Sylvia Pankhurst – Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire


“Pankhurst’s experiences as a militant suffragette in the early years of the twentieth century, an early voice on the dangers of fascism and as a campaigner against colonialism still has huge significance to those involved in socialist and social movements today.””

By Logan Williams

On Friday 9th June, Arise Festival in conjunction with Labour Outlook held a seminar and discussion on ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist & Scourge of Empire’ as part of the Socialist Ideas series of sessions at Arise Festival 2023. The talk was led by socialist historian Katherine Connelly on Pankhurst’s life and legacy as a leading socialist and suffragette activist.

You can read the report-back or watch the meeting in full below:

WATCH: Sylvia Pankhurst – Suffragette, Socialist & Scourge of Empire. Hosted by Arise Festival on June 9th, 2023.

Setting out the framework for the meeting Rachel Garnham, Co-Chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLDP), stated “that Pankhurst’s experiences as a militant suffragette in the early years of the twentieth century, an early voice on the dangers of fascism and as a campaigner against colonialism, in Africa following the Second World War, still has huge significance to those involved in socialist and social movements today.”

Katherine Connelly began her discussion by exploring the reaction to Sylvia Pankhurst’s socialist and progressive activism from the British state. Sylvia’s decades long progressive activism led the British establishment to spy on and keep detailed observations on her for decades which Connelly notes can be found within the British security service’s now archived files in the National Archives. Connelly examined a quote from a British Foreign Office official who stated in a letter “we agree wholeheartedly with you, in your evident wish, that this horrid old harridan be choked to death with her pamphlets” which clearly demonstrates the venom and scorn placed upon Sylvia due to her socialist politics from the contemporary British establishment.

LISTEN: “Sylvia Pankhurst – Suffragette, Socialist & Scourge of Empire” – hosted by Arise Festival on June 9th, 2023.

Connelly went onto note that despite the venomous attacks from the British state, Sylvia’s legacy has provided a touchstone for socialists and progressives in Britain from the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s. To the present day where generations of British citizens have been politicised by the anti-war movement, and where women workers are leading the current strike wave against draconian Tory enforced cuts have explored Sylvia Pankhurst’s life through Rachel Holmes’ biography of Sylvia to musical theatre representations of her life.

Following this discussion on the British State’s view of Sylvia, Connelly went on to explore Sylvia’s formative years of political activism as a militant within the suffragette movement. These years were primarily spent within the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) formed in 1903 in Manchester which was founded by her mother. This movement, Connelly argues, marks a direct departure from previous campaigns for women’s’ suffrage movements because it “consisted of women trade unionists and more middle-class ladies such as the Pankhursts, who were involved in the early years of the Independent Labour Party, and other such movements” in opposition to the previous campaigns support bases within the Upper classes.

However, its supporter base was not the only departure from the early suffrage movements it can also be found within the tactics used by the WSPU to campaign for women’s liberation. Connelly argues that the WSPU’s tactics changed around the 1906 General Election through the use of direct-action tactics through the inspiration of unemployed workers movement. However, over time the WSPU turned its back on its links to the labour movement and its support base within the working class and “turned towards wealthier women because the press became much more interested if the women sent to prison, were a name. Someone people knew” which demonstrates the burgeoning classist attitudes found within elements of the WSPU leadership.  

Connelly then continued to explore Sylvia’s role in forming the East London Federation of Suffragettes following her expulsion from the WSPU for standing alongside the great trade unionist James Connolly in the Albert Hall in linking the issue of women’s disenfranchisement with the contemporary campaigning in Ireland. The politics and activities of the East London Federation of Suffragettes attempted to rekindle the link between the contemporary labour struggles taking place within the era of the Great Unrest and, the campaign for Women’s suffrage. Connelly notes that one of the crucial tactics utilised by the East London Federation was to organise “a Rent Strike until the vote was won” and, emulated Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army; formed to protect workers from police repression, by forming “a Peoples’ Army which used to drill on the streets of East London to protect themselves from the Police.”

Connelly ended this section of her talk to explore the successes found within Sylvia Pankhurst’s conscious alignment with the labour movement throughout the period of the Great Unrest strengthened the East London Federation of Suffragettes with many of its members going on to become industrial militants in factories across the local area.

Through her detailed exploration of Sylvia’s formative years as a militant within the Suffragette movement who sought to unite both women’s and labour struggles throughout the early twentieth century, Connelly moved to seeking to explore the growth of Sylvia’s internationalist politics. Connelly began this section of her talk with an exploration of Sylvia Pankhurst’s activism against the First World War despite the pressures placed upon the working classes of Britain both economically and from jingoistic propaganda. Sylvia Pankhurst, rightly, identified the First World War as being an example of the competitive imperialism plaguing European society in the decades preceding 1914.

Connelly would go on to quote from Sylvia Pankhurst, three days before the British government joined the war, where she argued that “Every war of modern times has been fought for the purely materialistic object of forwarding the schemes and protecting the interests of powerful and wealthy financiers”. Connelly’s exploration of Sylvia’s internationalist perspectives was further explored in the Q+A through her activism against colonialism in Africa.

It is clear from Connelly’s talk that the contemporary British labour and socialist movements must be take up Sylvia Pankhurst’s legacy and just as previous generations have done use it to strengthen and grow our movements against the contemporary cost of living crisis.

Featured image: Lord Morpeth Suffragette Mural. Photo credit: Matt Brown under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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