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Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst
Sylvia Pankhurst (1909)
Born Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst
5 May 1882
Old Trafford, Manchester
Died 27 September 1960 (aged 78)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  • Political activist
  • Writer
  • Artist
Partner(s) Silvio Corio

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (5 May 1882 – 27 September 1960) was an English campaigner for the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom. She was for a time a prominent left communist who then devoted herself to the cause of anti-fascism.


  • Early life 1
  • Suffragism 2
  • First World War 3
  • Communism 4
  • International Auxiliary Language Movement 5
  • Partner and son 6
  • Supporter of Ethiopia 7
  • Death 8
  • Writings (selection) 9
  • Secondary literature 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

Early life

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (she would later drop the first forename) was born in Manchester, a daughter of Dr. Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, members of the Independent Labour Party and (especially Emmeline) much concerned with women's rights. She and her sisters attended the Manchester High School for Girls. Her sisters, Christabel and Adela, were also suffragists. She trained as an artist at the Manchester School of Art, and, in 1900, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington.[1] In 1907, she toured the industrial towns of the North of England and in Scotland painting working class women in their work environment.[2]


Pankhurst protesting against British policy in India, at Trafalgar Square, 1932.

In 1906, Sylvia Pankhurst started to work full-time with the Independent Labour Party.

She had a close personal relationship with anti-war Labour politician Keir Hardie. In 1914, she broke with the WSPU to set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), which over the years evolved politically and changed its name accordingly, first to Women's Suffrage Federation and then to the Workers' Socialist Federation. She founded the newspaper of the WSF, Women's Dreadnought, which subsequently became the Workers' Dreadnought. It organised against the war, and some of its members hid conscientious objectors from the police.

First World War

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910.

During the First World War, Sylvia was horrified to see her mother, Emmeline, and her sister, Christabel, become enthusiastic supporters of the war drive and campaigning in favour of military

She worked to defend soldiers' wives rights to decent allowances while their husbands were away, both practically by setting up legal advice centres and politically by running campaigns to oblige the government to take into account the poverty of soldiers' wives. She supported the International Women's Peace Congress, held in 1915 at The Hague. This support lost her some of her allies at home and contrasted sharply with the stance of her sister Christabel, who following the February 1917 Russian Revolution and Alexander Kerensky's rise to power, journeyed to Russia to advocate against its withdrawal from the war.[4]


The WSF continued to move leftwards and hosted the inaugural meeting of the [5]

The CP(BSTI) was opposed to parliamentarism, in contrast to the views of the newly founded British Socialist Party which formed the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in August 1920. The CP(BSTI) soon dissolved itself into the larger, official Communist Party. This unity was short-lived and when the leadership of the CPGB proposed that Pankhurst hand over the Workers Dreadnought to the party she revolted. As a result, she was expelled from the CPGB and moved to found the short-lived Communist Workers Party. By this time, she was an adherent of left communism or council communism. She attended meetings of the Communist International in Russia and Amsterdam, and those of the Italian Socialist Party. She disagreed with Lenin on important points of Communist theory and strategy and was supportive of "left communists" such as Anton Pannekoek.

International Auxiliary Language Movement

Pankhurst also applied her energies to the consideration of a satisfactory International Auxiliary Language. To this end, she wrote and published a monograph on the topic in which she considers the history of the movement, historical and contemporary attempts at creating a non-national interlanguage and delves into the issues of how the ideal interlanguage should look, what conditions it should satisfy and how it should be implemented.

Partner and son

Sylvia Pankhurst objected to entering into a marriage contract and taking a husband's name. Near the end of the First World War, she began living with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio[6] and moved to Woodford Green, where she lived for over 30 years. A blue plaque and Pankhurst Green opposite Woodford tube station commemorate her ties to the area. In 1927, at the age of 45, she gave birth to a son, Richard. As she refused to marry the child's father, her own mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, broke ties with her and did not speak to her again.

Supporter of Ethiopia

Pankhurst's grave

In the early 1930s, Pankhurst drifted away from communist politics, but remained involved in movements connected with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism. In 1932, she was instrumental in the establishment of the Socialist Workers' National Health Council.[7] She responded to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by publishing The New Times and Ethiopia News from 1936, and became a supporter of Haile Selassie. She raised funds for Ethiopia's first teaching hospital and wrote extensively on Ethiopian art and culture; her research was published as Ethiopia, a Cultural History (London: Lalibela House, 1955).

