Despite engendering mixed feelings in many who have studied her, Sylvia Pankhurst was undeniably a woman who got things done. Perhaps most well remembered for her hugely significant role in helping to win UK women the vote, Sylvia was also a dominant campaigner against oppression and injustice further afield.
As part of Pluto Books’ Revolutionary Lives series, Katherine Connelly has produced a fantastically readable and informative biography and study of Sylvia – which refreshingly doesn’t simply focus on her suffrage activities, but also devotes a lot of time to her less well-known activism. And for all the reading around the Pankhursts that I’ve done in recent years, Connelly’s book - Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire - taught me plenty of things I didn’t previously know. Confirming that there is still more to be said on the fascinating and important character of Sylvia Pankhurst.
Most people are acquainted with Sylvia’s role as a suffragette. As the middle daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst (Christabel was elder, and Adela was younger), Sylvia for a long time lived in the shadow of the much adored Christabel. Ultimately, this was to be in Sylvia’s favour as she was more free to go in her own direction without such a close watch from her mother.
When the suffrage campaign simmered down during wartime, Sylvia became separated from her family as she disagreed with their support for the war. Instead, Sylvia opposed the war and set to work to support the women left behind and help those who found themselves in poverty because of the war – particularly fighting for the rights of soldiers’ wives.
In later years. Sylvia became involved with communism and soon evolved into an important figure in the movement, speaking at events worldwide. Finally, Sylvia moved to Ethiopia, where she adopted an anti-British attitude, which led her to be under surveillance by MI5.
Even Sylvia’s son Professor Richard Pankhurst has given this new book his seal of approval, stating: “Katherine Connelly has written an important work on my mother.”
Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire is neatly arranged in hugely informative chapters covering Sylvia’s various different campaigns, and the whole package is gripping and compulsive. It’s an absolute must for anybody looking to find out more about this significant lefty campaigner.
You can listen online to a fascinating talk with Connelly, which she gave at the Bishopsgate Institute about the book. Follow this link.
Click here for more information on the excellent Revolutionary Lives series, which covers some truly remarkable people. One to particularly watch out for is the publication of Ellen Wilkinson’s biography next February.