Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel 
by Rachel Holmes.
Bloomsbury, 976 pp., £35, September 2020, 978 1 4088 8041 8
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On​ 18 June 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst was released from Holloway prison. She was in bad shape. A year earlier the Liberal government had passed the so-called Cat and Mouse Act as a response to the hunger strikes undertaken by militant suffragettes in prison. Under its terms, women could be released when they became dangerously weak (not just from hunger, but also from the travails of force-feeding), and then rearrested, released and rearrested, over and over, until they had served the whole of their sentences. Pankhurst came late to this refined and punctuated torture: by the time she was first force-fed, in February 1913, militant suffragettes had been hunger-striking and enduring force-feeding for almost four years. But once she was enlisted, no one could match her commitment. If the prison authorities would mortify her flesh, she would mortify it still more, pacing her cell ceaselessly and forgoing not just food but also water and sleep in order to hasten the physical collapse that would bring her liberty.

But what was freedom, if women were everywhere in chains? On her release that June day, Pankhurst had her supporters carry her to the entrance to the Strangers’ Gallery of the House of Commons. She lay down on the pavement, announcing that she would continue her hunger and thirst strike there, until such a time as Asquith, the prime minister, agreed to receive a deputation from her East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), the working-class women’s organisation that had broken away (or been cut off) from the militant mothership controlled by Emmeline, Pankhurst’s mother, and her sister Christabel. ‘I feel it is my duty to take this course,’ Pankhurst informed Asquith, ‘and I shall not give way, although it may end in my death.’ On 20 June, the front page of the Woman’s Dreadnought, the weekly newspaper Pankhurst had begun publishing a few months earlier, carried her shawl-clad, Madonna-like photograph under the banner headline ‘IS SHE TO DIE?’

Asquith, no fool, had already decided she would not. He agreed to meet Pankhurst’s deputation within hours of her pavement protest. And so on 20 June, half a dozen female brushmakers and housewives journeyed from Whitechapel to Westminster to tell the prime minister just why the vote would better their lives. In her classic history, The Suffragette Movement (1931), Pankhurst portrayed that deputation as the breakthrough, speak-truth-to-power moment that finally shattered Asquith’s adamantine hostility to the women’s cause. Plenty of historians have subsequently disagreed. After all, Asquith told Pankhurst merely that if suffrage was to be extended it could only be on ‘democratic’ lines – which was what he’d been saying for years. It was exactly the excuse he gave in 1911 when he torpedoed a painfully crafted ‘Conciliation Bill’ which would have added roughly a million women to an electorate of eight million men. But historians have always had trouble competing with the drama and I-was-there authority of Pankhurst’s account.

Sylvia Pankhurst seems a heroine for our times. She is, after all, the Pankhurst who joined the family project of building a militant suffrage movement but then – unable to stomach her mother and sister’s separatism and authoritarianism – moved to the East End to run her own socialist and feminist offshoot. Radicalised by the First World War and the Russian Revolution, she steered that organisation towards international communism, but – unhappy with Lenin’s insistence on parliamentarism and party discipline – was in short order expelled from the British Communist Party she had helped to found. She then threw herself into a range of anti-imperialist and anti-fascist causes, and spent the last third of her life writing literally millions of words defending the independence of Ethiopia, the country where she was most honoured and which became her adopted home. In her ability to see connections between forms of oppression, in the integrity of her principles and the breadth of her sympathies, she appears to have been, as her granddaughter Helen Pankhurst put it, ‘what we would now call an intersectional feminist’.

Rachel Holmes’s new biography of Pankhurst rightly gives equal weight to the three great causes – feminism, left internationalism and anti-imperialism – to which Pankhurst devoted her life. Almost a thousand pages long, and weighing in at three and a half pounds, it is clearly intended to be the definitive Life. Disappointingly, it isn’t. It is digressive, repetitive, and rife with typographical and factual errors, but that isn’t the main problem. Nor does it matter that Holmes so thoroughly admires Pankhurst’s politics, for biography is often driven by identification: why else would Roy Jenkins choose to write about Asquith, Conor Cruise O’Brien about Edmund Burke, Michael Foot about Aneurin Bevan, E.P. Thompson about William Morris and (ridiculously) Boris Johnson about Winston Churchill? The problem is rather that identification has led Holmes to echo, rather than analyse and explain, Pankhurst’s own version of her story. The first two-thirds of the book are based almost exclusively on Pankhurst’s writings, but without enough attention to the cultural tropes, political imperatives and psychological needs that shaped them. The result is a flattened and surprisingly naive account of a woman whose personal journey was painful and whose happiness in later life hard won.

