What would you do if you were treated unfairly and denied your basic social rights? Sylvia Pankhurst stood up and was heard -- not only for her rights, but for those of others.
Born in 1882, Sylvia Pankhurst grew up in the shadow of history’s “radical suffragettes,” the women who, after fighting for the right to vote since the 1870s, felt silenced, lost hope in diplomacy, and so turned to more extreme methods. Sylvia's mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, was one of them. Founder of the British Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), Emmeline was committed to winning woman's suffrage by whatever tactics necessary.
Sylvia, a talented and precocious writer, joined the women’s suffrage movement in 1906, at the age of 24. That’s when she launched the Woman’s Dreadnought journal in which she would write and publish on issues of women’s’ rights for most of her life.
In 1908, Britain's Prime Minister refused women the right to vote… again…. That's when two radical suffragettes hurled rocks at his residence on London's 10 Downing Street. Events quickly spun out of control. Many known suffragettes were rounded up and arrested in retaliation.
Sylvia stood up then to protest the fact that jailed suffragettes were not allowed to give evidence in their defense. This act of social activism landed her in jail as well. In fact, she spent much of her 20s in and out of prison. On each occasion, she was strip-searched, bathed in dirty water, and locked with other women in a bare cell with only a wooden board to lie on.
So Sylvia stood up in protest again, more quietly this time. She communicated the injustice of this treatment by refusing to eat. The response of the government authorities was to force feed her by shoving a metal tube up her nose and down her throat.
Soon after, in 1912, several suffragettes attempted the bomb the Prime Minister's residence while he was away. The result? More arrests. That's when Sylvia became disenchanted with her mother's justification of the use of violence. She also began to question whether the suffragettes were too focused on the needs of middle-class women.
Sylvia was moved by the plight of the working poor. Not only that, she believed that women gaining the right to vote was the best antidote against poverty and therefore benefit women of all classes. She would eventually change the name of her journal from the Woman’s Dreadnought to the Workers' Dreadnought, thus broadening the goals of the women’s suffrage movement.
In 1914, the guns of August roared, marking the beginning of the First World War. In full support of the war against the "German Peril," Emmeline and other WSPU suffragettes marched through the streets pinning white feathers to the shirts of young men not in uniform, shaming them into enlisting and fighting in the trenches.
Sylvia was horrified. A worker's advocate, she believed the war would only benefit the rich. She remained a resolute advocate for peace throughout the conflict, going so far as to hide draft dodgers and conscientious objectors from the police, thus risking more time in prison.
As the "war to end all wars" drew to a close in 1918, most British women gained the right to vote. Finally. But that did not bring an end to Sylvia’s activism. There were other perils to call out and confront.
For the rest of her life, Sylvia stood up to imperialism, colonialism, and hate. In 1936, for example, when fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia under Benito Mussolini during WWII, Sylvia formed a newspaper to cover Italian war crimes. She used the paper to raise awareness of Ethiopian culture in Britain. And she raised money to found a hospital to treat war victims.
The British secret service, MI5, became so suspicious of Sylvia's efforts, in fact, that they spied on her as a way to devise strategies to "muzzle the tiresome Sylvia Pankhurst." In Ethiopia it was a different story. There, she became so popular that at the age of 74 she moved to Addis Ababa, an invited guest of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. She died there four years later, in 1960, and was afforded a full state funeral. She is the only Westerner to be buried among Ethiopia's heroes at the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
"She was an artist who defied convention, devoting her life to achieving votes for all women as well social justice for all people"
- Angela Piddock
In modern terms, being the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst is akin to being the son of Malcolm X. Her mother cast a very wide shadow. But Sylvia made her own mark, too... and then some. Not only did she help to secure the basic right to vote for her and those of her birthright, but she fought for others less fortunate than herself as well, decried war crimes, and stood up to fascism. That’s why she’s a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Our thanks to Angela Piddock of London for nominating her.
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