The name Pankhurst is, of course, indelibly associated with the Suffragettes and the fight to win votes for women in Britain in the early twentieth century. (Less than a century ago!)

More famous than Slyvia in this regard are her mother Emmeline and her older sister Christabel. However, it is not clear whether those two were more effective or whether they were simply better at self-publicity.

Certainly, Sylvia’s contribution should not be underestimated. It was Sylvia who insisted on democracy within the movement, unlike the autocratic Christabel and Emmeline who expelled both Sylvia and her younger, even more neglected sister Adela (and anyone else who differed from them in any degree) from the WSPU. She went to prison, and was force-fed on hunger strike, many times – while her sister Christabel fled to Paris to avoid prison and issued her orders from there, for the women in the WSPU to become increasingly disorderly and violent. Sylvia mobilised the women of the East End, women who her mother and sister looked on with contempt but who were a key part of the movement. She it was who persuaded Prime Minister Asquith in 1914 to receive a delegation of six East End women to put their case for suffrage, to tell him their story and show their need to be given a voice in government. She wrote copiously and effectively in support of female suffrage and, indeed, in support of universal suffrage, and won many women and men over to the cause.

But, unlike the single-minded Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia had other interests. In many respects Sylvia was way ahead of her time. (What a blogger she would have been!) She wanted to alleviate all human suffering and injustice, and winning the vote was a means – but not the only means – to that end. She was a socialist and, for a while, a Communist although she lost faith in that movement when she saw the oppression of the Communist regimes in Russia. She travelled alone and bravely in the most extraordinary ways and had adventures that would make even a modern backpacker’s hair stand on end. At all times she worked hard on behalf of the poor, setting up collective enterprises such as cost-price restaurants, a nursery and Montessori school, and a toy factory. She was an anti-racist in a place and time where racism was unquestioned, and employed black people in her various enterprises. She was a pacifist, but abandoned this to some degree during the Second World War (but not the First) because she recognised the massive threat posed by fascism. She struggled and campaigned vigourously against the British attitude of indifference when Italy invaded Ethiopia, and made a lifelong friend of exiled Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie – she was to end her days in Ethiopia, living in a house he provided for her, and working as always for the poor people around her.

She had two passionate relationships with men. The first was with Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party and a married man. He lived mainly apart from his Scottish wife but was certainly puritanical so it is not clear how far their passion and affection really went – although it was certainly more than platonic. The second was a long relationship with Italian Silvio Corio. She never married him because, so she said, she would have lost her British nationality (as was the law at the time) and been deported to Italy where they woudl both have been locked up as anti-fascist agitators. However, she did (at the age of 45!) have a child by him, her beloved Richard.

Given Sylvia’s passion for work, and her own experience of a rather distant mother more interested in her causes than her children, it is remarkable how she mothered Richard, and loved him so intimately. Her letters about him are deeply touching, to me at least. For example: “I am in despair about my writing. Richard wakes early and keeps me on the go till eleven or so. If I can get him to sleep from then till 1pm it is the best I can hope for frequently – today he woke whenever I put him down and unless put him to sleep in my arms he won’t sleep at all…”

Among other things, Sylvia left behind some notes on How I would like to be remembered –

Let me be counted among the citizens of the world who owns no barriers of race or nation, whose hopes are set on the golden age of universal fraternity we believe to come.”

I was deeply impressed by the story of Sylvia’s long and eventful life, her causes and her passions, her phenomonal capacity for work and for compassion and for enthusiasm, her unconventionality, her dogged determination to do what is right and to achieve justice for the underprivileged. There is only one word to describe her – an inspiration. Truly.

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