Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (5 May 1882 – 27 September 1960) was an English campaigner for the suffragette movement, a prominent left communist and later an activist in the cause of anti-fascism. She spent much of her later life agitating on behalf of Ethiopia, where she eventually moved.

Sylvia Pankhurst
Sylvia Pankhurst (1909)
Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

(1882-05-05)5 May 1882
Died27 September 1960(1960-09-27) (aged 78)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Burial placeHoly Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa
Alma materManchester School of Art
Royal College of Art
OccupationPolitical activist, writer, artist
Partner(s)Silvio Corio
ChildrenRichard Pankhurst
Parent(s)Richard Pankhurst
Emmeline Goulden
RelativesChristabel Pankhurst (sister)
Adela Pankhurst (sister)
Helen Pankhurst (granddaughter)
Alula Pankhurst (grandson)

Early life

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (she later dropped her first forename) was born at Drayton Terrace, Old Trafford, Manchester, a daughter of Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, who both later became founding members of the Independent Labour Party and were much concerned with women's rights.[1] Sylvia and her sisters, Christabel and Adela, attended Manchester High School for Girls, and all three became suffragists.

Sylvia Pankhurst 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, London.[2]


In 1906, Sylvia Pankhurst started to work full-time for the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her sister Christabel and their mother. She applied her artistic talents on behalf of the WSPU, devising its logo and various leaflets, banners, and posters as well as the decoration of its meeting halls.[3] In 1907 she toured industrial towns in England and Scotland, painting portraits of working-class women in their working environments.[4][5] She spent time in Leicester where she was welcomed by Alice Hawkins who she knew through the Independent Labour Party. They were soon joined by Mary Gawthorpe and they established a WSPU presence in Leicester.[6]

In contrast to Emmeline and Christabel, Sylvia retained an affiliation with the labour movement and concentrated her activity on local campaigning. She and Amy Bull founded the East London Federation of the WSPU.[7] Sylvia also contributed articles to the WSPU's newspaper, Votes for Women and, in 1911, she published a propagandist history of the WSPU's campaign, The Suffragette: The History of the Women's Militant Suffrage Movement.[8]

Like many suffragists she spent time in prison, being arrested 15 times while campaigning for the rights of women.[9] Sylvia was aged 24 when she went to prison for the first time. During the period between February 1913 and July 1914 Sylvia Pankhurst, was arrested eight times, each time being repeatedly force-fed. She gave several accounts of her experience of force feeding and time in prison. One such account was written for McClure’s Magazine, a popular American periodical, in 1913.

Sylvia had been given a Hunger Strike Medal 'for Valour' by WSPU.

By 1914, Sylvia had many disagreements with the route the WSPU was taking. It had become independent of any political party, but she wanted it to become an explicitly socialist organisation tackling wider issues than women's suffrage, and aligned with the Independent Labour Party. She had a close personal relationship with the Labour politician Keir Hardie. On 1 November 1913, Pankhurst showed her support in the Dublin Lockout and spoke at a meeting in London. The members of the WSPU, particularly her sister Christabel, did not agree with her actions, and consequently expelled her from the union.[10] Her expulsion led to her founding of the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914 which over the years evolved politically and changed its name accordingly, first to the Women's Suffrage Federation and then to the Workers' Socialist Federation. She founded the newspaper of the WSF, Women's Dreadnought, and employed Mary Phillips to write for it, this subsequently became the Workers' Dreadnought. The federation campaigned against the First World War and some of its members hid conscientious objectors from the police.

First World War

During the First World War Sylvia Pankhurst was horrified to see her mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel become enthusiastic supporters of the war drive and campaign in favour of military conscription. She was opposed to the war, and was publicly attacked in the newly renamed WSPU newspaper Britannia.[11] Her organisation attempted to defend the interests of women in the poorer parts of London. It set up "cost-price" restaurants to feed the hungry without the taint of charity. It also established a toy factory to give work to women who had become unemployed because of the war. she and her comrades also worked to defend the right of soldiers' wives 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.

In 1915, Pankhurst gave her enthusiastic support to the International Women's Peace Congress, held 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 Russian Revolution of February 1917 and Alexander Kerensky's rise to power, journeyed to Russia to advocate against its withdrawal from the war.[12]


The WSF continued to move towards left-wing politics and hosted the inaugural meeting of the Communist Party (BSTI). Workers' Dreadnought published Sylvia Pankhurst's "A Constitution for British Soviets" to coincide with this meeting. In this article she highlighted the potential role of what she called Household Soviets – "In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up."[13]

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, but this unity was short-lived. 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 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 his advice to work with the British Labour Party and was supportive of "left communists" such as Anton Pannekoek.

