Dave Widgery

Sylvia Pankhurst
Pioneer of Working Class Feminism

(May 1979)

From Radical America, vol.13 No.3, May-June 1979, pp.23-38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Three women of the Pankhurst family dominated the struggle for women’s suffrage in Britain. Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst married into a family with a history of radical and suffrage agitation and moved towards the socialism of the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in her front room in 1903 with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’. Christabel, born 1880, her favoured elder daughter, was her fiery lieutenant in the suffragettes’ war of broken windows, slashed paintings and burnt out churches as the Votes for Women agitation reached its crescendo.

Sylvia, born 1882, middle, less glamorous and less well-known daughter, broke, painfully, from her mother and sister. [1] Between 1912 and 1922 she attempted to remake the once intimate connections between socialism and feminism, not in the industrial north where the women’s suffrage movement began, but in proletarian London. Sylvia Pankhurst’s political progress took her from the drawing rooms of 19th century Manchester radicalism to the cramped streets of East London in the First World War, from suffrage to revolutionary socialism, from the circle of William Morris and Keir Hardie to polemics with Lenin and Gramsci. And that attempt to do justice to socialism and feminism was, and is, a precarious, painful, and continuing effort.

My interest, affection, it’s hard not to call it love, for Sylvia Pankhurst has grown over the last five years spent practicing as a doctor not half a mile from her old home in the Old Ford Road. East London is different now, studded with tower blocks and fenced with corrugated iron. But curiously the same. Still solidly proletarian, still the sweatshops and street-fights and rent strikes and plenty of old lady patients who remember ‘our Sylvia’ with a twinkle. Still the migrants, speaking Bangla Deshi rather than Yiddish, still the dole queues, longer now than ever. And still a revolutionary socialist minority, of which I’m part, spouting at street corners, dishing out leaflets, spreading union membership, occupying hospitals due for closure. Sometimes I feel Sylvia’s presence so sharply, it’s like a political ghost leaning over my shoulder to look with anger and compassion at the wheezy infants and cooped up young mothers and panicky grannies who live in the council blocks [public housing – eds.] the Labour Council has had the nerve to name after Shelley, Morris and Dickens.


From 1910 onwards there was growing unease within the Pankhurst family and the WSPU. After 1912, on Christabel’s instructions, the organisation concentrated on direct attacks on the property and person of the male members of the ruling class, carried out with much melodrama. Yet only two years later the same women became the most fervent opponents of Germany and Mrs. Pankhurst transferred her vitriol to new targets – “conscientious objectors, passive resisters and shirkers”. Working men did have a role after all, to bayonet each other in the trenches of the Somme. Christabel had been early to complain at Sylvia’s speaking at mixed meetings; by the end of World War I, she had bundled Bolshevism, sexual intercourse, strikes and venereal disease into a unified masculine conspiracy. As the WSPU became more despotic, it relied more and more on rich women who appear to have combined a radical break with sexual orthodoxy with a fairly conventional upper class mixture of patronage and loathing for the lower orders. Socialists ought to insist on the right of oppressed groups to organise independently and to exclude even people who see themselves as allies if necessary and see that right as a matter of principle and not just expediency. But all-women or all-black organisations, while they are released from the permanent defensiveness and exclusion of male or white dominated organisation, are not thereby immune from the general pressures of any radical in a hostile society. If separation becomes permanent, it can end imprisoned by the very barricades it sets up as its protection.

Sylvia Pankhurst didn’t deny her feminism, she denied theirs. At the outbreak of War, she travelled back from Ireland to a London alive with patriotism and hatred of ‘The Hun’ in which all the bottled up misery of workers was surfacing, where pinched faces lit up not with socialist ardour but the cry for revenge. She was unable to sleep. “Tormented by the visions of those drunken faces at the station, seared by the thought that men were going to die, without heed to the purpose and beauty of life.” She could not bear what the suffrage movement had become, flawlessly tailored women lending their weight passionately to the chariots of war. “Every woman who is putting her hand to the wheel is releasing a man for the trenches. Even if she still had a chauffeur in the background, for certain occasions, she was making a gesture ... giving the men a cue for the trenches ... ‘The women are wonderful!’ It was Northcliffe, our old opponent, who said it, seeing their new emancipation ... for war ... for the slaughter,” she wrote. In 1914 the long awaited breach between Emmeline Pankhurst and her socialist daughter was made public with Sylvia’s expulsion from the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Sylvia Pankhurst reported that the split came because “we had more faith in what could be done by stirring up working women than was felt at headquarters, where they had more faith in what could be done for the vote by people of means and influence. In other words they said they were working from the top down, we from the bottom up.”

