Sylvia Pankhurst 1882 – 1960
Feminist, socialist, anti-fascist and internationalist
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
Dear Sylvia Pankhurst
You have inspired me ever since I first learned about you in my British history lessons at high school in my home town of Melbourne, Australia, in 1968.
I was 16. My teacher said that as well as campaigning for women’s votes you were an all-round radical visionary. This increased my interest in your life and activism and, when I learned more, helped inspire my own human rights campaigning and direct action methods to secure equality.
I admire the way you combined feminism with social justice and internationalism. You understood the inter-connectedness of diverse struggles and the importance of unity and solidarity.
Your feisty attitude and irreverent style of suffragette protest, and your many personal sacrifices, including prison and forced feeding, are awesome.
In the latter years of your life, however, you drifted from left-wing politics. I often wonder why. Was it the sectarianism and in-fighting, the horrors of Stalin’s Soviet Union or just exhaustion from decades of frontline campaigning?
It is true that you maintained your support for anti-colonialism and internationalism to the end of your life. But I was surprised that you watered down your revolutionary fervour and adopted some less than wholly progressive causes and associations.
Your support for the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was not a good move, even though you did so because he was resisting Mussolini’s occupation. Selassie was a moderniser to some extent but he was also an anti-democratic royalist and autocrat who, after your death, presided over mass famine, violations of civil liberties and the bloody suppression of Eritrea.
Nevertheless, despite this out-of-character misjudgement, when looking at your lifetime of political activism in its totality, it is clear that you helped advance the cause of human liberation.
Your best known achievement is contributing to women gaining the vote.
Unlike others who merely spoke out and supported the cause without taking any risks or enduring any personal suffering, you did suffer for your advocacy and activism in support of women’s suffrage; being repeatedly jailed and going on hunger strike 10 times in 1913 and 1914 alone. That took real courage, determination and perseverance.
What I love about you is that you did not see women’s emancipation solely in terms of female suffrage. You had a much broader feminist vision; campaigning for equal pay, mother and baby clinics, nurseries for the children of working mothers, widow’s pensions and low cost restaurants to help relieve the domestic pressures on working women.
Unlike your mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel, you were not focused solely on the rights of middle class and propertied women. Your suffrage work and political campaigns prioritised the most oppressed women: the women of the working class.
Across the board, you championed worker’s rights and opposed the mass unemployment that was wrecking poor industrial and inner city communities.
You opposed the jingoism and bloody carnage of the First World War; supporting the campaign against conscription and backing those who refused to fight: the conscientious objectors.
An early member of the Communist Party, you urged a socialist revolution in Britain but disagreed with the authoritarianism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
Convicted of sedition for pro-communist views, you were imprisoned for five months.
You were so often a trailblazer. Long before most others, you campaigned to defend Spanish democracy against Franco’s fascists, aided Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and backed the Ethiopian people’s struggle to liberate their country from occupation by Mussolini’s army.
To your great credit, and unlike many other communists, you were horrified and repelled by Stalin’s purges and the show trials of leading Bolsheviks. I wish others had followed your lead in breaking with Soviet-style barbed wire communism.
There are several similarities between us. We both started out life pursuing artistic careers. You studied at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. My family was too poor to send me to art school, so I learned on the job from the age of 16, in the display and design section of a big department store in Melbourne.
You fell out with your politically conservative mother and sister, and I also had strong disagreements with my right-wing evangelical family. I loathe the patriarchal traditions of marriage. You took the same view; scandalising your family by refusing to marry your Italian socialist lover, Silvo Corio.
One of several things that drew you to me as a kindred spirit is the way you saw the need to link up the many different struggles for social justice and equality to the secure the wider end goal of universal human liberation. It’s an idea that has influenced my thinking too.
Moreover, we both share revolutionary, anti-establishment ideals and believe in the necessity and ethics of direct action and civil disobedience to overturn unjust laws.
Indeed, because I based some of my political ideas and campaign tactics on you and the suffragettes, my OutRage! colleagues in the 1990s used to nick-name me “Peggy (Peter) Pankhurst”.
There are, sadly, no contemporary women rights campaigners who come anywhere near your radicalism and social impact. Most of the women’s movement seems to have done a Rip Van Winkle. I suspect you would berate their complacency.
We’ve got more women MPs nowadays but what do they do for the liberation of the female sex? Not enough. Some seem to be largely tame voting fodder for their party elites.
If you were alive now, I guess you’d be leading a left-wing feminist movement, probably called something like WomenRage! You’d be occupying business headquarters and government offices to demand equal pay for women (it is still only four-fifths of men’s income), free nursery places for every child, better education against rape and domestic violence and equal representation for women in all leadership positions.
You would, I expect, call for electoral reform to ensure more women MPs; perhaps urging the creation of two-member constituencies, where every electorate would be required to vote for a male MP and a female MP. It is probably the surest way to end women’s under-representation in parliament.
And you’d be in the thick of radical left and green politics, spearheading a movement for the transformation of society, not merely piecemeal reforms within it.
Because of your commitment to internationalism, it is also likely that you’d be prominent in the anti-war, human rights and anti-globalisation movements, and the campaign to cancel Third World debt and the unfair terms of trade between the global north and south.
The breadth and scope of your radical vision is vast and inspirational.
I have learned from you and so, too, can others. You helped advance the progressive causes of women’s equality, social justice, anti-colonialism and human rights. Bravo! Hero! Thank you!
Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation