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International Socialism, Autumn 1994


Jane Elderton

Suffragette style


From International Socialism 2:64, Autumn 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


K. Dodd (ed.)
A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader
Manchester University Press, 1993) £14.95

Sylvia Pankhurst is probably best known for the role she played in the fight for women’s right to vote. This new collection of her writing, A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader, shows that in the course of her life she campaigned over many other issues. She opposed the First World War and welcomed and supported the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The articles, drawn from 1909 to 1953, reveal how her ideas developed. Unfortunately, anyone hoping the commentary provided by Kathryn Dodd, who edited and introduces this selection, will provide any guide to Sylvia Pankhurst’s life will be disappointed. Dodd argues that Sylvia ‘continually struggled to embrace new ideas about politics’. [1] But Dodd fails to locate Sylvia’s changing ideas in the world around her. The only real explanation she offers is to look to Sylvia’s style of writing.

Dodd argues that the ‘available form of writing conditioned what she could express’. [2] In other words her ideas were limited by her access to different styles of writing. This is rubbish. The changes in her writing, both the content and the style, reflected Sylvia Pankhurst’s changing ideas. Sylvia did not have one message which she fought to express throughout her life. Her greatest strength was the way she responded to world events, her struggle to build a mass working class base for the fight for women’s right to vote and her efforts to win support in Britain for the 1917 Russian Revolution.

But she never seems to develop a theoretical understanding of either capitalism or the fight for socialism. To explain this point it is necessary to say more about Sylvia’s life, and here her writings provide many useful insights.

Sylvia Pankhurst came from a comfortable, middle class, but political background. Like her mother and father she was a member of the Independent Labour Party. She was a founder member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the organisation set up in 1903 with her mother, Emmeline, and her sister, Christabel, as a pressure group to campaign for votes for women. At that time no woman had the vote. The franchise had been further extended in 1884 but not all men had the vote.

Christabel’s own description of her early efforts at militant action convey much about the nature of the suffragettes, as the press named them. She describes her efforts to get arrested to attract publicity:

Lectures on the law flashed to my mind. I could, even with all my limbs helpless, commit a technical assault and so I found myself arrested and charged with ‘spitting at a policeman’ ... It was not a real spit. But only, shall we call it, a ‘pout’, a perfectly dry purse of the mouth. I could not really have done it, even to get the vote, I think. [3]

Sylvia did not begin by devoting all her time to politics. She went to London as a student at the Royal College of Art. Once in London she set up a WSPU branch. By 1906 her mother and sister had both joined her, making London the centre of their organisation.

In 1907 Sylvia Pankhurst spent six months touring Northern England, painting and sketching working women. But, as Dodd points out, she gradually abandoned her art and devoted herself full time to the fight for the vote. This is the period in which she began to contribute to the WSPU journal, Votes for Women. She published articles on the history of women’s fight for the vote and some essays on the conditions of working class women.

These descriptions of working women give you a real insight into Sylvia’s background. They are written from the point of view of a middle class woman. The poverty and degradation of the working women’s lives provokes pity and horror but Sylvia appeals to other middle class women to improve the workers’ lot.

Then the potato pickers rose, and straightened themselves, and came towards me where I sat watching them, and I saw them clearly for the first time. They were poor, miserable creatures, clad in vile, nameless rags, sometimes pinned, sometimes tied round them with other rags or bits of string. There were old, old women, with their skin all gnarled and wrinkled, and their purple lips all cracked. There were young women with dull white sullen faces, many with scars or black bruises round their eyes, and swollen shapeless lips. Their hair was all matted and neglected, and every woman’s eyes were fiery red ... I saw them standing huddled together, these poor, degraded creatures lower than the beasts of the field ... Oh, can it be that we women would have let so many things go wrong in this world, and should we have let it be so hard a place for the unfortunate, if we had had the governing power that men have had? [4]

By 1911–12 Sylvia Pankhurst was travelling all over the country speaking for the WSPU on women’s fight for the vote. The WSPU had ceased to be a group exerting pressure on the ILP. In fact it had gradually moved away from connections with any political party towards militant direct action, involving increasing numbers of upper class, wealthy women. It was not just the vote that was denied women. While working class women suffered both oppression and exploitation as workers, upper class women were denied access to education and the professions simply because of their sex. Sylvia pointed out that ‘opportunities for higher paid employment were severely restricted’. Christabel herself was prevented from becoming a lawyer just because she was a woman. But Sylvia Pankhurst saw the need to involve more than just these wealthy women. She wanted to build a mass movement of women. In 1913 she formed her East London Federation – creating a working class base for the WSPU in the east end of London.