Mrs. Parsons, a docker’s wife from Canning Town, put it more bluntly still:

“It was a good thing to have a separate party in the East End from the West End, as they did not say anything about our work in the East End at the meeting at the Empress Theatre and that Sylvia Pankhurst was to the point too: ‘It is evident that the House of Commons and even its Labour members were more impressed by the feminine bourgeoisie than by the female proletariat,’ and, to the East Londoners: ‘You have a democratic constitution and we don’t agree to that’.”

Sylvia Pankhurst had moved in 1909 to live at Bow at the house of the Paynes, who were both shoemakers, and began to build suffragette branches with the help of a handful of middle-class friends who shared her politics. She first approached known radicals, but soon attracted a group of working-class women leaders who were born agitators. Women like Charlotte Drake, ex-barmaid, labourer’s wife and mother of five, Melvina Walker, a one-time ladies’ maid and, like many of Pankhurst’s supporters, a docker’s wife, whose scandalous tales of high society made her a favourite speaker, and Mrs. Creswell, a mother of six and married to a paint factory worker who eventually became Mayor of Poplar, one of the most radical of the dock area boroughs of London. At first the message spread among the tailoresses, serving women, factory girls and wives of Stepney, Limehouse, Poplar and Bermondsey, by word of mouth. The East London Federation’s minutes record, “Membership is growing through afternoon tea parties. The outdoor meetings were not successful; too cold.” But the colours of the East London Federation, the old suffragette purple and green with red added, were soon seen at early morning dock gate meetings, Mothering Sunday marches, the traditional speaking sites at Victoria Park and Gardiner’s Corner – where the male listeners raised the traditional cry, “Wot about the old man’s kippers!” – and on street pitches and outside picture palaces.

Pankhurst’s constant and hectic political activity in those early years taught her details of the life of East London people. She got to know her way round the blank walls of the docks with their fortified entrances where the wealth of the Empire passed through the hands of the very poorest. She sold papers outside gates which became an early morning parading ground of the workless desperate for casual labour. She was at home down the mean back streets with their barrack dwellings, hard to keep clean, dangerous for play, costly to heat in winter and airless and dark in summer. She knew how hard it was to keep up the rent when work was uncertain. She sheltered in the blackness of Blackwall Tunnel at night, the only underground shelter during the War’s bombing raids where mothers and babies huddled next to munitions wagons awaiting shipment to the Front with the horses shivering and rearing with terror at the noise. Describing a 22 bus ride through London ending in the Isle of Dogs she wrote,

“Leaving the broad river in its quiet. Leave the wide sky, mount again to the narrow streets to the mean streets, to the tumble down hovels among the massive factories, to the lovers with nowhere to go, who clasp each other in gloomy doorways, Great chimneys, gaunt, great chimneys, fantastic shapes of elevators, and Venus that shines up there in the quiet sky. Majestic sadness. Stores of wealth kept here in bond amid the poverty.”

Today that part of London is still sadder, its wharves silent, the gaunt factories with their mock-Egyptian facades up ‘To Let,’ the acres of flats blasted with gusts of wind and menacing racist graffiti, and the motorway rattling with cars escaping to Essex. It has become an industrial museum without doors, a series of snap-shots of a country slipping backwards into de-industrialisation (like the traditional working-class districts, of Liverpool and Glasgow and Newcastle.)

East London, then as now, presents particular problems for political organisation. Its long history as a national port and merchant capital defined the geography of the city before industry grew up. Londoners remained divided according to trade and transport, with most manufacturers small, and many service industries. Paper flower-making, hat finishing or driving a cart was more likely than factory work. There are no mines and little ship building in London. There were pockets of high capital investment where working conditions and union politics were more like Glasgow or Yorkshire (the Beckton Gas Works was the world’s largest and employed 20,000), but light engineering, wood working and clothing manufacture in small workplaces were much more general. One in three working women were in service, mainly as cleaners. London trade unionism has been weakened by the ‘commuting artisan,’ by the conservative outlook of the skilled craftsman, the isolation and powerlessness of the unskilled casual worker, by the relatively large proportion and poor organisation of the migrant and women workers. Nonetheless, in the national patchwork of pre-War militancy, London workers of both sexes were as active as those in the provinces. There were long strikes of women cleaners, biscuit makers and jam packers in 1909 and 1910.

