Sylvia Pankhurst

Political Radical and Suffragette

Sylvia Pankhurst, about 1909
Sylvia Pankhurst, about 1909. Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Known for: militant suffrage activist in English suffrage movement, daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and sister of Christabel Pankhurst. Sister Adela is less known but was an active socialist.

Dates: May 5, 1882 – September 27, 1960
Occupation: activist, especially for women’s suffrage, women’s rights and peace
Also known as: Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst, E. Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst Biography

Sylvia Pankhurst was the second-born of the five children of Emmeline Pankhurst and Dr. Richard Marsden Pankhurst.

Her sister Christabel was the first of the five children, and remained her mother’s favorite, while Sylvia was especially close to her father.  Adela, another sister, and Frank and Harry were the younger siblings; Frank and Harry both died in childhood.

During her childhood, her family was involved in both socialist and radical politics around London, where they moved from Manchester in 1885, and women’s rights.  Her parents helped found the Women’s Franchise League when Sylvia was 7 years old.

She was educated mostly at home, with brief years in school including the Manchester high school. She also frequently attended the political meetings of her parents. She was devastated when her father died in 1898, when she was just 16. She went to work to help her mother pay her father’s debts.

From 1898 to 1903, Sylvia studied art, winning a scholarship to study mosaic art in Venice and another to study at the Royal College of Art in London.

She worked on the interior of the Pankhurst Hall in Manchester, honoring her father.  During this period she developed what would be a life-long close friendship with Keir Hardie, an MP and leader of the ILP (Independent Labour Party).

Activism

Sylvia became involved in the ILP herself, and then in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU), founded by Emmeline and Christabel in 1903.

By 1906, she had abandoned her art career to work full time for women’s rights.  She was first arrested as part of the suffrage demonstrations in 1906, sentenced to two weeks in prison. 

That the demonstration worked to gain some progress inspired her to continue her activism. She was arrested many times, and participated in hunger and thirst strikes. She was subjected to forced feeding.

She never was as close to her mother as was her sister, Christabel, in the suffrage movement. Sylvia maintained her close ties to the labor movement even as Emmeline pulled away from such associations, and emphasized with Christabel the presence of upper class women in the suffrage movement.  Sylvia and Adela were more interested in the participation of working class women.

She was left behind when her mother went to America in 1909 to speak on suffrage, caring for her brother Henry who was striken with polio.  Henry died in 1910.  When her sister, Christabel, went to Paris to escape arrest, she refused to appoint Sylvia in her place in the WPSU leadership.

East End of London

Sylvia saw opportunities for bringing working class women into the movement in her suffrage activism in the East End of London. Again emphasizing militant tactics, Sylvia was repeatedly arrested, participated in hunger strikes, and was periodically released from prison to recover her health after hunger strikes.

Sylvia also worked in support of a Dublin strike, and this led to further distance from Emmeline and Christabel. 

Peace

She joined the pacifists in 1914 when war came, as Emmeline and Christabel took another stance, supporting the war effort.  Her work with the Women’s International League and with unions and the labor movement opposing the draft and the war earned her a reputation as a leading anti-war activist.

As World War I progressed, Sylvia became more involved in socialist activism, helping to found the British Communist Party, from which she was soon expelled for not toeing the party line.  She supported the Russian Revolution, thinking that it would bring an earlier end to the war. She went on a lecture tour to the United States, and this and her writing helped support her financially.

In 1911 she had published The Suffragette as a history of the movement to that time, centrally featuring her sister Christabel. She published The Suffragette Movement in 1931, a key primary document on the early militant struggle.

Motherhood

After World War I, Sylvia and Silvio Erasmus Corio began a relationship.  They opened a café in London, then moved to Essex.  In 1927, when Sylvia was 45, she gave birth to their child, Richard Keir Pethick. She refused to give in to cultural pressure – including from her sister Christabel -- and marry, and did not publicly acknowledge who the father of the child was.  The scandal rocked Emmeline Pankhurst’s run for Parliament, and her mother died the next year, some crediting the stress of the scandal as contributing to that death.

Anti-Fascism

In the 1930s, Sylvia became more active in working against fascism, including helping Jews fleeing from the Nazis and supporting the republican side in the Spanish civil war.  She became especially interested in Ethiopia and its independence after the Italian fascists took over Ethiopia in 1936. She advocated for Ethiopia’s independence, including publishing New Times and Ethiopian News which she kept up for two decades.

Later Years

While Sylvia had maintained ties with Adela, she had become distanced from Christabel, but began communicating with her sister again in her last years.  When Corio died in 1954, Sylvia Pankhurst moved to Ethiopia, where her son was on the faculty of the university in Addis Ababa.  In 1956, she stopped publishing the New Times and Ethiopian News and began a new publication, the Ethiopian Observer. In 1960, she died in Addis Ababa, and the emperor arranged for her to have a state funeral in honor of her long support of Ethiopia’s freedom. She is buried there.

She was awarded the Queen of Sheba medal in 1944.