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was born in Manchester in 1882 to Richard Pankhurst, a radical barrister, and Emmeline Goulden, his stylish, much younger wife. A second child, she would always claim that her pretty elder sister, Christabel, got the lion’s share of attention – though, amusingly, the third daughter, Adela, who was sent out of the way to Australia during the suffrage fight, said later that Christabel and Sylvia were equally favoured and she was the one left short (her brothers, both of whom died young, had the best claim to that dubious distinction). Richard and Emmeline were staunch supporters of women’s rights, but the family moved too much – around Manchester and then, for a time, to London – to send the children regularly to school. Instead, much like the Brontë and Alcott broods, the children educated themselves, writing a family paper and listening in when London’s radical intelligentsia (the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, the Communard Louise Michel, the Fabian Annie Besant, and a host of suffragists and socialists) talked politics at their house on Russell Square. Emmeline started a business selling Arts and Crafts soft furnishings and decorations, but it absorbed rather than made money. In 1892, broke but unbowed, the family went back north and the children, finally, went to school.

Sylvia flourished more than Christabel, showing a talent for drawing and decoration that won her scholarships to the Manchester School of Art and, later, to the Royal College of Art, as well as a travelling studentship that took her to Italy. But her father’s death in 1898 was a serious blow, causing financial hardship for the whole family and emotional turmoil for Sylvia, who always cast herself as his heir. In her unpublished autobiographical sketches, she recalled his chilling charge – ‘If you do not work for others you will not have been worth the upbringing’ – and the dreadful thing is that she thought it was fine to say this to a child. Unsurprisingly, she would measure her every action against an impossible standard and develop a painful penchant for renunciation.

Her artistic career was one such sacrifice, though for a decade she tried to reconcile social service and art. Emmeline and Christabel founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester in 1903, but Sylvia was an art student in London from 1904, and it wasn’t until the organisation adopted militancy and moved to London in 1906 that she was drawn deeply into its work. Even so, while she did her share of organising meetings and chalking pavements, her most memorable contributions came from her paints and her pen. In 1907, she travelled through the Black Country, the Potteries and the industrial North sketching women bobbin minders and laundresses, potters and chainmakers. (The evocative pieces recently acquired by Tate Britain are from these tours.) The WSPU’s striking visual iconography and decorations – banners and brooches, decorated tea sets and membership cards – were her work too, as was the movement’s first history, The Suffragette, published in 1911. But the book took time – and so did the two American speaking tours, each of them lasting three months, that she undertook in 1911 and 1912 (and to which Holmes devotes three chapters and 55 interminable pages). By this point, her artistic work had been pushed aside.

What replaced it was the ELFS. Loyalty to her father had kept Pankhurst’s socialism strong, but so too did her encounter with the labour movement in America, and her relationship with Keir Hardie, leader of the Independent Labour Party (and her parents’ old friend), which lasted, in some form or other, from 1904 until his death in 1915. Hardie was married and more than twice Pankhurst’s age, nor was she his only extramarital entanglement. But the relationship appears to have been loving, companionate and in some manner sexual. The two wrote regularly, especially during Pankhurst’s American travels. Holmes calls these letters ‘sexually explicit’, but none of the hearts-and-flowers lines she quotes would bring a blush to the cheek of a young person: Hardie calls Sylvia his ‘little sweetheart’; they miss each other’s kisses and encircling arms. Pankhurst’s unpublished fictions are a better guide to their relationship, but these too reveal a sensibility that was ultimately Victorian. In ‘Noah Adamson’, for example, the Hardie figure is described as a man of great ability ‘condemned to great loneliness of spirit through the inability of the woman he married in early youth to rise with him’ – that is, his wife wasn’t good enough for him, poor man, surely the oldest of the excuses women make for male philandering. This is not the world in which Lytton Strachey walks into a drawing room, sees a stain on Vanessa Bell’s skirt, and says: ‘Semen?’