With Pankhurst’s leadership, these problems were addressed by the Women’s Dreadnought, newspaper of the East London Federation, established in 1913. It exposed the conditions of women home workers, campaigned on behalf of single mothers and the victims of hat-pin abortions, published articles on The schooling of the future and international affairs. It sold about 8,000 copies with the Bow branch holding the record with a regular 800 a week and a claimed 1600 one week. Some sellers complained of the police, the difficulty of selling to immigrants who could not speak English and of male hecklers who “crowded but did not buy ... giving us a very rough time.” But these problems were countered by determined and imaginative publicity campaigns with late-night Dreadnought ‘chalking parties’, ‘red sticky-backs’ and the hiring of a pleasure boat in Victoria Park from which were unfurled parasols spelling out DREADNOUGHT.

Pankhurst found her first real happiness among the Cockneys, who despite her middle-class background took her to their hearts, calling her ‘Our Sylvia’ and providing her with a bodyguard called Kosher Hunt, a local prize fighter. From 1912 Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel, while stepping up the apparent militancy of their campaign for the vote, were moving to the Right. After years of public organising and exhausting constitutionalism, the WSPU was transformed into an upper-middle-class urban guerrilla army, commanded from a secret HQ in Paris.

Contemporary socialist disapproval for the tactics used by the underground suffragettes is often ill aimed. The highly effective use of direct action – heckling, jujitsu resistance to police arrest, damage to the property of the rich – represented a considerable upsurge in the level of struggle and the confidence of the women. A proper objection is that insurrectionary methods were being used for a reformist goal. And that both in the constitutional and incendiary phases, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst saw the mass of working women as passive, useful only in providing numbers. For as working women found their political voice there was bound to be questioning of a campaign of women of all classes carried out on terms defined by the rich ones. Sylvia was right to predict that a pressure group consisting of and appealing to the privileged classes without an active local base could in hard times go into reverse gear and become an instrument to enforce women’s sacrifices.

By contrast, Sylvia Pankhurst’s efforts to build an independent working women’s movement in East London brought her in contact and co-operation with the revolutionary left. In 1914 she intended the Dreadnought (having fortunately rejected such other names as Worker’s Mate!) to widen the East London Federation’s political interests. But by 1917 the paper was more concerned with the unity of the Left and full of optimism for the Russian Revolution. In October 1917, it was re-re-named the Workers Dreadnought. But the insistence on women’s issues continued, both on local matters and in re-publishing articles by Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin, and Zinoviev on the necessity for women’s councils and a Woman’s International Congress. The extent and the sophistication of socialist feminist agitation carried out by the women’s organisations of the Third International in the early twenties remains curiously neglected by feminist historians.

The War had effectively put a pistol to the political head of every political organisation and interrupted the steady growth of the causes of women and Labour. It enabled state-organised official obedience to push back the initiatives being taken by the women, the workers and the Irish. The overwhelming majority of the socialist organisations, with various complicated rationales ended backing the most pointless and brutal military slaughter in history, even those who had pledged, at conference after conference, their utter opposition. The Suffrage movement also fell first obediently, then enthusiastically, behind the war effort. Just as Pankhurst moved away from the woman’s vote issue towards general political agitation, so in 1915 her mother, financed by leading industrialists, went on a speaking tour of industrial and mining areas of Britain appealing to wives to resist Bolshevism and stop supporting the shop stewards. The polarisation was to gather speed; just before Pankhurst arrived in Moscow eager to debate with Lenin, her mother had been in the same city trying to rally support to the dying Kerensky regime. But even by 1914 the ways were parting. The prospect of martyrdom and glory did not appeal to the working women who had until then supported the suffrage campaign. The ladies broke the windows but the working women hung back.

Sylvia’s sustained community organising in East London tried instead to get to grips with their more immediate problems – food, rent, and working conditions. The East London Federation campaigned against government calls for food rationing. When bread prices went up, they suggested: “Someone should go into the shop and ask for it at normal prices and if it were refused, go and get a number to back her up and then take it.” They tried to start a “No Vote, No Rent” strike but the idea was rejected by the WSPU because “it was impossible to work it through their organizations as their people were widely scattered and it is only in working-class homes that women pay the rent.” They also suggested to the Poplar Trades Council that “the Russian example be followed and the empty houses in any part be commandeered for people now in the workhouse.” The Federation was accustomed to working with local men trade unionists. They joined the general campaign against the ‘Sweated Trades’ and particularly took up the cause of women finishers who sewed buttons and seams on soldiers’ trousers and demanded that “if a woman does a man’s work she shall have a man’s pay”. Equal pay was of particular importance because women were sucked into traditionally male jobs when those men were sent to war. Union branches of the Stratford gasworkers and the Stratford and Bromley railmen heard women speakers on Adult Suffrage, and the trades councils turned their members out on suffrage demonstrations.

