votes for Women, and in 1911, she published a history of the union’s campaign entitled The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement.
Like other suffragettes, Sylvia was arrested 15 times whilst campaigning for women’s rights, and was imprisoned several times. Sylvia was arrested for the first time in 1906, after protesting in court at a trial where women had not been allowed to speak in their own defence. From February 1913 to July 1914, Sylvia was arrested 8 times, and each time she was force-fed due to hunger strikes by the WSPU. Her account of force-feeding and time in prison was written for McClure’s Magazine, a popular American magazine, in 1913. Due to this suffering, she was awarded a Hunger Strike Medal for Valour by the WSPU.
In 1914, Sylvia had become displeased with the route that the WSPU was taking, as it has become independent from political parties – she wanted it to become a socialist organisation that tackled issues wider than women’s suffrage and for it to be aligned with the Independent Labour Party. After showing support in the Dublin Lockout, the members of the WSPU expelled her from the union, leading to the creation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. During this time, Sylvia founded a newspaper for the federation, Women’s Dreadnought, campaigning against the First World War.
Sylvia Pankhurst protesting in London (Image source: Wikimedia)
In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a boy, Richard, and as she refused to marry the father, her mother Emmeline cut off all contact with her.
In the early 1930s, Pankhurst moved away from Communist politics, but still remained involved with connections and movements with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism. Her response to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia was published in The New York Times and Ethiopia News, and she also became a supporter of Haile Selassie, the King Regent and Emperor of Ethiopia. Sylvia went on to help raise funds for the country’s first teaching hospital, and wrote extensively on Ethiopian art and culture, publishing a book entitled Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.
Due to the correspondence between Pankhurst and Selassie, MI5 monitored her from 1936 onwards. After the liberation of Ethiopia, she became a strong supporter of union between Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland, and in 1948 the MI5 considered ways for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”. In 1956, at the Emperor’s invitation, she moved to Addis Ababa with her son, Richard. After her move, she founded a journal, the Ethiopia Observer, where she reported on aspects of Ethiopian life and development.
With Pankhurst dying in September 1960, 1960 newspapers are a great way to find out how this event was reported at the time.
Sylvia Pankhurst died in Addis Ababa in 1960, aged 78, receiving a full state funeral, where Haile Selassie named her an honorary Ethiopian. She is the only foreigner buried in front of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, a site that is reserved for patriots of the Italian war.
Sylvia Pankhurst’s legacy is remembered through the Sylvia Pankhurst Centre in London, a sexual health clinic.
Sylvia Pankhurst Quotes
“I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me. It is wrong that people like you should be comfortable and well fed while all around you people are starving.”
“Love and freedom are vital to the creation and upbringing of a child.”
“The profound divergences of opinion on war and peace has been shown to know no sex.”
“I know we will create a society where there are no rich or poor, no people without work or beauty in their lives, where money itself will disappear, where we shall all be brothers and sisters, where every one have enough.”
“My belief in the growth and permanence of democracy is undimmed. I know that people will cast off the new dictatorship as they did the old. I believe as firmly as in my youth that humanity will surmount the era of poverty and war. Life will be happier and more beautiful for all. I believe in the GOLDEN AGE.”
“We do not make beams from the hollow, decaying trunk of the fallen oak. We use the upsoaring tree in the full vigor of its sap.”