Yesterday a friend told me some pretty bleak stories about the famous suffragette family, the Pankhursts. The head honcho of the Pankhurst bunch was Emmeline, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Britain, and was a key figure in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She had a bunch of daughters who also grew up into activists of various kinds.
One of the Pankhurst offspring was Sylvia, who was pretty radical. She rallied against the first world war (when so many were in favour of it, including her family), and, like her mother was part of the WSPU fighting for women’s rights.
But while Sylvia was trying to broaden the struggle, her mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel were taking the women’s suffrage movement in a different direction. Emmeline stated that members of the WSPU should focus on fighting for women’s rights alone and not be distracted by other social issues.
In 1912 Sylvia started the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) as part of the WSPU, specifically targeted at empowering and fighting for the rights of working women. Much to Emmeline and Christabel’s dismay, the East London group also supported broader trade union struggles and the fight for Irish independence. During this time, Sylvia was arrested on a number of occasions, often subject to the “Cat and Mouse Act” where police officers would release suffragettes who were on hunger strike, wait until they were healthy again, and then arrest them once more.
Fed up with her sister, Christabel summoned Sylvia to visit her in Paris in 1914. Sylvia had a bad time. This is pretty much exactly how the scene went down:
Christabel told Sylvia that working women ought not be involved in the fight: “Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!” Sylvia later commented that the expulsion left her feeling “bruised, as one does, when fighting the foe without, one is struck by the friend within”.
Eventually Sylvia was vindicated in her views on working women, who were key. In 1914 the WSPU stopped fighting for the vote, and instead turned their efforts to campaigning for the conscription of men in the war. However, the ELFS continued the fight. In 1928 full suffrage for women was won in the UK.
Sylvia kept up her activism and was involved in various anti-fascist and anti-imperial campaigns, and eventually moved to Ethiopia. Christabel campaigned against men spreading venereal diseases, and became a televangelist in California. The Pomeranian was sent to live with Emmeline, and things did not end well.