The scale of these activities is hard to estimate but an impressive degree of organisation must have been necessary for the People’s Army of Defence to have drilled men and women recruits in street fighting tactics against the police. They turned out 700 people armed with staves and marching in tight formation. The Army was formed to give women a way to defend themselves against the Police. This was before the 1936 Public Order Act, introduced after the success of the East Londoners in turning back Mosley’s Union of Fascists, had banned such organisations. The police were still hated outsiders in most of East London and enforced their rule with according brutality; they were trying to conquer an area rather than police it. The official purpose of the People’s Army was to defend free speech, to drive out police spies (who were detected by their hygienic smell!) and prevent wrongful arrest, particularly common in the alcoholic chaos of Saturday nights. The force could also prevent evictions attempted by the landlords in the ‘No Vote, No Rent’ strike, and even attend auctions. “If there was any attempt to sell the furniture of any of them, ‘the army’ would attend the sale and ‘rescue’ the furniture.” Drilling in public was then common and up to 1000 people, mainly women, used to turn out in front of Bow Town Hall armed with Saturday Night Clubs, rope coshes knotted with lead. When police tried to arrest protesters at Shore-ditch in 1914 the women escaped by heaving a table at the arresting officers. Pankhurst’s advice was a mixture of the practical and the insurrectionary:

“The police know ju-jitsu. I advise you to learn ju-jitsu. Women should practice it as well as men. We are going to fight and we will do far more than the Ulster people, Get on with this drilling. Arm yourselves. Let us fight and we shall win.”

The Federation was also adept at disguise and decoy so that Pankhurst and others could defy the 1913 Prisoner’s (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act aimed to neutralise the tactic of hunger strike by allowing for temporary release and return to prison once health improved. Once out Sylvia Pankhurst resisted re-arrest and made a defiant speech to the faces of the police in Trafalgar Square. The Federation also took up a campaign about the conditions in Holloway Jail where the women succeeded in getting the garters and proper teaspoons they had pleaded for, tiny victories that meant so much to women crushed by well regimented pain. The scale of this East London agitation challenged the Government. In 1920, during the intervention into Russia, the British Socialist Party, the Workers’ Suffrage Federation and the shop stewards’ movement led a united campaign for ‘Hands Off Russia.’ Dockers refused to load munitions for the Polish army of invasion and the heavers refused to coal the ship. The Workers’ Suffrage Federation called on dockers’ wives to support not only their husbands’ campaign but also to agitate at their own workplaces and on the public housing estates. This activity, which at one point had public speakers operative at over 30 open-air speaking sites in East London, did much for the Hands-Off-Russia campaign. British support for the Poles was stopped in its tracks.

Sylvia Pankhurst spread her ideas to other industrial towns in Britain and lectured in Denmark, Norway, Budapest and Vienna on socialism, suffrage, education and child care. In America she spoke on “the garment workers strike, drug fiends and juvenile delinquents, the Negro question.” She had particularly close links with the male engineering workers in Glasgow. But the activities in East London were in continual danger of caving in under sheer weight of misery. The Federation had to create places where working class housewives could meet and support each other practically before it lead them on to the streets and into the grim cells of Holloway Jail. A toy factory was started in Bethnal Green for workless women and run under a kind of workers’ control with equal pay. From it sprung a creche where “working mothers can leave their babies for the day at a charge of 3d a head. For this the children receive three meals, the loan of suitable clothes and are cared for in every way.” A pub, The Gunmakers Arms, was converted to a maternity centre, The Mothers Arms, with a resident nurse, cheap maternity foods and hygiene and health talks. By 1915 mother and baby clinics had been set up in Bow, Bromley, Poplar and West Ham, connected to Dreadnought readers’ groups. Cost-price restaurants linked to the paper served stew and rice and meat pie and potatoes in Bow and Poplar. In Walthamstow a League of Rights was set up by the wives of soldiers and sailors to campaign for better treatment for servicemen.

