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date: 24 April 2024

Pankhurst, (Estelle) Sylviafree


Pankhurst, (Estelle) Sylviafree

  • June Hannam

(Estelle) Sylvia Pankhurst (1882–1960)

by Bassano, 1927

Pankhurst, (Estelle) Sylvia (1882–1960), political activist, writer, and artist, was born at 1 Drayton Gardens, Old Trafford, Manchester, on 5 May 1882, the second of five children of Dr Richard Marsden Pankhurst (1835/6–1898), a barrister, and his wife, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), the daughter of Robert Goulden, a prosperous Manchester cotton manufacturer. Sylvia spent her childhood in a household immersed in radical politics and women's rights campaigns. When the family moved to London in 1885 Emmeline and Richard, who had joined the Fabian Society, became involved in a circle of radical and socialist friends and in 1889 helped to form the Women's Franchise League which emphasized the rights of married women. After their return to Manchester in 1893 they joined the recently formed Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1894. Richard Pankhurst stood unsuccessfully as an ILP parliamentary candidate, but Emmeline had greater success in being elected to the Chorlton board of guardians.

Childhood and education

Sylvia's own interest in socialist and feminist politics was influenced by her parents' activities and also by the many well-known speakers and writers who visited the family. In her early years in London she was mainly educated at home, although there was often no governess, and both she and her elder sister Christabel Pankhurst were frequently left to their own devices to develop their literary and artistic talents. Sylvia was later sent to a school in Southport and also attended the Manchester high school. In 1898, at the age of sixteen, she suffered a devastating emotional blow when her father died suddenly from a perforated ulcer. Of all the children she was closest to him and it is likely that his death had a long-lasting effect, in particular in encouraging her steadfast commitment to socialist politics. A more immediate consequence of his death was her mother's need to clear the debts that he had left and to support her family; Emmeline secured a position as registrar for births and deaths and also kept a small shop.

Financial problems did not prevent Sylvia, however, from pursuing her aspirations to become an artist. She won a scholarship to the Manchester Art School, where she studied from 1898 to 1903, and then gained a travel award to the Accademia in Venice. After this she was awarded a scholarship to study for two years at the Royal College of Art in Kensington, where she lived in lodgings in Chelsea. She was frequently lonely but managed to spend alternate Sundays with her brother Harry who was at school in Hampstead. It was also at this point that she became a frequent visitor to the home of Keir Hardie MP, one of the leaders of the ILP whom she had first met as a schoolgirl when he stayed with her parents. They developed a close and intimate relationship which was to last until his death in 1915. During this period Hardie was the most important person in Sylvia's life and he helped her to deal with the emotional turmoil that she felt when she became increasingly estranged from her mother and sister just before the First World War.

The Women's Social and Political Union

Sylvia shared Hardie's socialist beliefs. At the turn of the century she had been involved, along with her mother and Christabel, in the Manchester branch of the ILP. In this same period there was a renewed interest in women's suffrage, in particular among Lancashire textile workers, and the failure of the newly formed Labour Representation Committee (later the Labour Party) to give a commitment to votes for women on the same terms as men led Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst to establish the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 to campaign for women's suffrage. At first members of the WSPU were drawn largely from the ILP and carried out propaganda for both socialism and women's suffrage in the north of England. Sylvia became increasingly involved in the affairs of the WSPU from her base in London where she attempted to combine training as an artist with paid work and political agitation. In 1906, however, she gave up her studies so that she could devote most of her time to the suffrage campaign. In that year she suffered her first imprisonment after protesting in court at a trial in which women had not been allowed to speak in their own defence.

From then onwards Sylvia was always in the thick of the fight. She was arrested and imprisoned on numerous occasions and also suffered hunger and thirst strikes as well as forcible feeding. She gained notoriety at the time for her suffrage militancy and it is for this that she tends to be best remembered in subsequent histories. However, she never saw women's emancipation in isolation from her broader socialist politics and this was to cause tension between herself and Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst who became increasingly hostile to the labour movement. Sylvia's relationship with her mother was made even more strained when Emmeline embarked on an American speaking tour in 1909, leaving her daughters to care for their brother Harry (Henry Francis), born 7 July 1889, who had contracted polio and subsequently died on 5 January 1910.

The East London Federation of Suffragettes

Sylvia remained loyal to the WSPU and its militant methods, but was determined to emphasize the needs of working women and to develop links with broader labour struggles. She was supported in this by her younger sister Adela [see Pankhurst-Walsh, Adela], who was also active in the affairs of the WSPU but never felt comfortable in the organization which she left in 1911. In the following year Sylvia tried to involve more working women in the suffrage movement by campaigning in the East End of London. She supported George Lansbury, the Labour MP for Bow and Bromley, who resigned his seat in 1912 so that he could run again on the single issue of women's suffrage. Although he lost, the excitement generated by the campaign encouraged Sylvia to establish a new organization in 1913, the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF), which was successful in gaining support from working women and also from dock workers. The ELF organized suffrage demonstrations and its members carried out acts of militancy. Between February 1913 and August 1914 Sylvia was arrested eight times. After the passing of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act of 1913 (known as the Cat and Mouse Act) she was frequently released for short periods to recuperate from hunger striking and was carried on a stretcher by supporters in the East End so that she could attend meetings and processions. When the police came to re-arrest her this usually led to fights with members of the community which encouraged Sylvia to organize a people's army to defend suffragettes and dock workers. She also drew on East End traditions by calling for rent strikes to support the demand for the vote.

The ELF took an interest in trade union struggles and in 1913 supported the men and women involved in the Dublin lock-out. Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the main speakers alongside George Lansbury and the Irish socialist James Connolly at a rally organized to demand the release of Jim Larkin, a leader of the Dublin strikers. This was the immediate cause of a split between Sylvia and her mother and sister, although Sylvia was already disillusioned with the way in which militancy had come to focus on individual attacks on property rather than on building a mass struggle. By 1914 the ELF was no longer part of the WSPU; Sylvia established and edited her own newspaper, the Woman's Dreadnought, and also led a deputation of working women from the East End which was received by the prime minister, Asquith. She remained close, however, to Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, who also left the WSPU at this time. They provided Sylvia with financial support for her personal and political endeavours throughout the inter-war years.

War, socialism, and pacifism

The outbreak of war in August of 1914 made Sylvia's break with her mother and Christabel, who were fervent supporters of the war effort, even more complete. Sylvia had strong pacifist convictions and through the ELF initiated anti-war activities in London. She worked with other socialist men and women in opposing conscription and, despite being critical of its timidity and political moderation, she also joined in peace work with the Women's International League. The Dreadnought became one of the best sources for information on peace campaigning at home and abroad and helped to establish Sylvia's reputation as a leading anti-war activist. Sylvia was pulled simultaneously in many different directions as she became involved in social welfare questions as well as peace agitation. She worked closely with Norah Smythe, the daughter of a wealthy Liverpool merchant, who had joined her in the East End before the war, to build up social welfare agencies in the area, including nurseries, baby clinics, and communal restaurants, and tried to draw government attention to the sweated conditions of women workers. The broader aims of the ELF were reflected in its change of name to the Workers' Suffrage Federation in March 1916 as a reaction to the narrow provisions of the Franchise Bill.

As the war went on, however, Sylvia's political outlook became more revolutionary and she began to put less emphasis on the importance of the vote. The Easter rising in Ireland, the Russian Revolution, and the industrial unrest of 1917–19 all helped to develop her revolutionary ideas. In July 1917 she renamed her newspaper the Workers' Dreadnought and in 1918 the Workers' Suffrage Federation became the Workers' Socialist Federation. Sylvia worked on behalf of the Hands Off Russia campaign and visited Russia at the end of the war where she met Lenin. In 1920 she published an article in the Dreadnought, based on information from an English sailor, which discussed growing unrest on an unnamed battleship and which urged sailors to support the red navy. This led to her arrest and imprisonment for refusing to name her sources or to reveal who wrote the article. She spent all but one week of her five-month sentence in the infirmary cell of Holloway prison. She was centrally involved with other revolutionary socialists in the activities which led to the formation of the British Communist Party, but her determination to express her own views as freely as possible led to her expulsion in 1921.