Partner and son

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[14] 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 mother broke ties with her and did not speak to her again.[15] She went to the grave having refused to reveal the name of Richard's father indicating only that he was 53 and "and old dear friend whom I have loved for years."[9]

Supporter of Ethiopia

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.[16] 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, carrying out research that was published in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History (London: Lalibela House, 1955).[17]

From 1936 MI5 monitored Pankhurst's correspondence.[18] In 1940 she wrote to Viscount Swinton, then chairing a committee investigating Fifth Columnists, and enclosed lists 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."[18]

After the post-war liberation of Ethiopia she became a strong supporter of union between Ethiopia and the former Italian Somaliland, and MI5 continued to follow her activities. In 1948 MI5 considered strategies for "muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst". Pankhurst became a friend and adviser to the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and in 1956 she moved to Addis Ababa with her son Richard at Haile Selassie's invitation. She then founded a monthly journal, Ethiopia Observer, in which she reported on many aspects of Ethiopian life and development.[19][20]


Pankhurst's writing was a significant influence on British documentary filmmaker Jill Craigie and her interest in the suffrage movement.[21]

Death and posthumous recognition

Pankhurst died in Addis Ababa in 1960, aged 78, and received a full state funeral at which Haile Selassie named her "an honorary Ethiopian". She is the only foreigner buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, in a section reserved for patriots of the Italian war.[19]

Her name and picture (and those of 58 other women's suffrage supporters) are on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018[22][23][24] whilst a musical about her life entitled Sylvia premiered at the Old Vic in September the same year.

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)
  • Education of the Masses, The Dreadnought Publishers, (1918)
  • E. Sylvia Pankhurst - Portrait of a Radical, London: Yale University Press (1987)

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
  • Ian Bullock and Richard Pankhurst (eds) Sylvia Pankhurst. From Artist to Anti-Fascist(Macmillan, 1992) ISBN 0-333-54618-0
  • 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. Simkin, John. "Sylvia Pankhurst". Spartacus. Spartacus Educational Ltd. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  2. "Pankhurst, (Estelle) Sylvia (1882–1960)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/37833.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. Winslow, Barbara Winslow (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 409.
  4. Chambers, Emma. "Women Workers of England". Tate Gallery. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  5. "Acquisitions of the month: December 2018". Apollo Magazine. 11 January 2019.
  6. Elizabeth Crawford (2 September 2003). The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928. Routledge. pp. 281–. ISBN 978-1-135-43402-1.
  7. Elizabeth Crawford, ‘Bull , Amy Maud (1877–1953)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 1 Jan 2017
  8. Mercer, John (2007), "Writing and Re-Writing Suffrage History: Sylvia Pankhurst's 'The Suffragette'", Women's History Magazine
  9. "Battler for Women's Rights Sylvia Pankhurst Dies at 78". Toronto Daily Star. 28 September 1960. p. 38.
  10. Bell, Geoffrey (2016). "Sylvia Pankhurst and the Irish revolution". History Ireland. 24: 38–41.
  11. Edmund; Frow, Ruth (1994). The Battle of Bexley Square: Salford Unemployed Workers' Demonstration - 1st October 1931. Salford: Working Class Movement Library. ISBN 978-0-9523410-1-7.
  12. Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (Pluto Press, 1999); ISBN 0-7453-1518-6
  13. Workers' Dreadnought, Vol. VII, No. 13, 19 June 1920.
  14. "Corio, Silvio (1875-1954) aka Crastinus, Qualunque".
  15. Moorhead, Joanna (12 September 2015). "It was like time travel. It reminds you just how courageous the suffragettes were". the Guardian. Retrieved 17 March 2018.
  16. "The Annual General Meeting". The Socialist Doctor. 1 (4). June 1932. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011.
  17. Jeffrey, James (18 June 2016). "Sylvia Pankhurst's Ethiopian legacy". BBC News. Retrieved 17 March 2018.
  18. Communists and Suspected Communists: Sylvia Pankhurst file ref KV 2/1570 Archived 16 September 2009 at,; accessed 13 April 2009
  19. Fifty Years Since the Death of Sylvia Pankhurst, Ethiopians Pay Tribute – Owen Abroad
  20. New Times and Ethiopian News - Oxford Reference. 2007. doi:10.1093/acref/9780192804396.001.0001. ISBN 9780192804396.
  21. Murphy, Gillian E. (8 July 2019). "Jill Craigie and her suffragette film". The International Association for Media and History. Retrieved 11 October 2019.
  22. "Historic statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett unveiled in Parliament Square". 24 April 2018. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  23. Topping, Alexandra (24 April 2018). "First statue of a woman in Parliament Square unveiled". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  24. "Millicent Fawcett statue unveiling: the women and men whose names will be on the plinth". iNews. 24 April 2018. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
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