The suffragettes used their militant tactics to win as much publicity as possible to pressurise government. Their campaign of direct action was often spectacular, ranging from mass window smashing to arson. But their tactics meant the women faced constant arrest and Sylvia, like many other women, was hounded by the authorities.

In 1913 the Liberal government introduced their vicious ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ which meant hunger striking suffragette prisoners would be let out of jail for short periods of time to allow them to recover. But they were re-arrested as soon as their strength did recover a little. As a result women’s prison sentences could go on and on. Many women had their health permanently broken. These women were treated with brutality by the state despite the fact that when they were raiding parliament some of their friends and acquaintances would be sitting inside as MPs. In her book The Suffragette Movement Sylvia described the horrors of being force fed in prison:

Presently I heard footsteps approaching, collecting outside my cell. I was strangled with fear, cold and stunned, yet alert to every sound. The door opened – not the doctors, but a crowd of wardresses filled the doorway ... I struggled, but was overcome. There were six of them, all much bigger and stronger than I. They flung me on my back on the bed, and held me down firmly by shoulders and wrists, hips, knees and ankles. Then the doctors came stealing in. Someone seized me by the head and thrust a sheet under my chin. My eyes were shut. I set my teeth and tightened my lips over them with all my strength. A man’s hands were trying to force open my mouth; my breath was coming so fast that I felt as though I should suffocate. His fingers were striving to pull my lips apart – getting inside. I felt them and a steel instrument pressing round my gums, feeling for gaps in my teeth ... Then something gradually forced my jaws apart as a screw was turned; the pain was like having teeth drawn. They were trying to get the tube down my throat. They got it down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything save a mad revolt of struggling, for they said at last: ‘That’s all!’ and I vomited as the tube came up. [5]

In 1914 Sylvia started to publish her paper, the Woman’s Dreadnought. She wrote in the first issue,

The Woman’s Dreadnought is published by the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, an organisation mainly composed of working women, and the chief duty of the Dreadnought will be to deal with the franchise question from the working women’s point of view, and to report the activities of the votes for women movement in East London. Nevertheless, the paper will not fail to review the whole field of the women’s emancipation movement. [6]

Her paper soon addressed other issues – including support for James Connolly and the Irish struggle and the Scottish Shop Stewards Movement. But most significantly Sylvia Pankhurst used her paper to make a stand against the outbreak of the First World War.

The combination of the experience of the fight for the vote and the sharp class conflict which had engulfed Britain from 1910-14 had radicalised Sylvia’s politics, in a period known as the Great Unrest. As George Dangerfield says in his account of the period, The Strange Death of Liberal England, parliamentary democracy was experiencing ‘what looks very like nervous breakdown’. [7] A fearful Lloyd George described how ‘revolt was spreading like foot and mouth disease.’ However, as Sylvia’s ideas developed, so Christabel Pankhurst, who was by now living in Paris, became increasingly right wing in this period. She could no longer stand Sylvia’s association with left wingers and socialists. Sylvia was summoned to Paris and forced out of the WSPU.

Christabel and her mother dropped the fight for the vote to devote all their time to being avid supporters of the First World War, but Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper became a major anti-war publication. In Britain such a stand took great courage. Many other socialists kept their views quiet when faced with the First World War. By 1916 Sylvia had changed the name of the East London Federation of Suffragettes to the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, campaigning for ‘social and economic freedom for the people’. [8] But the event which had the greatest impact on Sylvia Pankhurst’s ideas was the Russian Revolution of 1917. She greeted the revolution with enthusiasm and this was reflected in her paper.

’Our eager hopes are for the speedy success of the Bolsheviks of Russia: may they open the door which leads to freedom for the people of all lands!’ she wrote in 1917. [9] In 1917 she again renamed the paper. Instead of the Woman’s Dreadnought it became the Workers’ Dreadnought. By 1918 Sylvia was promoting the idea of workers’ councils and she set up the People’s Russian Information Bureau. Her efforts made available in Britain the writings of Russian revolutionaries like Lenin, Trotsky and Kollontai, as well as work by the German socialist Clara Zetkin. In 1919 Sylvia was actively working within the ‘Hands Off Russia’ campaign to stop the blockade of revolutionary Russia by Allied troops.

She clearly understood the impact of the revolution on politics in Britain. Here she explains how that revolutionary wave was key in women winning the vote after the First World War: ‘It is interesting to observe that the legal barriers to women’s participation in Parliament and its elections were not removed until the movement to abolish Parliament altogether had received the strong encouragement of witnessing the overthrow of Parliamentary Government in Russia and the setting up of Soviets.’ [10] There is no doubt Sylvia was an important figure in the socialist movement in Britain. She played a part in the negotiations of 1919-20 to form a Communist Party in this country.