By the prewar years, Pankhurst was too tied up with her East End movement to spend much time with Hardie anyway. She moved there with two staunch female friends – the American radical Zelie Emerson and the composer Ethel Smyth’s niece Norah (who would use up a good portion of her fortune keeping Pankhurst and her causes afloat). The federation drew on East London’s long-standing radical and sexually egalitarian networks and was self-consciously progressive. In sharp contrast to the WSPU, the ELFS permitted male members, supported local trade union campaigns, and – when militant tactics like window-breaking landed Pankhurst and others in jail – built up a ‘People’s Army’ to protect the federation’s ‘mice’ from the government ‘cat’. This was a boisterous street-based movement – the Woman’s Dreadnought listed dozens of outdoor meetings each week.

In The Suffragette Movement, Pankhurst told the story of the federation’s break with the WSPU as a family drama – a struggle between herself and Christabel (now running the WSPU from exile in Paris) over the movement’s strategy and their mother’s soul. She disliked the turn away from popular protest towards arson and property damage; she also wanted the WSPU to ally with Labour, as – albeit mostly for strategic reasons – the constitutionalist National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was doing. She lost this argument: the WSPU remained non-party and women only, losing supporters as it bombed letterboxes and torched country houses. (Holmes doesn’t tell us this, but it was the National Union and not the locally based ELFS which profited from this decline, growing to six hundred chapters by 1914.) But Pankhurst’s bitterness was personal as much as political, rooted in her resentment of her sister’s hold over their mother – who, she thought, had been seduced away from the socialist commitments she had once shared with her husband by Christabel’s vanity, authoritarianism and social-climbing.

There is more to be said here, of course; in family quarrels, one side is rarely right. Emmeline did defer to Christabel’s strategic leadership, but she had Sylvia’s photograph on her bedside table in these years, when she and her second daughter (but not Christabel) were in and out of prison. In addition, the WSPU, if hardly democratic, was not exactly an autocracy: individual adherents and organisers exercised much initiative, and militant tactics bubbled up from below. Even Holmes (who follows Sylvia’s line) acknowledges that The Suffragette Movement was written more than fifteen years after these events, when family factionalism was at its worst – after Sylvia had denounced Emmeline’s decision to contest a parliamentary seat for the Conservatives; after Sylvia, heavily pregnant, was turned away from her mother’s door; after Sylvia publicised her delivery of an out-of-wedlock ‘eugenic baby’ to the News of the World; and after Emmeline had denounced Sylvia’s conduct in turn. Emmeline died in 1928, and Christabel moved to America. The two sisters would not speak for almost thirty years.

Bythe time of that estrangement, Pankhurst had lived through a whirlwind. When the war broke out, the ELFS, like the huge National Union, threw itself into social work. Backed by wealthy subscribers, it opened a clinic, nursery and Montessori school, ran a cost-price restaurant, and set up workshops for women thrown out of work by the early dislocations of the war. But Pankhurst was already at odds with militarism, and Hardie’s outspoken opposition (‘I would rather see my two boys put up against a wall and shot than see them go to the war’) and resulting ostracism aroused her indignation. In a memoir written much later, she recalled that she ‘suffered acutely … having to tell parents whose sons were at the front that the war was wrong and its ideals false’, but that she ‘could not permit such matters to influence me’. By 1916, she was speaking against the war at rallies across the country, including one in April in Trafalgar Square that attracted twenty thousand people.

This was not a popular position, and the ELFS was bleeding supporters and members. The organisation had an impeccably democratic constitution, but it was in thrall to Pankhurst’s charisma; members uncomfortable with her pacifism left rather than challenge her. In March 1916, it became the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, with the aim of winning votes for all as well as ‘social and economic freedom’; two years later it rebranded again as the Workers Socialist Federation, committed to international socialism and an end to capitalism and parliaments. In 1920, it declared itself the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). Driving this last transformation, of course, was the Russian Revolution. Pankhurst spoke in support of the Bolsheviks and turned the Workers’ Dreadnought (as it was now called) into probably the most vibrant and ‘advanced’ left-wing paper in Britain. As fearless as its name, the Dreadnought sent a reporter – Patricia Lynch, all of eighteen – to Dublin to cover the Easter Rising; hired Claude McKay (later a star of the Harlem Renaissance) and printed his condemnation of the racist reactions to the presence of France’s black soldiers in the Rhineland; reported in detail on Russian and European developments, and published works by Lenin, Luxemburg, Kollontai, Clara Zetkin and other leading communists. Norah Smyth still paid the bills, but in 1919 Sylvia started a relationship with an exiled Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio, whom she had hired to work on the paper. By this point, she had entirely lost interest in the suffrage finally won by women in 1918 and was intent on social revolution. Which put her squarely in the sights not only of Britain’s security services (busily infiltrating her movement) but also of Lenin, who was impressing on British communists the need for a parliamentary strategy and affiliation with the Labour Party, and whose Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920) was partly directed against her. In July 1920, Pankhurst smuggled herself into Russia to have it out with him at the Second Comintern Congress.