Artist and journalist

During all of these years of campaigning for socialist and women's causes, Sylvia Pankhurst continued to express her ideas in her art and in her writings. One of her first commissions was to decorate the Pankhurst Hall in Manchester, built in memory of her father by the Hightown ILP. She designed the membership card of the WSPU which depicted working-class women, and her ‘trumpeting angel’ was used as a design on banners and letter heads. Her paintings were based on socialist realism or on Pre-Raphaelite allegory derived from Walter Crane and as far as possible she used working women as her subjects. It was difficult for her to combine art and political agitation, however, and she soon gave up her painting, but she remained prolific as a writer. Her journalism and a lecture tour to the United States before the First World War helped to finance her political work. She wrote a series of articles on women's work, including potato-picking and pit-brow employment, for the WSPU newspaper Votes for Women which were based on a year-long journey, starting in the summer of 1907, to the north of England and Scotland. She also contributed numerous articles to the suffrage and the socialist press about the importance of the vote for working women and during the First World War used her journalism to develop ideas about revolutionary communism.

Sylvia Pankhurst wrote books about the movements in which she had been active which were partly historical and partly autobiographical. As one of the earliest chroniclers of the suffrage movement she published The Suffragette (1911) which depicted Christabel as an inspiring leader and legitimated the militant suffrage woman. Her best-known histories were written several years later. The Suffragette Movement (1931) is a lively and vivid account of the militant movement which has been used extensively by historians. Sylvia's judgements on people and events, however, were influenced by her growing commitment to revolutionary politics and by her split with her mother and sister. Christabel was now demonized as an autocratic leader and Sylvia emphasized that the suffrage campaign grew from, and was closely allied to, socialist politics. The same argument is used in the biography of her mother, The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst, written in 1935.

At the end of the First World War Sylvia met Silvio Erasmus Corio (1875–1954), an exile from Italy whose libertarian socialist views and concern with the rise of fascism in his country accorded with her own. They worked together on journalistic projects and in 1924, when Sylvia gave up the Dreadnought, they opened a café. They then moved to Woodford Green in Essex where Sylvia concentrated on her writing and where, in 1927 at the age of forty-five, she gave birth to her only child, Richard Keir Pethick, named after Keir Hardie and the Pethick-Lawrences, who were among the most important people in her life. She had long believed in sexual freedom and, despite pressure from Christabel, lived out her ideas in practice by refusing to marry. During this period she also wrote extensively, commenting on events in India in India and the Earthly Paradise (1926) and arguing for better maternity care in Save the Mothers (1930). Alongside her suffrage histories she also published an account of her wartime experiences in the East End, The Home Front (1932).

Anti-fascism and Ethiopia

During the 1920s Sylvia had helped to assist Italian refugees, but it was in the 1930s that she became more politically active in fighting for peace and against fascism. She joined several women's peace groups and was treasurer of the Women's World Committee against War and Fascism. She also helped Jewish refugees and supported the republican cause in Spain. The issue which was to become central to her political work for the rest of her life, however, was the cause of Ethiopian independence. When Italian fascists invaded Ethiopia in 1935–6 she began a weekly journal, New Times and Ethiopian News, which she edited for twenty years. This publicized the efforts made by Emperor Haile Selassie to persuade the League of Nations to prevent colonization and led to her being dubbed in Ethiopia the Sword of the Press. After the liberation of Addis Ababa by General Orde Wingate she sent the BBC a record of the Ethiopian national anthem. She helped to raise funds to build and equip a hospital, opposed plans to turn Ethiopia into a British protectorate, and supported proposals for unity between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In the early summer of 1936 she was responsible for the creation of an ‘anti-air war memorial’ on land next to her Essex home. This stone edifice (designed and carved by Eric Benfield) was unveiled on 21 June by a group including the secretary of the imperial Ethiopian legation. It was accompanied by a plaque condemning 'those who in 1932 upheld the right to use bombing planes' (P. W., London Review of Books, 23 Aug 2001). This ‘stone bomb’ still stands at Woodford Green, and in the 1980s it became a grade II listed edifice. After Corio died in 1954 Sylvia accepted an earlier invitation from the emperor and moved with her son to live permanently in Ethiopia in 1956. There she helped to found the Social Service Society and edited a monthly periodical, the Ethiopia Observer. She was honoured with the decoration of the queen of Sheba, first class.

