Sylvia Pankhurst by Rachel Holmes review – an inspirational biography

The sorrows and passions of the visionary suffragette and socialist who ‘roused’ London

The memorial mural of Sylvia Pankhurst and the east London suffragettes on the site of the original Women’s Hall in Bow.
Lasting legacy ... the memorial to Sylvia Pankhurst and the east London suffragettes on the site of the original Women’s Hall in Bow. Photograph: Marc Zakian/Alamy
Lasting legacy ... the memorial to Sylvia Pankhurst and the east London suffragettes on the site of the original Women’s Hall in Bow. Photograph: Marc Zakian/Alamy
Sally Alexander

Last modified on Tue 17 Nov 2020 15.12 EST

We remember Sylvia Pankhurst today as the suffragette and socialist who took militant feminism to London’s East End. But, as Rachel Holmes argues in this compelling biography, she was a major political figure of the 20th century who deserves to be better known. Born into a radical liberal family in Manchester in 1882, Pankhurst was one of the political generation who, seeing poverty and injustice everywhere, felt themselves at the end of one era and on the brink of another. She was one of historian Sheila Rowbotham’s “dreamers of a new day”.

A pacifist and internationalist, she supported the Russian Revolution, and was an advocate of soviets over parliamentary democracy. A leading founder of the British Communist party in 1920, she quarrelled with Lenin over the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921. When Lenin wrote “Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder”, Pankhurst was one of his targets.

From 1921, having witnessed the brutalities of Italian fascism on one of her political lecture tours, she campaigned ceaselessly against fascism and for colonial liberation. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, she became an ardent supporter of Ethiopian liberation – “the soul of anti-fascism”. Haile Selassie became a close friend, one of many refugees from fascist Europe and political exiles of the African diaspora who found their way to the “red tea shop” in east London, run by Pankhurst with Silvio Corio, her lover and companion of 30 years and father of their son, Richard, born in 1927.

Corio, an anarcho-syndicalist, was a refugee from fascist Italy, bound to Sylvia by a love of books as well as politics. Their east London home in the 1930s became known as “the village” to many pan-Africanists, communists and freedom fighters who wrote for the Workers’ Dreadnought newspaper, and from 1934 the New Times and Ethiopian News, both edited by Pankhurst and Corio.

She lived the last five years of her life in Addis Ababa, inexhaustible in her work and love for Ethiopia and its ancient civilisation. When she died in 1960, aged 78, her desk was covered with detailed plans for the health and education of Ethiopia’s people, especially its children. An idealist with an eye for practical reform, she always, Holmes writes, sought to “make the future a place we want to visit”. This book digs deep into the sorrows and passions of this complex and creative woman.

In memoirs, Pankhurst always began with her family. She loved and revered her father, Richard, a radical lawyer who lived in Manchester and worked closely with Lydia Becker, the formidable constitutionalist suffragist, on campaigns for married women’s property, education and suffrage. Sylvia made his ethical socialism her moral measure: “If you do not work for others, you will not have been worth the upbringing,” he exhorted her.

From left: Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst in 1911.
From left: Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst in 1911. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

She was in thrall to her parents’ relationship – Emmeline her mother was more than 20 years younger than her husband; beautiful, clever, devoted to his causes – and envious of her elder sister, Christabel, who took precedence in her mother’s heart. Sylvia craved tenderness from Emmeline, but found her absent and withholding. Holmes compounds childhood rage with Sylvia’s anger at her mother and Christabel’s increasingly authoritarian rule over the Women’s Social and Political Union, their support for the first world war and their embrace of Conservatism and evangelical Christianity during the 1920s. “Thinking back through” her mother, to quote Virginia Woolf (Sylvia’s exact contemporary), always roused anguish.

Pankhurst’s suffragette art was full of angels, pipes and woodlands; the dreams and nightmares of her inner world were darker, and poured out of her in words – not least the bleak, writhing images of desolation in the many love letters she wrote to Keir Hardie, friend of her parents and “father” of the Labour party, with whom she had a long affair. In her writings, first-hand descriptions of breast twisting, beatings, hunger striking, force feeding (often through the nose, sometimes anally and vaginally) are distilled and precise. Prison made her a reformer, Holmes points out: “state torture” revealed the limits of liberalism. Carved into her psyche, Pankhurst’s imagery strengthened her resolve, her “rage of militancy”.

The women’s suffrage movement was brilliant at drama and spectacle. Uncorseted, hair undressed, face scrubbed, Pankhurst appeared slender and intense on public platforms – curved like the letter “S”, Silvio wrote to her after a quarrel – as she spoke for between one and three hours. Sent to “rouse” London in 1906 by her mother and sister, she moved east at Hardie’s suggestion, to live among London’s working classes, where dress became masquerade. Norah Smyth, funder of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, always wore a man’s suit; “General” Flora Drummond carried a trumpet. Escaping from prison and police, Pankhurst disguised herself in nurse’s uniform, or as a pregnant mother, newspapers stuffed down her dress. In 1908 Pankhurst filled the front two rows of a Women’s Liberal Federation meeting, addressed by Lloyd George, with women wearing buttoned up overcoats. As stewards and police descended on them for heckling and protesting, the women unbuttoned their coats to reveal prison uniforms beneath.

Pankhurst’s militancy drove her almost to martyrdom. She was imprisoned nine times between January and June 1914 alone, and the effects on her of solitary confinement, hunger- and sleep-strikes (she forced herself to walk her cell until she collapsed) make painful reading. But hers was a reasoning, listening activism. Well-fed, propertied, childless women might be encouraged to endure imprisonment; mothers in poor domestic circumstances could not. Serving on Bow District’s Distress Committee in 1916, she maddened local government officers (including George Lansbury, Labour leader during the 1930s) who used food tickets to encourage good behaviour: a woman should not be refused help, Pankhurst said, because she’d been seen singing while drunk.

Work filled Pankhurst’s thoughts throughout her life, work that needed to be done in the world. “Deeds not words”, was the original WSPU motto, though for her, words were as essential as breathing. To be deprived of writing materials, she wrote after imprisonment for sedition in 1921, was to be deprived of a precious human right.

Eleanor Marx and Rosa Luxemburg were Pankhurst’s heroines, and she was steadfastly socialist and anti-fascist. But feminism was at the heart of her politics. Like other feminists of her time, she campaigned on questions of maternity, sexual violence and domestic labour – which brought in their wake low pay, sweated work and appalling housing and education. Many feminists in the 1920s and 30s made the move to anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, and believed in a “regenerative state”, even as they were forced to rely, as the ELFS was, on private wealth to fund mothers’ clinics or co-operative workshops (enterprises later funded by local authorities or central government). Most feminisms had roots in utopian socialism with its emphasis on all human relations and the transformation of the inner life.

Pankhurst’s 1931 book, The Suffragette Movement, was whisked from my hands as I was wheeled into the labour ward in the 1970s; her Save the Mothers (1930) I could not be without. I share Holmes’s wish for the publication of the collected works. This is a moving, powerful biography of a woman whose desire to connect “with all the world” is an inspiration for our uncertain times.

• Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel is published by Bloomsbury (£35). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.