Holmes takes us through the wild ride of these years, but her reliance on Pankhurst’s own works, especially The Home Front (1932), continues to lead her astray. She considers the workshops set up by the dedicated trade unionist Mary Macarthur to have been ‘sweatshops’ because that’s what Sylvia called them (they paid a minimum wage of ten shillings a week while Pankhurst’s paid eleven, although she later raised the wage to a pound a week, which was also the minimum wage for women in munitions work); she tells us that the separation allowances paid to soldiers’ and sailors’ wives and mothers were at ‘minimal rates’ (perhaps, but they were higher than the wages paid at either of those workshops and cost the wartime governments more than £400 million, or roughly twice the total annual expenditure of prewar central government); she depicts the war years in East London as a time of grinding poverty and starvation, even though full employment, higher wages, those separation allowances and (I’m afraid) the absence of men finally brought about some improvement in the health of working-class women and their children; she tells us that the vote benefited ‘primarily middle-class and aristocratic women’, even though the electorate (female as well as male) in 1918 was majority working-class. Holmes does recover Pankhurst’s astonishingly imaginative plan for ‘social soviets’ – political bodies based in local neighbourhoods that would give unwaged housewives a voice, as workplace soviets would for men – but doesn’t register that all of Pankhurst’s writings, and not just these programmes, were intended to advance her cause. She was a committed socialist activist, after all: it was her job to denounce inequality, combat repression and stoke discontent. But we aren’t going to understand these commitments if Holmes repeats rather than explains them.

Pankhurst lost the argument with Lenin, just as she lost the argument with Christabel. Scotland Yard raided the Dreadnought offices soon after her return from Russia; as the publisher of articles ostensibly urging sailors to mutiny, she was charged with sedition. It’s never a good idea for people with strong political convictions to conduct their own defence – at least, not if they want to avoid prison. But Pankhurst wanted to make headlines: she treated the court to a long disquisition on the history of English socialism, the right to civil disobedience, the many sacrifices she had made ‘to pursue her father’s mission of liberating the oppressed from their oppressors’, how often she had risked death, and a good deal more. ‘Why didn’t you make up your mind to keep out of prison instead of insistently breaking into it?’ Bernard Shaw wrote to her, in justified frustration. But Pankhurst served out her six-month sentence as a revolutionary should – in the infirmary, writing poetry on toilet paper that Norah faithfully smuggled out. Her organisation, now only a few hundred strong, was absorbed into the new Communist Party of Great Britain in her absence and she was expelled from it soon afterwards. She and Corio managed to hang on to the Dreadnought, which retained its independence and vitality, covering politics – including Mussolini’s rise in Italy – until 1924.

Then, worn out and hard up, they moved to a cottage in Woodford Green and – of all things – opened a tea room. (Bizarrely, Emmeline and Christabel opened a much tonier and still less profitable tea room on the French Riviera two years later.) Mostly, though, Sylvia tried to make money writing. She outlined an autobiography (‘The Inheritance’) and planned a book about international communism (‘In the Red Twilight’) – these two projects were the ones that, somehow, she could never bring herself to complete. She did, however, publish a monumental study of India in 1926; Delphos, a book about international language, in 1927; Save the Mothers, a plea for a national maternity service, in 1930; and, of course, The Suffragette Movement in 1931. Her son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst, was born in December 1927 (when she was 45), catapulting her into the ranks of us women protesting that their baby scarcely leaves them a minute to work – although, judging by this record, motherhood didn’t hamper her productivity much. She had spent so much of her life without enough love; from now on, Richard would be her constant companion. Perhaps this is too simplistic, but it seems to me that what pulled her head from the clouds and put her feet on the ground was the need to attend less to suffering humanity and more to one small boy.

Here,​ in its final third, Holmes’s book improves dramatically. It’s still baggy and repetitive, but the final three hundred pages are fresher and more engaging than the preceding six hundred, probably because Pankhurst did not write obsessively about her life during these decades, so that Holmes has had to piece the story together from more prosaic sources.* With her mother dead, and Christabel far away in America, Pankhurst’s devotion to old family quarrels finally waned. She now had a family of her own, in which her pre-eminence was unchallenged. Corio worked faithfully on the newspaper they produced together from 1936 until 1956 (The New Times and Ethiopia News), but he never seemed to want much credit or occupy much space. Visitors sometimes mistook him for the gardener.

