‘Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel,’ by Rachel Holmes: An Excerpt

‘Love and enthusiasm are the two great moving factors which make life worth living. This I aver in spite of all the materialists.’ A free spirit and a visionary, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was by nature an artist. Yet she became one of the greatest unsung political figures of the twentieth century.

She fulfilled the luminary and radical promise of her name. Estelle for the stars, Sylvia for the spirits of the wild forests and woodland of ancient Britain, whose folklore sylvan groves are the home of astonishing beings who delight gods and startle mortals. Her father nicknamed her Miss Woody Way. It was apparent from the very beginning that she would never settle for the easy path of least resistance.

Her surname placed her as a daughter of Britain’s best-known feminist family, leading from the front in the struggle for Votes for Women. Sylvia’s mother Emmeline was Britain’s most famous suffragette. Her barrister father Richard — known to all as the ‘Red Doctor’ — had drafted the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act with his friend John Stuart Mill. Richard adored Emmeline and called her his queen. They had two sons and — as is proper to a dynastic saga — three daughters: first Christabel, next Sylvia and finally Adela.

[ Return to the review of “Sylvia Pankhurst.” ]

The eldest Christabel intended to be the first woman lawyer in the land. Sylvia’s vocation was to be an artist. Little Adela just wanted her older siblings to notice her. In order to follow their dreams, the sisters had first to fight for their rights to them. Like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg, the Pankhurst girls became teen radicals recognized by millions as icons of their cause. Under Emmeline’s matriarchal leadership, they were educated in the activist school of ‘Deeds, not words’ and were taught that their mother’s exhortation to fight for ‘Freedom or Death’ was not a rhetorical instruction.

They founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in the cramped front parlour of their Manchester home at 62 Nelson Street in 1903. Within months of its formation the WSPU became known in the women’s movement as the ‘family party’. Two years after Queen Victoria’s funeral the Pankhurst women crashed into national consciousness by creating a mass political movement on a scale unseen in Britain since the days of the Chartists. ‘The Pankhursts’ political views are a subject for controversy,’ wrote a contemporary journalist, ‘but we can surely all agree with regard to this remarkable family, that they are a British institution and a fine example of all that has been said or sung of British pluck.’

Sylvia inherited her convictions via the cultural chromosomes of generations of her radical family who did not hold that social inequality was natural or human subjection inevitable. She inherited many -isms and -ists from her ancestors, political and philosophical tools for building equality and democracy in a Britain that at the time of her birth was deeply undemocratic. All women and the majority of working men were denied the right to vote and so prevented from enjoying full citizenship in their homeland.

Hers was in many ways an eccentric childhood, though with a Victorian domestic regimen built on large daily doses of character-building discipline and porridge. Self-mastery mental toughness and fearsome physical and intellectual courage featured among Sylvia’s defining adult characteristics. Porridge she abhorred for life — an unfortunate aversion, since she was to serve more sentences in Holloway Prison than any other suffragette.

Sylvia was an extraordinarily gifted speaker. Above all else, it was her voice that persuaded, intrigued or infuriated. From tentative beginnings when she stood on a chair in the pouring rain nervously addressing a handful of stragglers, her voice grew to become an instrument of activism as vital as her pen and the printing presses of her newspapers. Radio recordings of her speaking sound to us now not like archaic communications from a different world, but modern, grounded and true. Her accents and tones connect us to her story. A history of British class is in Sylvia’s voice. It tells the techniques of a woman who has learned to command public space. Her voice makes you listen, not only because of her skills, but also because it isn’t always clear where it might go. Between the layers of her original Mancunian accent and the Received Pronunciation drilled into her at the aspirational Manchester Girls’ School, there is a musicality that is all her own. Sylvia’s friend Nellie Cressall recalled, ‘Of course we had a lot to put up with to begin with. We had everything thrown at us. Rotten eggs, tomatoes…But Sylvia just went on speaking. “You see, dear, when you know you’re right, you can’t be turned aside.” And it soon stopped. People came to respect us. After a while you could hear a pin drop at our meetings.’

The test of democracy in early twentieth-century Britain was the ability of existing institutions of power to include and represent those outside.

Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party and also Sylvia’s first great love, wrote ‘The agitator who has a touch of the seer in him is a far more valuable asset than the politician. Both are necessary, but if one must be sacrificed let it not be the agitator.’ George Bernard Shaw declared Sylvia a modern-day Joan of Arc. He warned that ‘the historian must understand that visionaries are neither imposters nor lunatics.’ In the words Shaw used of St Joan, Sylvia had ‘an unbounded and quite unconcealed contempt for official opinion, judgement and authority … there were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous: the other that she was unbearable.’ Lenin applauded her for representing ‘the interests of hundreds of thousands of people.’ The world’s best-known revolutionary praised and promoted Comrade Pankhurst as Britain’s most significant socialist until she disagreed with him and publicly took him to task. Sylvia so thoroughly stymied Lenin’s attempts to discipline her, first with carrot and then with big stick, that he was forced to devise a new political concept in her honour and write a treatise about it in order to try and get her under control. He failed.