Towards the end of her life Sylvia Pankhurst re-established contact with friends from the early suffrage days, including Teresa Billington-Greig, a founder member of the WSPU, who sent a copy of her autobiography to Sylvia for her comments. She had maintained a relationship with her sister Adela, who shared her socialist views, and in the 1950s Sylvia even corresponded once more with Christabel. In 1959 an exhibition of her art was held at the French Institute in London and she willingly contributed material to the organizers. Sylvia died the following year in Addis Ababa, on 27 September 1960. She was regarded so highly in Ethiopia that the emperor ordered that she should receive a state funeral, which was attended by himself and other members of the royal family. She was buried outside Trinity Cathedral in a special plot reserved for the country's heroes. A memorial service was held in London in the Caxton Hall on 19 January 1961.


Although the focus of her activities changed over time, Sylvia Pankhurst supported socialist and revolutionary politics and campaigns for women's political and sexual freedom throughout her life. She was a serious and dedicated campaigner who lacked the glamour of her sister and mother, insisting on wearing unstylish clothes and no cosmetics since she thought that lipstick 'reveals the slave mentality' (Romero, 266). None the less, with her thick sandy hair, heavy lidded eyes, and slender build she was an attractive figure. She could be warm and compassionate, but Jessie Stephen, one of her co-workers in the East End, claimed that she could 'charm when she liked, but at the core was inclined to be as autocratic as her mother and elder sister Christabel' (Winslow, 82).

Sylvia is usually best remembered for her activities as a militant suffragette and for her history of the movement. Her contribution to socialist and revolutionary politics has been taken less seriously, perhaps because she never settled in one particular organization and always expressed independent views. Her arrogance, impatience, and reluctance to compromise also limited her political influence at a personal level. In many biographies emphasis has been placed on the difficulties she faced because her mother always favoured Christabel and because of her father's early death, leading one biographer to claim that her life was driven by 'a succession of dependencies on men' (Romero, 287). Yet recent studies of her politics and re-evaluation of her writings have shown that as an anti-fascist, a socialist, a communist, a peace campaigner, an internationalist, and a feminist Sylvia Pankhurst made an important contribution in her own right to radical politics during the twentieth century. The way in which she put together the different strands of her interests meant that at various times she could be politically isolated, but her lengthy involvement in political life deserves serious consideration.


  • O. Banks, The biographical dictionary of British feminists, 1 (1985)
  • S. Pankhurst, ‘Sylvia Pankhurst’, Myself when young, by famous women of to-day, ed. Countess of Oxford and Asquith (1938), 259–312
  • P. W. Romero, E. Sylvia Pankhurst: portrait of a radical (1987)
  • B. Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst: sexual politics and political activism (1996)
  • K. Dodd, ed., A Sylvia Pankhurst reader (1993)
  • L. Tickner, The spectacle of women: imagery of the suffrage campaign, 1907–14 (1987)
  • R. Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: artist and crusader (1979)
  • I. Bullock and R. Pankhurst, eds., Sylvia Pankhurst: from artist to anti-fascist (1992)
  • P. W., ‘The stone bomb’, London Review of Books (23 Aug 2001)
  • G. Alem-Ayehu, ‘Reflections on the life and work of Sylvia Pankhurst: the Ethiopian dimension’, priv. coll.
  • private information (2004) [S. Ayling]


  • Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, corresp. and papers
  • Women's Library, London, corresp.
  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MSS 56769–56771
  • BLPES, corresp. with the independent labour party
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to David Lloyd George
  • JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian
  • Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester, corresp. with William Gillies
  • State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, corresp. with Ada Lois James
  • Trinity Cam., corresp. with F. W. Pethick-Lawrence


  • BFINA, Shoulder to shoulder, BBC2, 8 May 1974
  • BFINA, Cracking up, Channel 4, 18 Dec 1989
  • BFINA, news footage


  • Mrs A. Broom, group photograph, 1910, NPG; see illus. in Davison, Emily Wilding (1872–1913)
  • photographs, 1913–43, Hult. Arch.
  • H. Cole, chalk drawing, 1925, NPG
  • Bassano, photograph, 1927, NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1935, NPG; repro. in Daily Herald
  • H. Coster, photographs, 1938, NPG
  • I. Walters, two bronze maquettes/sculptures, 2002
  • S. Pankhurst, self-portrait, chalk drawing, NPG
  • photographs, repro. in Romero, E. Sylvia Pankhurst
  • photographs, Women's Library, London

Wealth at Death

£3627 8s. 3d.: administration with will, 22 March 1961, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette

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