In History at school, we are often given very distinctive impressions of the women’s suffrage movement – that there were two main groups, with two very different methods of gaining the women’s vote: Millicent Fawcett founded the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), a non-violent organisation which called itself ‘suffragist’. And then, of course, the Pankhursts formed the Women’s Social and Political Union.
It was these “suffragettes” who were renowned for extreme behaviour – arson attacks, hunger strikes, window-smashing, and the most famous incident in which a young woman, Emily Davison, threw herself under the King’s Horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby.
This polarisation between the two campaign groups - strong pacifism in one, and radical violence in the other - creates a very black and white portrayal of the suffrage movement. But in fact, there were huge divides and splits in both organisations.
Disagreements within the Pankhurst family resulted in a huge divide in the WSPU. Sylvia Pankhurst is known for her initial work alongside her mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel. But she did not remain convinced of the ideals of WSPU. Having adopted many of her father’s socialist ideas, she became active in the Labour Party. She also became a friend of Keir Hardie who helped her to establish the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Emmeline and Christabel’s conservative ideas led them to appeal to middle-class women rather than to workers.
The start of the First World War, and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia sharpened disagreements between the Pankhursts. Emmeline and Christabels’ move towards conservative politics went hand-in-hand with the patriotism surrounding World War One resulting in the renaming of the WSPU’s magazine to “Britannia”, and suspension of their fight for the women’s vote in favour of the war effort. By contrast, Sylvia Pankhurst viewed War as a means of dividing and suppressing the working class on a global scale, and chose to join others in the Labour movement by adopting an anti-war position.
In 1918, Christabel was standing as a Women’s Party candidate in alliance with the Lloyd George/Tory Coalition, while Sylvia became a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Her support of the Bolshevik Revolution earned her the insulting title of “Little Miss Russia”. In 1927, Sylvia was broken off from her family due to a conflict over “family values” – she refused to marry and take the name of the father of her son, as her mother demanded.
Despite her disagreements with Lenin over parliament and how a party should organise, Sylvia did not become disillusioned with communism and continued her fight for many years, supporting the Spanish republicans in the revolution of the 1930s, helping Jewish refugees in the shadow of Nazi Germany and defending Ethiopia from invasion by fascist Italy. Sylvia Pankhurst died in Ethiopia in 1960. We remember her not only as a feminist – but as a communist, and take inspiration from her example.