To explain Sylvia’s ideas during this period it is necessary to say something about the nature of the left in Britain. The main socialist organisations included sections of the ILP, the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and the Scottish Shop Stewards Movement. All the small Marxist organisations in Britain at this time, with their long history of sectarianism, spent months arguing about fusing to become a Communist Party – along the lines of the Bolshevik Party in Russia. The unity negotiations foundered. Sylvia was not alone when she refused to agree with Lenin’s argument that the new Communist Party should apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. However, unlike today, the Labour Party was then made up of different affiliated groups and organisations.

Although on the surface a great gulf separated the politics and practice of the likes of Willie Gallacher of the Scottish Shop Stewards Movement and Sylvia Pankhurst, both reached the same conclusions on the question of the Labour Party.

Today her rejection of reformism can look very impressive. She argued, ‘The real work for the Socialist revolution must be done outside Parliament’, [11] and wrote in her paper:

The tide of Socialism, bringing all power to the workers, is sweeping over Europe and waves of Socialist thought, of working class longing, are rising to meet it in this country. Webb and those who are holding the reins of power in the Labour Party shrink from it, fearfully trembling. Unconscious lackeys of the capitalist system, instinctively they fear that system’s fall. Is there no spirit in their souls to answer to the call of Socialist fraternity? It seems not. [12]

But her strategy risked not relating to the thousands of workers influenced by the Labour Party. Lenin wrote Left Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder attacking the position of Sylvia and others in Britain. These arguments were not unique to Britain – the same debate was taking place elsewhere in Europe. In 1920 Sylvia travelled to Moscow to attend the Second Congress of the Third International and debated with Lenin.

When the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed Sylvia accepted unity but against the wishes of the leadership she insisted on keeping her own independent paper. In the early years Communist Party members faced arrest and persecution. In October 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested for publishing two articles urging the armed forces to mutiny. She was sentenced to six months imprisonment. A year later she was expelled from the Communist Party for insisting that she continue to edit her paper, the Dreadnought.

Kathryn Dodd’s explanation for her expulsion from the Communist Party is that there was ‘no place for Pankhurst’s vision of an open, democratic, feminist communism in the mainstream movement’. [13] Yet the truth is Sylvia, despite her enthusiasm for the revolution, never developed any real understanding of the need to build a party of the Bolshevik type. Other than workers simply deciding to reject the bosses and their system, there is no sense in this collection of writings of how socialism could be won.

So in June 1920, a year of ruling class offensive and working class retreat in Britain, she wrote in the Workers’ Dreadnought, ‘The capitalist system must be completely overthrown and replaced by the common ownership and workers’ control of the land, the industries of all kinds and all means of production and distribution.’ [14] This shows how Sylvia Pankhurst understood the importance of politics but unfortunately her article does nothing to outline how this can be achieved. Instead she gives her blueprint for socialism – including soviets for households, soviets for urban areas, soviets for towns, soviets for industry, soviets for public health, soviets for education and the national council of soviets. [15] In August 1920 in her paper she even tells an imaginary tale of life under socialism. [16] Yet this was far removed from the possibilities in Britain at this time.

She also failed to understand the pressures on revolutionary Russia, which was by then under siege. The combination of attack by Allied forces and the civil war left the Russian economy in a state of collapse. Industrial production was about a fifth of pre-war production levels. Between the end of 1918 and the end of 1920 epidemics, hunger and cold killed 9 million Russians. Sylvia Pankhurst aligned herself with Alexandra Kollontai and the Workers’ Opposition in the debate on the way forward for Russia. She argued against the New Economic Policy which she saw as a ‘reversion to capitalism’ and questioned the democracy of revolutionary Russia.

But what Sylvia does not make clear in her writing on this period is the way the Bolsheviks encouraged debate at party meetings and in the press. In how many countries would the opposition’s pamphlet outlining their point of view be circulated? This is what happened in 1921 when 250,000 copies of Kollontai’s pamphlet putting the case for the Workers’ Opposition were reproduced. These arguments, and ultimately the defeat of the Russian Revolution, left Sylvia Pankhurst demoralised and isolated. By 1924 she had left the east end of London and in that year the last copy of her paper was produced.

After her break with the Communist Party her political vision narrowed. She no longer writes about transforming society and this collection of her writings gives examples of Sylvia concentrating on issues that she sees as affecting women. [17]

Women over 30 years old won the vote immediately after the First World War but it was not until 1928 that both women and men won the vote from the age of 21. Sylvia Pankhurst argues that since women won the vote much has been gained. But she says, ‘I for one ... I want much more.’ [18] However, when she writes of working class women suffering instead of working women organising themselves to fight for a better life, she returns to making pleas to the high and mighty for reform. This is clearly born of disillusionment: ‘The average woman, who, by the hundred thousand, was enthused 20 years ago with the sense of a social mission, is today concerned merely with her own or her husband’s financial prospects with dress and a round of visits and amusements with no great vistas.’ [19]

It is in this later period that Sylvia actually wrote her own history of the suffragettes – The Suffragette Movement. This is a book which really inspires. It conveys the mood, the excitement and the action of the suffragettes and also shows how the movement radicalised so many women.

