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Sylvia Pankhurst

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

Early life

She was born in Manchestermarker, a daughter of Dr. Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, members of the Independent Labour Party and much concerned with women's rights. She and her sisters attended the Manchester High School for Girlsmarker. Her sister, Christabel, would also become an activist.

In 1906, she started to work full-time with the Women's Social and Political Union with her sister and her mother. In contrast to them she retained her interest in the labour movement.


Pankhurst protesting against the English policy in India, at Trafalgar Square, 1932.
In 1914 she broke with the WSPU, an organization led by her mother and her sister, 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 organized against the war, and some of its members hid conscientious objectors from the police.


The group continued to move leftwards and briefly adopted the name Communist Party , although in fact it was not the recognized section. The CP(BSTI) was opposed to parliamentarism, in contrast to the views of the newly founded Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The CP(BSTI) soon dissolved itself into the larger, official Communist Party. This unity was to be 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.

Pankhurst by this time adhered to left or council communism. She was an important figure in the communist movement at the time and attended meetings of the International in Russiamarker and Amsterdammarker and also 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.

Partner and son

Pankhurst objected to entering into a marriage contract and taking a husband's name. At about the end of the First World War, she began living with Silvo Corio, who was an Italian anarchist, and moved to Woodford Greenmarker for over 30 years. A blue plaque and Pankhurst Green opposite Woodford tube stationmarker commemorate her link to the area. In 1927 she gave birth to a son, Richard. As she refused to marry the child's father, her own mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, broke with her and did not speak to her again.

Supporter of Ethiopia

In the mid-1920s, 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. 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 Ethiopiamarker'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, MI5marker kept a watch on Pankhurst's correspondence. 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 MI5marker's file carries a note in Swinton's hand reading "I should think a most doubtful source of information."

After the post-war liberation of Ethiopia, she became a strong supporter of union between Ethiopia and the former Italian Somaliland, and MI5's file 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 followed a consistently anti-British stance. She moved to Addis Ababamarker at Haile Selassie's invitation in 1956, with her son, Richard, (who continues to live there), and founded a monthly journal, Ethiopia Observer, which reported on many aspects of Ethiopian life and development.

She died in 1960, and was given a full state funeral at which Haile Selassie named her 'an honorary Ethiopian'. She is the only foreigner buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedralmarker in Addis Ababa, in the area reserved for patriots of the Italian war.

Writings (selection)

  • The Home Front (1932; reissued 1987 by The Cresset Library) ISBN 0-09-172911-4
  • Soviet Russia as I saw it (London, 1921)
  • The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (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

Secondary literature

  • Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst (Pluto Press, 1999) ISBN 0-7453-1518-6
  • 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, Calif.: Tsehai, 2003) London: Global
  • Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst, A Crusading Life 1882–1960 (Aurum Press, 2004)
  • 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 (Penguin Books, 2002)
  • Patricia W. Romero, E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Portrait of a Radical (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987)
  • Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996) ISBN 0-312-16268-5

See also


  1. Communists and suspected communists: Sylvia Pankhurst, file ref KV 2/1570 at (accessed 13 April 2009)

External links

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