On this day: 5 May 1882
Biography of Sylvia Pankhurst
Elizabeth Streatfeild-James, BA History, Durham University
On this day in 1882 Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (known as Sylvia) was born. She was an English campaigner for the suffrage movement, a prominent left communist and later an activist for the cause of anti-fascism and anti-colonialism. She was the sister and daughter of the two prominent co-founders of the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union (WSPU): Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst. Although Sylvia Pankhurst is a lesser known member of the suffragette movement, she was actually imprisoned and force-fed more often than any other campaigner.
She organised spectacular demonstrations, rallies and marches publicising the WSPU all over Britain. Sometimes as many as 16,000 women came to hear her speak. However, when Christabel Pankhurst took over as leader of the WSPU and ordered more militant tactics including setting fire to buildings, destroying golf courses and damaging famous works of art, Sylvia left the WSPU, thus creating a rift in the family which never healed.
After leaving the WSPU Sylvia Pankhurst created her own campaigning group, The East London Federation of Suffragettes, which men were welcome to join. She subsequently lectured extensively on woman’s suffrage in various locations around the world. She wanted to do more in the world to empower women and after she achieved this she expanded her campaigning to cover a wider range of issues.
In the 1930s she moved away from Communist politics but remained in contact with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism movements. She campaigned against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and after 1942 she helped raised funds for Ethiopia’s first teaching hospital. Sylvia Pankhurst moved with her son to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 1956 where she founded a monthly journal, Ethiopia Observer, in which she reported on many aspects of Ethiopian life and development. She died there in 1960 and received a full state funeral where the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie named her “an honorary Ethiopian”.
Due to her communist political leanings the British government have refused to honour Sylvia in the same way that they have her sister and mother. However Sylvia’s name and picture were included alongside 58 other supporters of women’s suffrage on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett which was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2018.