Sylvia tested the limits of tolerance in a nation that regarded toleration as one of its defining characteristics. To anyone who feared change she was appalling. By the misogynistic standards of the time, she was considered insufferable, egotistic and presumptuous. Some regarded her as an overzealous proselytizer, a hectoring busybody constantly badgering people into becoming better and developing a social conscience even if they really didn’t want to. She was branded a wild, unconventional, obdurate, upstart ultra-lefty feminist nightmare.

The day after a political meeting at which a very young Sylvia and parliamentary hopeful Winston Churchill got into a skirmish on the platform, Churchill, who nearly broke Sylvia’s arm before having her dragged off the stage and locked in a room, complained to the national press that he would not be ‘henpecked’ into supporting the women’s vote. Later, when Sylvia became Britain’s leading anti-fascist, Churchill directed the besieged Foreign Office to create a dedicated file entitled ‘How to answer letters from Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’. What delicious irony to everyone except himself that, having been returned to parliament as the member for Epping, at the 1924 general election, Churchill discovered that he was now Sylvia’s MP, condemned to countless mailbags bulging with her unceasing battery of correspondence. Public enemies for decades, they finally made common cause over the Second World War.

[ Return to the review of “Sylvia Pankhurst.” ]

Sylvia was a survivor. Over eighteen months in 1913 and 1914, the Liberal government imprisoned her thirteen times and subjected her to a regime of torture by force-feeding. For maximum physical and psychological torment, Herbert Asquith’s cabinet authorised the abuse to be administered twice daily. Sylvia endured solitary confinement, hunger striking and thirst and sleep strikes.

Her explicit personal accounts of force-feeding, vividly showing its brutality, were the first to be published in Britain and the international press. She described her torture, and later that of her sister suffragettes, in harrowing detail. Her testimony, printed by the Manchester Guardian in 1913, reappeared on global social media a century later in order to draw attention to the experiences of prisoners subject to force-feeding in Guantanamo Bay.

Later she became one of a small group of courageous women who were the first to make public the fact that the forcible-feeding torture had not only been administered orally. They bore witness also to the rape and other forms of physical sexual violence, harassment, police brutality and assault the suffragettes experienced, in street protests, in prison and in their own homes.

These experiences could have killed her or have dramatically abbreviated her life, as they did so many others. Members of her extended family were killed or permanently damaged by the suffragette struggle, shot during the Irish rebellion and murdered during the anti-fascist campaigns. Her close friend James Connolly and Rosa Luxemburg were well-known casualties of freedom fighting. Her own experiences of imprisonments and life-threatening situations did not end with the struggle for the vote. Journeying to Bolshevik Russia by a clandestine route while under a travel ban, she narrowly escaped drowning in the Arctic Circle. In 1921 she served another six-month sentence in solitary confinement for being a communist, convicted of sedition.

Sylvia knew intimately the price to be paid for taking sides.

Her sustained and reluctant militance was motivated by rational pragmatism, not impulsive passion. In matters that were beyond even the best attempts at resolution by democratic consensus, such as achieving equality for women and fighting the ascendant forces of fascism, there was as Orwell put it, ‘no strong reason for thinking that any really fundamental change can ever be achieved peacefully.’

Sylvia’s life offers a voyage through the question of what makes a partisan and with what consequences. Asked how she would like to be remembered, she answered, ‘As a citizen of the world.’ This passport required the constant taking of sides, active reassessment after experience and the guts to stand out against dominant opinion. Sylvia held consistent values: and she constantly changed and evolved in order to protect and maintain them. It was not intransigence but continuous adjustment that enabled her to hold a steady course. As any mathematician of rocket propulsion knows, the only way to reach a goal is through constant and continuous course correction.

All civil wars begin in the family. Personal political tragedy sits at the centre of Sylvia’s story.

Privately argued differences between Sylvia, Christabel and their mother developed into public battles. Then full-scale sex and class war broke out between them. Her mother sided with her elder sister and, more than once, expressed her regret that Sylvia continued to carry the family name. When Mrs. Pankhurst heard in 1916 that her anti-war socialist daughter had organized a peace demonstration in Trafalgar Square, she sent Christabel a telegram, “Strongly repudiate and condemn Sylvia’s foolish and unpatriotic conduct. Regret I cannot prevent use of name. Make this public.”

The greatest tragedy was not, however, the largely inevitable ideological fault line that broke the family’s political unity. In 1928 the forty-five year-old Sylvia gave birth to her first and only child Richard. From the beginning of their relationship, Emmeline had disapproved of Richard’s father Silvio Corio, a brilliant Italian anarchist exiled to London who became Sylvia’s life partner of thirty years and whom as she told the News of the World, ‘she was very much in love with’. ‘My parents,’ Richard explained, were old-style libertarian socialists … Following the practice of many who shared their political and philosophical point of view … they never married.’ Emmeline found this unacceptable. When she heard that Sylvia was pregnant by Corio with no intention of marrying him, she refused to speak to her ever again.

