MY FAVOURITE LONDONER – Sylvia Pankhurst 1882 – 1960

Sylvia Pankhurst 1882 – 1960


I first heard about Sylvia Pankhurst in my British History lessons at school in my home town of Melbourne in 1968. I was 16. My teacher said that as well as campaigning for women’s votes she was a left-wing firebrand. That increased my interest.

I like the way Sylvia combined feminism and socialism, and love her feisty attitude and irreverent style of protest. She is, in my view, much more inspiring than her better-known mother and sister, the suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.

Her most important achievement was contributing to women gaining the vote. She was repeatedly jailed and went on hunger strike 10 times in 1913 and 1914 alone.

But Sylvia also campaigned for equal pay, mother and baby clinics, widow’s pensions, worker’s rights and against unemployment.

She was founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. On a visit to Russia she argued with Lenin over the issues of free speech and censorship.

After urging a socialist revolution in Britain, she was convicted of sedition and imprisoned for five months in 1917.

A passionate anti-fascist, Sylvia 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.

Horrified by Stalin’s purges and the show trials of leading Bolsheviks, she eventually broke with Soviet-style ‘barbed wire’ communism.

As I discovered, there are several similarities between Sylvia and I.

We both started out life pursuing artistic careers. Sylvia 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, in the display and design section of a big department store.

Sylvia fell out with her politically conservative mother and sister. I also had strong disagreements with my right-wing family.

Sylvia despised marriage as a patriarchal institution; scandalising her family by refusing to marry her Italian socialist lover, Silvo Corio. I take a similar view. Although same-sex partners should be entitled to get married if they wish, I would not want to get married. They don’t call it wedlock for no reason!

Sylvia saw the many different struggles for social justice as part of a single process of human liberation. It’s an idea that has influenced my thinking too. We both share revolutionary, anti-establishment ideals and have pursued direct action and civil disobedience to overturn unjust laws.

Indeed, because I based some of my political ideas and campaign tactics on Sylvia’s, my OutRage! colleagues used to nick-name me “Peggy Pankhurst”.

There are no contemporary women rights campaigners who come anywhere near Sylvia’s radicalism and social impact. The women’s movement seems to have done a Rip Van Winkle. Sylvia would berate their complacency. We’ve got more women MPs nowadays but what do they ever do for the liberation of the female sex? Blair’s Babes are just voting fodder for the male-dominated Labour leadership.

If Sylvia was alive now, I suspect she’d be leading a left-wing feminist movement, WomenRage! They’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, and equal representation for women in all leadership positions.

To this end, she would probably endorse the call for electoral reform to create two-member constituencies, where every electorate would be required to vote for a male and a female MP. It is the only sure way to end women’s under-representation in parliament.

Because of her commitment to internationalism, Sylvia would also be prominent in the green, anti-war, human rights and anti-globalisation movements, and support the campaign to cancel Third World debt.

The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee is lobbying for a bronze statue of Sylvia on College Green, opposite the Houses of Parliament.  Designed by Ian Walters, it depicts Sylvia walking over ground strewn with placards – an emblematic depiction of a woman whose many protests helped advance the struggles for social justice, feminism, human rights and anti-imperialism.

* Peter Tatchell is a member of the Green Party and the queer rights group OutRage!

** An edited version of this article appeared in Time Out London, 28 January-2 February 2005.