From 1936, MI5 monitored Pankhurst's correspondence.[8] In 1940, she wrote to Viscount Swinton as the chairman of a committee investigating Fifth Columnists, sending him a list of active Fascists still at large and of anti-Fascists, who had been interned. A copy of this letter on MI5's file carries a note in Swinton's hand reading "I should think a most doubtful source of information."[8]

After the post-war liberation of Ethiopia, she became a strong supporter of union between Ethiopia and the former [9][10]


She died in Addis Ababa in 1960, aged 78, and received a full [9]

Writings (selection)

  • The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement, London: Gay & Hancock (1911)
  • The Home Front (1932; reissued 1987 by The Cresset Library) ISBN 0-09-172911-4
  • Soviet Russia as I saw it, Workers' Dreadnought (16 April 1921)
  • The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (1931; reissued 1984 by Chatto & Windus)
  • A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader, ed. by Kathryn Dodd, Manchester University Press (1993)
  • Non-Leninist Marxism: Writings on the Workers Councils (includes Pankhurst's "Communism and its Tactics"), St. Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers (2007) ISBN 978-0-9791813-6-8
  • Delphos or the Future of International Language (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. (1920s)

Secondary literature

  • Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: Artist and Crusader, An Intimate Portrait (Virago Ltd, 1979), ISBN 0-448-22840-8
  • Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: Counsel for Ethiopia (Hollywood, CA: Tsehai, 2003) London: Global Publishing ISBN 0972317228
  • Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst, A Crusading Life 1882–1960 (Aurum Press, 2003) ISBN 1854109057
  • Sylvia Pankhurst, The Rebellious Suffragette (Golden Guides Press Ltd, 2012) ISBN 1780950187
  • Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst, Citizen of the World (Hornbeam Publishing Ltd, 2009), ISBN 978-0-9553963-2-8
  • Barbara Castle, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst (Penguin Books, 1987), ISBN 0-14-008761-3
  • Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family (Penguin Books, 2002) ISBN 0099520435
  • Patricia W. Romero, E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Portrait of a Radical (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987) ISBN 0300036914
  • Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996); ISBN 0-312-16268-5

See also


  1. ^ (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^
  3. ^ Mercer, John (2007), "Writing and re-writing suffrage history: Sylvia Pankhurst's 'The Suffragette'", Women's History Magazine
  4. ^ Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (Pluto Press, 1999); ISBN 0-7453-1518-6
  5. ^ Workers' Dreadnought, Vol. VII, No. 13, 19 June 1920.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Communists and suspected communists: Sylvia Pankhurst file ref KV 2/1570,; accessed 13 April 2009
  9. ^ a b Fifty years since the death of Sylvia Pankhurst, Ethiopians pay tribute – Owen abroad
  10. ^ New Times and Ethiopian News – Oxford Reference

External links

  •, a comprehensive information resource about Sylvia Pankhurst from Hornbeam Publishing Limited, sponsored by the UK Heritage Lottery Fund
  • Sylvia Pankhurst biography,; accessed 4 April 2014
  • Sylvia Pankhurst Archive,; accessed 4 April 2014
  • Archival material relating to Sylvia Pankhurst listed at the UK National Archives
  • Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst papers archived the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam
  • Application for naturalisation of Mrs Margarethe Morgenstern and her husband Erwin, including written plea from Pankhurst
  • "Communism or Reforms" at the Wayback Machine (archived 27 October 2009), two articles by Pankhurst and Anton Pannekoek, first published in the Workers Dreadnought in 1922; first published as a pamphlet in 1974 by Workers Voice, a Liverpudlian Communist group.
  • Three pamphlets detailing the work of Sylvia Pankhurst as an anti-Bolshevik Communist, "Anti-Parliamentarism and Communism in Britain, 1917–1921" by R.F. Jones, Anti-Parliamentary Communism: The Movement for Workers Councils in Britain, Class War on the Home Front
  • Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible – A documentary that chronicles the life and political campaigns of Sylvia Pankhurst and includes an exclusive interview with her son Richard Pankhurst and his wife Rita. The accompanying website includes images of a large number of security files held on Pankhurst, from the collection at the National Archives.
  • Profile,; accessed 4 April 2014
  • Profile, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University)
  • "I Was Forcibly Fed" by Sylvia Pankhurst, McClure's (August 1913)
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