Sylvia Pankhurst - suffragette, socialist and anti-imperialist

By Philippa Clark, for the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee

Readers of The Socialist Correspondent will be familiar with Sylvia, the socialist suffragette, however in the minds of many she is simply one of the Pankhurst women fighting for the right to vote. Sylvia wrote the definitive history of the suffragette movement yet this was only one aspect of her lifelong activism.

Trained as an artist, whilst painting and so documenting working class women in factories, mills and potteries she wrote: “Mothers came to me with their wasted little ones. I saw starvation look at me from patient eyes. I knew then that I should never return to my art.” She was a fearless campaigner – imprisoned and force-fed many times fighting for votes for women. She was one of the earliest to speak out against fascism and was criticised by Mussolini. Sylvia’s son, Richard wrote “the Germans placed my mother’s name on the list of persons to be ‘arrested forthwith’ in the event of a Nazi occupation of Britain.”

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 led to her devoting her life to the liberation of that country, which eventually became her home. Sylvia understood the significance of Ethiopia in the struggle for the freedom of black Africa and this led to her connecting with black, pan-African activists including CLR James, Jomo Kenyatta and WEB du Bois. Prescient in her anti-racism she employed Britain’s first black journalist, Jamaican revolutionary poet Claude McKay to write for her paper, Workers’ Dreadnought. Another poet, Siegfried Sassoon was also a contributor, sharing Sylvia’s opposition to the 1914-18 war.

She was expelled by her sister Christabel (endorsed by her mother Emmeline) from the Women’s Social and Political Union because of her socialism, including her support for trade unions. Sylvia is not represented on the memorial to them and the women imprisoned during the campaign for women’s suffrage in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent to the House of Lords, hence the campaign to raise A Statue for Sylvia. The Lords blocked our original site opposite the Palace of Westminster. We were refused any Government funding available to celebrate the centenary of the limited franchise of women in 1918. Rachel Holmes, author of the recent Sylvia Pankhurst, Natural Born Rebel wrote “Sylvia was a socialist and an internationalist – and no doubt far too rich for the blood of those running Britain right now.”

Overwhelmingly the statue is financed by donations from trade union branches and individuals.

With great support from Islington Council the statue of Sylvia will be raised on Clerkenwell Green in London (dubbed the headquarters of republicanism, revolution and ultra-nonconformity) and will look towards the Marx Memorial Library. An excellent site.

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Contact us 01479 851 306 or 07952 771 451 and

Cheques should be made payable to “SERTUC (Sylvia Pankhurst)” and sent to Megan Dobney, 26 Birchanger Road, London SE25 5BB

The maquette of the statue can be seen in the Marx Memorial Library. The full-size statue is cast in bronze and awaits finishing and patination at the foundry. Sculptor: Ian Walters