‘My parents were old-style libertarian socialists,’ Pankhurst’s son, Richard, told Holmes – and if this hardly describes their politics in 1919, it was what they became. With royalties from The Suffragette Movement and a few legacies, Pankhurst was finally able to buy a proper brick house in 1933. It was, like every house she lived in, untidy and stuffed with papers (though there was a daily help and a housekeeper, neither named by Holmes), but life became easier, and a generation of internationalists, leftists and anti-imperialists made the trek out to West Dene for bad food and good conversation. Richard grew up knowing African-American intellectuals (W.E.B. Du Bois, Amy Ashwood Garvey) and African nationalists (Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta) as household guests. After a spell at the LSE he became his mother’s collaborator and moved into the field of African history. Corio died in 1954, and two years later Pankhurst moved to Ethiopia. Richard went with her, and his fiancée, Rita Eldon, married him there soon afterwards.

Remarkably, the three lived together amicably in an Italian-built villa supplied by Selassie – Richard teaching at the university, Rita getting its library in order, and Pankhurst writing for a new monthly magazine, the Ethiopia Observer, devoted to raising Western awareness about her adopted country. She had her weaknesses: she uncritically defended Ethiopia’s claim to Eritrea and Somalia; she paid less attention than might be expected to its extreme social inequality; after decades of criticising Britain’s imperial policies, she now voiced anxiety about its declining influence. But she was never pompous and never bored, always up for a new encounter or experience. I like to imagine her in those years, squeezing her cottage-loaf body into her Fiat, going out into the countryside to find another Coptic monastery, another co-operative farm. When she died, very suddenly, in 1960, she was given a huge state funeral. Selassie stood to attention by her coffin throughout the long service.

Holmes presents Pankhurst’s life – as she herself did – as one of utter consistency. I’m not so sure. I am as susceptible as the next feminist to the romance of her story – or at least I was, back in 1982, when as a 22-year-old I spent a month working in her archives at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. (This collection has since been made available online.) I was headed to graduate school and thought she might be a good subject; I was also, probably, on a quest for a historical role model and a usable past. So, I read through the ELFS minute books, tracking the campaigns and totting up the meetings, but found myself drawn particularly to the fragments of autobiography. Several of Pankhurst’s books are heavily autobiographical, but she never wrote a full Life. She tried more than once, sketching opening scenes over and over in the backs of the exercise books in which she drafted her books.

Of these fragments, one made an especially strong impression on me, and in those pre-computer and pre-camera days, I copied out the text in full. (This is the source for a few of the quotations in this review.) It was written in the 1930s, in answer to a question about the decisions that had shaped her life. Pankhurst lists them, but they are renunciations as much as decisions – it is a register of the many things she gave up (her art, her family, her followers, reputation and honour) to do right. Some seven times in eleven pages she insists that she ‘never consulted anyone’ about these choices, following the imperative dictates of her conscience. The proof of their rightness and her righteousness was how much she suffered for her convictions, how fully she embraced what in The Suffragette Movement she called ‘the hallowing influence of sacrifice’.

I came to Amsterdam tracking a fighter for women’s freedom. What I discovered were patterns of subjection I knew all too well. Even though I was raised to serve God rather than humanity, I too was schooled from girlhood in renunciation, taught that the path to glory lay in suffering for the cause. I had long ago said ‘Goodbye to All That’ when I stumbled across Pankhurst’s account, but what she taught me – and thank you, Sylvia – was that you can reject a culture that punishes women for their every claim, but it will keep its grip on you anyway, as you quiver to attention whenever the dog-whistle of sacrifice sounds. ‘I was always convinced that the element of martyrdom provided the highest and keenest incentive to our movement,’ wrote the woman who lay on the pavement outside Parliament, hungering and thirsting for the vote. Quite.

I would like to read a different biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, one that is less hagiographic but more humane. Surely it is possible to acknowledge this remarkable woman’s foresight, determination, convictions and courage without shying away, as Holmes does, from addressing how her culture and upbringing could drive her to assert authority through self-sacrifice, almost as if she believed that whoever suffers the most, wins. I want to believe that Pankhurst finally freed herself from those patterns, because I am tired of movements that love to watch women martyr themselves for the cause. I want a politics that lets us live for ourselves.

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