Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) was a socialist feminist who, during the campaign for women’s suffrage at the turn of the 20th century, braved the horrors of hunger striking and forcible feeding, and also founded and built a remarkable women’s organisation in the East End of London. This group, the East London Federation of Suffragettes, was composed of working class women who campaigned for the vote and for social change in the period 1912-1920.
Their weekly paper The Women’s Dreadnought (later, The Worker’s Dreadnought), owned and edited by Sylvia, had an enviably high circulation and was influential outside London. Sylvia’s strategy, which linked class and gender, did not find favour with the most famous of the suffragette organisations, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), to which she belonged and to which the East London Federation was affiliated. The WSPU (popularly known as the Suffragettes) was founded in 1903 and led by Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia’s mother and older sister respectively. Sylvia was expelled by them from the WSPU in 1914.
The WSPU abandoned its early links with the labour movement in 1907 and in 1914, with the outbreak of World War One, it abandoned the suffrage campaign itself. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst ardently supported the war effort and urged all women to do the same. Sylvia did not take their advice. Her organisation was one of the very few to maintain the fight for the vote (its first instalment was granted in 1918).
Sylvia Pankhurst was a pioneer in other ways. Apart from the fact that during her long and active life she founded and edited four newspapers, wrote and published 22 books and pamphlets and countless articles, she was a founder and activist in a variety of women’s, labour movement and international solidarity organisations. She was a deeply committed anti-racist and anti-fascist and involved for over 30 years in campaigning on such issues, which included the cause of Ethiopia - the country which became her home for the last four years of her life and in which she was buried, in 1960. She got a state funeral.