It is true that by 1917 the East London Federation had not produced great results. The distress relief always tended to become a disguised form of charity instead of the working women’s self-activity that was intended. What with people running off with the cash, the co-operative factory being bankrupted by commercial firms and the maternity nurse watering down the milk, only bits of the Federation’s private welfare schemes remained to be taken up by Poplar Council. The Federation was aware of the danger of merely providing services as a form of political charity, but certain that without collective provision for some of the working woman’s burdens, it was fanciful to demand she step forward and emancipate herself. And the creches, kitchens, choirs and clinics were themselves organised in a radical fashion. Socialist doctors and psychologists gave talks on sexual matters, the nursery nurses practised Montessori methods, advice on contraception was almost certainly given informally. During the War the Federation spread itself from its East London heartland to form branches in Birmingham, Nottingham, Glasgow and Wales. By 1918 it had small groupings in 12 of the major towns which emphasised day-to-day women’s issues within a wider framework of socialist demands.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s fierce and consistent opposition to the war, although applauded by the Scots engineers and Welsh colliers, in fact cut her off from her old friends in East London. Hope came only form afar, from the Bolsheviks and the Soviets in Russia. It was to them and the Communist Parties being organised throughout the world in the glow of the Russian revolution that Pankhurst and her supporters turned. Like most British socialists, she was probably unsure what exactly Bolshevism was and certainly unclear about its relationship to her feminism, but she was to adopt wholly for the next few years its aim, the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. As she told the judge who tried her in 1919 for agitating among the forces:

“I started four clinics and have sat up night after night with the little ones. I also set up a day nursery but all my experience shows me it was useless to try to palliate an impossible system. It is the wrong system and has got to be smashed. I would give my life to smash it.”

The world had been utterly altered by war including production itself. The insides of factories didn’t look the same and the way work was organised was itself transformed. The first generation of automated machine tools, turret and capstan lathes, and universal milling machines had been set up, the skilled men were no longer left alone, their protected positions were dislodged, pushed and shoved aside by the rattle and thud of the production line. The power was being dug from underneath their top-hatted trade unionism by the influx of less skilled workers. They were no longer sheltered by the possession of their craft. The discipline which the pressure of war enabled the factory owners to introduce stayed, of course, and became more strict when the war was over.

But after the war these changes produced a new arrangement of class forces. The armaments industry, on which the growth of the metal trades depended, collapsed and, after a brief post war boom, manufacturing slumped too. The war had given the national unions time and authority to recover initiative, the TUC was strengthened, unions were merged and amalgamated and the resulting headquarters exerted more power over their members. There was a corresponding change in industrial politics in the factories. In order to resist the employer and the state, to recover mastery at work, to make organizations which might become the form of governing in a socialist stage – all three demanded an independent rank-and-file movement, organised at the shop-steward level, capable of resisting the union bureaucrats. Such a movement was the first priority of the British revolutionaries inspired by Soviet Russia.

When Pankhurst drew up the agenda for the Rank-and-File convention which met in 1919 to discuss the theories of soviet power and to which she proposed her idea of the ‘social soviet’ which would organise workers where they lived, far from abandoning her feminism, she was attempting to relate it to a new political era. For example, in an article on the shop steward movement published in Gramsci’s L’OrdineNuovo, she explained to Italian readers the meaning of the foreign phrase, ‘rank-and-file movement.’ Her perception of the potential of the rank and file movement and the need to link the factory council with the social soviet ... the need to ‘translate’ the Soviet experience into Western European conditions are a contribution which make her a founding mother of today’s revolutionary movement, even if she was fated to make connections in her head which she couldn’t forge in practice.

Her political insight is all the more remarkable because the revolutionary left in Britain, with the exception of the tiny Socialist Labour Party, had never seen workplace activity or the unions as especially important; and because the Soviets, Factory Councils, were entirely new, a working-class invention in response to changes in advanced capitalist industry.

Her relation to the foundation of the British Communist Party is complicated. There is no doubt that she was impatient. She felt that the East London Federation (although its popular bases had withered), the London Shop Stewards around the magazine Solidarity, and the SLP and the Welsh Socialist Societies, the groups which had fought hardest against the war, British intervention, and conscription, had established their right to be the core of the Party. She found it hard to conceal her contempt for some of the shams who negotiated their way into the hack-packed leadership of the CPGB in the course of the amalgamation process, so she established her very own Communist Party, advertised as ‘affiliated to the Third International,’ more as a Pankhurst act of will than a piece of political democracy.