Born in the Victorian age, Sylvia lived until the advent of the Swinging Sixties. Her life could be used as the definition of indefatigable. In her seventies, she became a European migrant to Africa, emigrating with her son and her Persian cat to Addis Ababa, where eventually she was to be buried in a full state funeral in an Ethiopian Patriot’s grave on the instructions of her friend the Emperor Haile Selassie. The seven ages of Sylvia, beginning in Victorian Britain and ending in the modern transnational African Renaissance in Ethiopia, are an odyssey through the key events and epochs of twentieth-century history. Sylvia’s epic journey was undertaken through the diverse idioms of modern struggle in all its grand successes and dismal failures. A scholarship student at the prestigious Royal College of Art, she was also a prolific writer, of political and economic journalism, fiction, poetry and plays. She was the author of a library of books and a phenomenally effective newspaper editor for half a century. She wrote about the need for public maternal health care in Britain and designed a blueprint for a national health service; about anti-Semitism in Britain and Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws in Germany; about apartheid in South Africa; about the capitalist oil wars in the Middle East and about the Israel-Palestine conflict, which she believed might determine the political future of humanity.

Adolescent feminist militant, student extremist, hunger striker, street fighter, sometime communist, anti-fascist, champion of the Bolsheviks and African liberation movements, opponent of all forms of racism and an Ethiopian patriot, her life spans decades of the word at war. From the reform of trade unionism and anti-colonial movements; from fighting fascism to the social transformations and new artistic practices they brought about, Sylvia was a shaper of the modern world. Pick any year and you will find Sylvia at the heart of the fray, writing it all up inexhaustibly as she goes.

Sylvia Pankhurst is a key protagonist in the development of British democracy, which has existed in an advanced form for less than a hundred years. Sharing her life is an immersive journey through the twentieth century. In the 1930s she restated the ‘priorities for socialists’: ‘perhaps the most important point of all, we have in the world today the Fascist menace which stands against democracy — democracy in the large sense of the common people and their rights.’

Sylvia’s struggle was against the reduction of human life to anything less than its full potential and always in favour of the equality and democracy she cherished as “the dream of many generations”. This book is the story of how she pursued that dream.

Asked how she like to be remembered, Sylvia wrote of herself:

Personal ambitions were to her both puny and ephemeral, because she realised that, when in a thousand years, all we who strive and labour in our passing days are dust, mankind will still be working out its destiny. She desired it might always be true of her that she never deserted a cause in its days of adversity. To give her energy to its early struggles was her habit, never waiting advocacy had become popular. When victory for any cause came, she had little leisure to rejoice, none to rest; she had always some other objective in view.

Yet the many objectives of her nearly eight decades of brave struggle all sprang from a single, simple and principled vision of what she describes as a ‘an equalitarian society, in which by mutual aid and service, there should be abundance for all to satisfy material and spiritual needs’.

Sylvia is best recognised in continuing campaigns for the values and causes closest to her heart. The plight of refugees is a critical example as we live through the world’s greatest displacement of people since World War Two, now exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Vanessa Redgrave’s 2017 documentary Sea Sorrow features one of Sylvia’s many pre-war letters urging the Home Office to expedite and extend refuge for European Jews seeking to escape Hitler’s death camps. It is easy to imagine what she would have made of the so-called hostile environment, bulldozers in Calais, or caged children separated from their parents on the US-Mexican border. As she wrote in November 1938 after Kristallnacht, ‘May we not plead for somewhat more humanity in dealing with these cases?’

Researching this book, I followed Sylvia’ journeys as far as possible. Fully to appreciate the esteem in which Sylvia Pankhurst, the socialist, feminist, anti-fascist, pro-liberation internationalist, is held by so many in the world, I made my last trip to her final home in March 2019. My time in conversation with Rita Pankhurst in Sylvia’s study and reading at her desk, with its view of the garden, was unforgettable and invaluable.

Sylvia’s grandson Alula took me to the Sylvia Pankhurst Café on Sylvia Pankhurst Street in central Addis — itself a poignant moment given her personal political relationship to food, hunger and street protest. Alula explained the reason for my visit, and an interested crowd soon gathered. People shared stories about Sylvia, told to them by their parents, several of whom had known her. As the sun dipped over the brow of the hill and we got up to leave, I was stopped by an Ethiopian man who had just arrived outside the café. He’d heard my reason for being there and broke into a heartfelt tribute to this woman and her contribution to his nation. His final words on what she meant to him will never leave me: ‘After God, Sylvia Pankhurst.’

[ Return to the review of “Sylvia Pankhurst.” ]

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