During the 1930s her writings are despairing as she witnesses the rise of fascism across Europe. She is sickened by the ruling class reaction to the rise of Mussolini in Italy. [20] But her writings lack any sense of what the solution could be to this horror. They convey her isolation. From the 1930s until her death in 1960 all her energy and enthusiasm went into her campaign against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and later the fight for Ethiopian independence. She gave her support to reactionary monarch Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia.

So how should we judge Sylvia Pankhurst? Her great strength was her ability to agitate and build roots in the working class. Her descriptions of how she built real mass support in her fight for women’s right to vote, but also in other campaigns, is an inspiration. At one point it was impossible for the authorities to even arrest her because literally hundreds of workers in the east end prevented the police laying a hand on her.

There can be no doubt, Sylvia was a talented agitator. Although her actual organisation remained small, she involved many hundreds of working class women in politics. So, for example, one account of Poplarism from 1919 to 1925 makes references to working class women who worked alongside Sylvia Pankhurst in east London. Pankhurst also understood the way a socialist paper was essential to that agitation, although there is no sense of it in this collection. Writing of a meeting about striking miners in South Wales during the First World War she said:

The struggle of the miners was stirring the hearts of the organised workers throughout the country. The South Wales rebels were regarded as the flower of the working class, the standard bearers of the workers against compulsion and profiteering. Wherever I went to speak on these things, I found great audiences thronging the largest halls and gathering in the open air in numbers beyond the reach of a single speaker. When I had spoken, I would jump down from the platform, and thread my way amongst the audience selling our literature. Pennies were eagerly reached out to me; great piles of Dreadnoughts and pamphlets disappeared. I returned to Bow laden with heavy bags of copper. [21]

Sylvia Pankhurst was prepared to be unpopular if that was the cost of sticking to her principles. This was evident in her opposition to the war and her support for the Russian Revolution.

Lenin recognised her importance, as can be seen in the effort he put into winning her to the revolutionary socialist movement. The tragedy is that Sylvia Pankhurst was not won to building a mass revolutionary party in Britain when that opportunity existed. But that is far more than just a personal tragedy. Had the Communist Party of Great Britain been formed in 1918 or 1919, it could have taken advantage of the rising industrial and political struggle. But in 1920–1 the working class were in retreat in the face of a ruling class offensive. The bosses won a series of victories against the engineers, the miners and the rail workers. The combination of the political situation and, importantly, the historical weakness of the left in Britain meant that opportunity was missed.

Her politics can only be understood by looking at the political tradition that existed in Britain at that time. Kathryn Dodd, the collection’s editor, argues that there are parallels between the utopian socialist William Morris and Sylvia Pankhurst which Dodd says explains why Sylvia has been ‘marginalised’. [22]

There is no doubt this political tradition is apparent in Pankhurst’s ideas. She could not ignore the suffering and exploitation of the working class and she saw the desperate need for a very different sort of society. This led her to try and improve workers’ lives both through her welfare work – her nurseries, community restaurants and factories spring to mind. But it also made her fight for a better society.

There is no doubt that after Sylvia Pankhurst’s break with the Communist Party her writing and her political activity reflect the retreat in her politics. But Sylvia Pankhurst’s contribution should not be underestimated. Anyone wanting to know how her ideas changed should take a look at this collection of her work. But you should do more. Her book The Suffragette Movement remains one of the best, if sometimes inaccurate, accounts of the suffragettes you can read.


1. K. Dodd (ed.), A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader (Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 8.

2. Ibid., p. 11.

3. B. Castle, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst (Penguin Books 1987), p. 49.

4. K. Dodd, op. cit., p. 34, 35, 36.

5. S. Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement (Virago 1977), p. 443.

6. K. Dodd, op. cit., p. 48.

7. G. Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (Paladin, 1983), p. 75.

8. K. Dodd, op. cit., p. 77.

9. Ibid., p. 83.

0. Ibid., p. 134.

11. Ibid., p. 88.

12. Ibid., p. 87.

13. Ibid., p. 79.

14. Ibid., p. 100.

15. Ibid., p. 100–104.

16. Ibid., p. 104–108.

17. Ibid., p. 141.

18. Ibid., p. 150.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., p. 126.

21. S. Pankhurst, The Home Front (Hutchinson 1987), p. 224.

22. K. Dodd, op. cit., p. 4.

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