But the facts that the two most outstanding and original revolutionaries in Britain in 1920, Pankhurst in East London and John MacLean, the leader of the ‘Red Clyde’ engineering workers, were both out of the Party by 1922, that many others never joined or swiftly left, and that the Party was so swiftly overtaken by a conservative bureaucracy which has an essential continuity from the early twenties to the present day – these facts cast some doubts on the way the CP was formed in Britain. Pankhurst and MacLean had in common considerable prestige in the international movement (MacLean was appointed by Lenin Bolshevik Consul in Glasgow and Pankhurst became correspondent for the Petrograd edition of Communist International, the theoretical and news organ of the International.) They shared a decade of practical organising and though neither were industrial workers, they had constant contact with the industrial movement. Added to that was experience in socialist publishing and propaganda, agitation over housing and community issues and against the war. Both were independently minded, politically frank and acutely aware from personal experience of the need to hold hard against the purely industrial vantage point of the shop stewards movement and the deeply reformist instincts of the class as a whole. They had in common, too, a certain liking for a rather schematic purity which they mistook for rigour and both were capable of going very emphatically wrong. The Communist Party was born in Britain into harsh circumstances, with the immediate post-war militancy ebbing away rapidly and the labour movement in retreat. It was a small and isolated party and the Labour establishment did its best to keep it that way. Nevertheless, some of its problems were of its own making, notably its heavy-handed internal regime for which Pankhurst had scant respect:

“The CPGB is at present passing through a sort of political measles called discipline which makes it fear free expression and the circulation of opinions within the party.”

She was not penitent for having been cast from the temple at King Street (CP headquarters):

“I do not regret my expulsion ... that it has occurred shows the feeble and unsatisfactory condition of the party, its placing of small things before great.”

It is quite clear, whatever the prestige of Bolshevik Russia on sexual matters, that the early CPGB attracted very few feminists who wished to unite class and sexual politics. Its “Bolshevik” hostility to issues of subjective experience and autonomous organisation touched directly on the predicament of women as a sex. The political implications of women’s control over sex and reproduction were not allowed into the orthodox Marxists’ definition of the Woman Question and were left stranded in the Utopian-socialist and anarchist-communist groups who could not take them very far. Women, and this has a chillingly contemporary ring, were often forced by the hostility of the socialist left into the broader non-revolutionary parties, where at least they were left alone. In the 1920s women interested in birth control, abortion and maternity provisions for the working class were effectively forced into the Labour Party or the Malthusian League by the Communist Party’s conservative positions. The whole circumstances of the CP’s formation and its excessive loyalty to Soviet orthodoxy fundamentally flawed it and excluded many worthy native strains of revolutionary thought and activity. For example, the movement for workers’ control exemplified by MacLean and his Glasgow comrades, and mass community and rent struggles of East London were beginning to meet each other, as Pankhurst’s group became more committed to the rank-and-file shop stewards movement and the Glasgow rent strikes during the war linked the Scottish industrial movement to women in the homes and estates. But that sort of movement was rapidly extinguished in the early Twenties. Not only did the steady rise of unemployment weaken the class and enable the employers to sack the industrial activists, but the bleak perspective of the Communist International reflected the stark extremity of Russia under siege, attempting to co-ordinate a world uprising while unable to provide its own townspeople with bread or candles. The movement towards workers’ control by the factory councils, the Commune-State sketched by Lenin in State and Revolution, was replaced by an insistence on the construction of parties of the Bolshevik kind. The absence of organisations clear-sighted in aims, committed to workers’ future power but rooted in the workers own present organisations, was recognised by the most serious socialists as a fundamental weakness on the European left. But founding such parties in the ebb wave of the thwarted workers’ offensive was another matter. Pankhurst was brutally accurate about Russia of the early Twenties, it was no longer the herald of proletarian uprising, workers control and the liberation of women. “They pose now as the prophets of efficiency, trustification, state control and discipline of the proletariat, in the interest of increased production.” The possibility for genuinely revolutionary industrial politics, let alone sexual politics, was bleak.

Against these narrow possibilities Sylvia Pankhurst’s political achievement deserves to be forcibly reasserted. It is a very good example of the masculine bias of the revolutionary movement that she is generally known as no more than a woman who received the blunt end of the Lenin pamphlet, Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. (In the same way, Kollontai, until she was rescued by modern socialist feminists, was known, if known at all, simply for her role in the Workers’ Opposition.) In the revolutionary movement, like everywhere else, women have to do better than men before they achieve equal recognition.

For Sylvia Pankhurst is in many ways a critical missing political link who, as an agitator, an organiser and a thinker, has direct relevance today. It’s truly amazing that socialists who have made themselves experts on Plekhanov, Trotsky and the First 4 Congresses of the 3rd International remain so magnificently condescending of Sylvia.

She is a link between the British revolutionary movement of the late 19th century, the world of Engels, Eleanor Marx, Kropotkin, Louise Michel, William Morris, the era of briefly triumphant Bolshevism and the Third International of Lenin, Gramsci, Bordiga. And on her journey between the two she collaborated politically with the outstanding British revolutionaries and labour leaders of the time, Tillet, Thorne, Mann and Pollitt, Jim Larkin and Victor Grayson. The cultural pre-occupations of the 19th century socialists and her own creative gifts coloured her initial aims in life, “to work as an artist in the service of popular movements, decorating halls, producing banners, cartoons, designs, etc., whatever might serve to beautify and inspire the movements of the masses, the drab ugliness which smote my soul with pity.” But although she won two scholarships, was the first woman in Manchester to attend nude drawing classes and travelled Britain to sketch and paint working women from the shoe makers of Leicester, the ‘pit-brow girls’ of the Wigan mines, Berwickshire farm labourers, and Glasgow cotton mill workers, she decided, ‘to abandon’ her artistic work and go to East London to build a movement, “not merely for votes, but towards an egalitarian society.” But her insight as a political organiser was to see that a new spirit of pride among women chaffing against their lack of sexual rights might link, not to the vote, but to the resentment surfacing against their servile state in service and at work. And that such a movement had an affinity with the new unofficial movement among male rank-and-file trade unionists. If the industrial rebels and the suffrage rebels could march together a new force for change and the beginnings of a different sort of power was possible.

To build such an organisation she attempted to fight not just about the working day but the working life. She helped organise rent strikes with the slogan, “Please Landlord, don’t be offended/Don’t come for the rent ‘till the war is ended’,” sought to organise the unemployed and took up political issues of the right to free speech and expression and self-defense against the police. She saw the importance of organising collectively to create practical solutions to the material problems which weighed so heavy on working women and to consciously help develop the confidence of the dockers’ wives who were her main allies. There was no After-The-Revolution; instead,

“I feel that my first work must be to do what I can to secure for women the entrance into the political scheme, without which they can never play anything but a subordinate part in the social reconstruction.”

She didn’t want to be a radical version of her mother’s organisation but instead a “strong self-reliant movement among working women” who could be “fighters in their own right.”

In this process her work as a political editor and journalist was as important as her personal bravery and ardour as an agitator and orator. The Dreadnought is a most readable and lively socialist weekly, probably the only British parallel to Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo in its range of concerns and direct connection to working class life, if not its theoretical intransigence. She wanted a paper by workers for workers and what is markedly less common, she did the work to make it happen.

“I took infinite pains in correcting and arranging their manuscripts to preserve the spirit and unsophisticated freshness of the original.”

She achieved that ultimate accolade of a socialist editor, being locked up for her journal. The offending articles give a good idea of the vitality of the Dreadnought and range of its contributors: Anderson the Finn’s Discontent on the Lower Deck; an anti-racist article written by a black seaman entitled The Yellow Peril and the Dockers (which the Crown alleged advocated organised looting of the bonded warehouses); How to Get a Labour Government; and an attack on Government welfare policy called The Datum Line. From her room in Old Ford Road, she scrawled articles for the Merthyr Pioneer, the Glasgow Forward, Avanti, the Italian Socialist Party’s paper, and became L’Ordine Nuovo’s only permanent foreign correspondent. Her writing has a sharpness and a freshness of imagery which did not fade as she became more physically exhausted, or more pressured by the demands of weekly socialist journalism. Although her retrospective accounts of the movement are dull, her agitational journalism has great poignancy and fire. Even in prison she scribbled poems with the pencil and paper hidden beneath her skirts. The prison provided a blackboard and chalk but insisted it was washed clean after use ... “the inconsistent slate destined to swift extinction,” she called it. Her clandestine poems catch glimpses of the sisterhood of women in prison without sentiment. Perhaps most important were her stands in international politics. She argued consistently in favour of the Irish rebels and organised East Londoners to care for the children of the Dublin lockout. The Federation was the first British group to establish links with Soviet Russia. She led a ‘Great Push’ as she called it against the British intervention, stopping people herself in the Bow Road to talk about Russia from the scanty supply of news which arrived by sympathetic seamen and cooks on the Baltic shipping lines. She mastered and took up sides in the infant Communist International speaking at the 1919 Congress of the Italian Socialist Party and debating fiercely but fraternally with Lenin, who never seems to have understood that part of her hostility to parliamentary politics was the bitterness of her experience with the vote-fixated WSPU and her first-hand knowledge of an older, more corrupting assembly than the Duma the Russian workers had forced the Tzar to grant them. In the British Parliament she said, “Courage seems to evaporate like a child’s soap bubble!” And writing in the review Communismo in support of Amadeo Bordiga she stated,

“It is difficult for me to understand how you can possibly make propaganda to win seats in Parliament – a body you mean to abolish in a few months – when you ought to be absorbed in the work of revolutionary preparation and when the most urgent need is to convince workers that the time for Parliaments is passed.”

She was a sympathetic and understanding supporter of the Workers’ Opposition in Russia which was the first and the most principled challenge to the political retreats being made in besieged Soviet Russia. This skeptical open-mindedness towards the debates within the Russian Party underlay her curt evaluations of British Communist Officialdom and concern with the rank-and-file and the stop-stewards movements. Her politics were a real threat to the hacks, not just in King Street but in Moscow. Her apparent idiosyncrasy was the consequence of holding a very advanced political position. Her affinity with Kollontai was as much for her trenchant criticism of the rising Soviet bureaucracy as for her ideas on maternity, education and prostitution.

Sylvia Pankhurst had to challenge head-on the male domination of the existing revolutionary movement, and did so with some success. She recruited men like John Scurr, a docker who resigned from the BSP for its anti-feminism. She transformed an all-woman organisation into a mixed socialist organisation where the lead was given by working-class women and where socialist activity about women’s and child health, childcare, schooling and domestic work were an integral part of the political work. Men were neither excluded nor morally reviled.

It must be said that she was, for all, still a Pankhurst and prone to use sheer will power when democracy seemed too time-consuming. Her East London base ebbed just as her prestige in the international movement was growing. The community self-activity was only kept going by constant begging from the liberal rich in the West End and later subsidised by Government grants. But Harry Pollitt, a founder-member of the Communist Party of GB, testified against the implication, made by the CPers who expelled her echoing the lying campaign made against MacLean, that she was an impossible megalomaniac:

“Sylvia Pankhurst was, of course, the leading spirit of the Federation and had the remarkable gift of extracting every last ounce of energy as well as the last penny from anyone with whom she came into contact ... although I often heard that Sylvia was difficult to get on with, I never found it so. I covered the greater part of London with her group.”

The charge that her 1917 enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution meant she abandoned her feminism and succumbed to a male dominated politics which effectively excluded feminist concerns is more recent criticism which also lacks weight. For though it is not guaranteed that women’s position is necessarily improved as the working class cause is advanced, it seems to be true that women are pushed back when the class as a whole is defeated. And attempting to force a connection between feminism of the early days of the ELF and the shop stewards movement was an audacious step. If the feminist aspect was almost bound to suffer, this was not due so much to the male domination of London heavy industry in Arsenal and the ship-repair yards, the industrial base of the movement, as to the collapse of the suffrage movement as a whole into the War effort by 1916. As late as 1918 when popular support was waning and international events were filling the sky, the Federation fought on specifically women’s issues, including prostitution, the campaign against compulsory inspection for VD, and the rights of soldiers’ wives. Thus the Women’s Dreadnought argued in 1917 against the Sexual Crimes Bill which had been brought out after Army officers wrote to the press demanding the punishment of women and girls who were ‘preying’ on soldiers and sailors. The punishments dramatised the hypocrisy: up to two years at a time when the maximum penalty for rape was six months. The ELF instead organised a campaign which included vigilantes and the compulsory examination of the male clients; and insisted that wages and conditions for East London women had to improve before any ‘solution’ to prostitution could be discussed. Interestingly, it was only Emmeline Pankhurst’s ‘Women’s Party’ which offered a specific post-war policy for women, and that was of a proto-fascist type.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s personal and sexual feelings can only be guessed at. Most of her passion was directed straight to political life. As a girl she wrote,

“Flirting I regard as a most sinful folly, considering it cruel to play with the affections of another being, if one’s own are not involved. Foolish and wrong to squander the emotions which should be reserved for the one great love.”

And again, more somberly still,

“My sisters will marry, I thought; but I was destined to worship love only in the abstract, and to serve humanity by a life of ascetic self-denial.”

But she began to live with an Italian journalist, Silvio Corrio, in 1912, with whom she was to stay for 42 years. In the mid-1920s they left East London for good to live in Ethiopia. She got involved in the Ethiopian nationalist movement, especially in the struggle against the Italian invasion. After repeated imprisonment, hunger strikes, forced feedings, and incessant political activity for over a decade, this journey to Africa, some say, saved her health and life.

Sylvia Pankhurst is important to our generation of socialists because of her efforts to bring together feminism and socialism. There are those in political movements who make original and creative advances in theory, those who can communicate established political ideas imaginatively, and those who have the gift of organising to make political change. She always insisted on doing all three.



1. Adela Pankhurst, the third and youngest daughter of Dr. Richard and Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, born in 1885, emigrated to Australia where she also worked in the women suffrage movement. The Pankhursts also had a son who died in childhood. – ed.


Last updated on 24.10.2005