Sylvia Pankhurst: an organiser for working-class women

Submitted by Janine on 22 March, 2006 - 9:55 Author: Jill Mountford

"The name of our paper, the Woman's Dreadnought, is symbolic of the fact that the women who are fighting for freedom must fear nothing. It suggests also the policy of social care and reconstruction which is the policy of awakening womanhood throughout the world, as opposed to the cruel, disorganised struggle for existence amongst individuals and nations from which Humanity has suffered in the past... the chief duty of the Dreadnought will be to deal with the franchise question from the working-woman's point of view... (and) to review the whole field of the women's emancipation movement."

From the first edition of the Women's Dreadnought

On International Women's Day (March 8, 1914) Sylvia Pankhurst, having been expelled from the suffragette organisation, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), by her mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel, launched a working-class women's paper, the Women's Dreadnought, in the East End of London. With a guaranteed circulation of 20,000 Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) had a tremendous vehicle for a dialogue with broad layers of working women and, as time passed, working men.

From the first edition Sylvia saw the Dreadnought as being "...a medium through which working women, however unlettered, might express themselves, and find their interests defended."

She later recalled how "From all over the East End, and much further afield, people in dispute with, or suffering under, employers, landlords, insurance agents, government departments, local authorities, hospitals and asylums, lawyers and railway companies brought their difficulties for publicity and solution". From the beginning the paper was this and more besides. It rapidly gained the reputation of a broad, non-sectarian paper and evolved into a paper concerned with questions that faced the working class here and abroad.

Sylvia had moved to the East End two years earlier in 1912, convinced of the need for "the creation of a women's movement in that great abyss of poverty (that) would be a call and a rallying cry to the rise of similar movements in all parts of the country".

Unlike her mother and sister, Sylvia had not deserted her socialist roots. Instead, her beliefs had become firmer, more developed and more determined over the years. In stark contrast to her mother and sister she did not see the right to vote as an end in itself. The movement she built in the East End was according to Sylvia "not merely for votes but towards an egalitarian society - an effort to awaken the women submerged in poverty to struggle for better social conditions and bring them into line with the most advanced sections of the movement of the awakened proletariat".

Her fervour, drive and enthusiasm for building a working class women's movement convinced feminists in established branches of the WSPU to lend their support in setting up the East London Federation (ELF) of the WSPU (as it was called from 1912 to 1914).

She wrote: "I induced the local WSPUs to assist in organising it: Kensington, Chelsea, and Paddington made themselves responsible for shops in Bethnal Green, Limehouse and Poplar respectively, and Unions, even so far afield as Wimbledon, sent speakers and canvassers. WSPU headquarters agreed to be responsible for the rent of a shop in Bow. An intensive campaign like that of an election, to include deputations to local MPs, was to culminate in a demonstration in Victoria Park.''

Just weeks after arriving in the East End, Sylvia had working women willing to join ELF. Nellie Cressall was one such working woman. She said: "In 1912 I met Sylvia and others. I had been thinking for some time of the unequal rights of men and women… after talking to Sylvia and other speakers I thought that here is something I can dedicate myself to help in some way to put things right."

Sylvia described how "women flocked to our meetings; members joined in large numbers. I at once began urging them to speak, taking classes for them indoors, and inducing them to make a start outdoors by taking the chair for me at a succession of short meetings in the side streets where workers lived, or by the market stalls in the shopping hours".

She had no doubts that the emancipation of working women would be an act of self-emancipation. No middle class woman could do it for them. She was completely convinced of working women's abilities. Recognising this, once they had gained the confidence to speak many became powerful orators, better able to put their case and that of other working women than any middle class women could do on their behalf.

Working women activists from ELF went with Sylvia to talk to women in other branches of the WSPU in places like Kensington and Mayfair. Sylvia said: "Their speeches made a startling impression upon those women of another world, to whom hard manual toil and the lack of necessaries were unknown." She recounted the passion of Melvina Walker, who had worked as a domestic servant: "She seemed to me like a woman of the French Revolution. I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, urging on the fighters with impassioned cries. When in full flood of her oratory, she appeared the very embodiment of toiling, famine-ridden, proletarian womanhood."

Another woman called Mrs Schlette, "well in her sixties" was "soon able to hold huge crowds for an hour and a half at a stretch".

Christabel, who declared "working women (to be in) the weakest position of the sex", berated Sylvia for organising with and fighting alongside working class women. She argued that it was "... a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent".

Sylvia abhorred such middle class superiority. Her affinity with the oppressed and downtrodden, her understanding of how capitalism works and objection to the idea of superior and inferior human beings led to her fighting racism and fascism, as well as for women's rights and broader socialist ideals. Her anti-racist and anti-fascist work was way ahead of other white left activists of the time, and a very strong case can be put that she made a special, even unique, contribution here.

Her expulsion from the WSPU was in fact the result of her speaking, contrary to Christabel's wishes, on a platform alongside James Connolly and others at the Royal Albert Hall. The meeting was to demand the release of Jim Larkin (an activist in the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union) and to build support for workers involved in the Dublin Lock-out of that time. There was a crowd of 10,00 people. Sylvia said that she had agreed to speak so that she could point out that "behind every poor man there was a still poorer woman". She saw it as her responsibility "to keep our working women's movement in touch with the working class movement".

For Christabel this was the last straw. She said: "We want all our women to take their instructions and walk in step like an army!"

Expulsion from the WSPU meant more than a break from the organisation, though. It meant breaking the personal ties with her mother and her sister - a painful process. Sylvia's commitment to the WSPU, even when she thought their tactics wrong, was second to none. She was imprisoned and force-fed more times than most other suffragettes. But Sylvia was more, much more than a suffragette. She was a socialist.

So despite her hurt at being expelled from an organisation she had for 11 years been committed to, and in being cut off from her family, in the spirit of the best traditions in our movement, Sylvia wasted no time in getting on with the political task in hand.

Within weeks of her expulsion, with the help of other women in ELFS (as it then became known) she put together the first issue of the Woman's Dreadnought.

In May, she and others organised a Women's May Day Procession in Victoria Park. In June, only six months after her ejection from the WSPU she had pulled off an important meeting with Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister.

Sylvia, threatening indefinite hunger strike if he didn't agree to meet, and with some negotiations from her close friend Keir Hardie, got Asquith to agree to receive a deputation of women from her organisation. Though she drafted a statement to be read out, she did not attend the meeting (an almost unique event) herself. Instead six "working mothers" selected by mass meetings went forward "to speak for themselves... the statement would give them their cue and break the ice for them. I had put into it what I knew to be near their hearts".

The women gave "well-reasoned" arguments as to why they should be given the vote. Highlighting the toil and hardship of working class women's lives they put their case intelligently and with dignity.

By August 1914 the gulf between herself and her mother and sister widened dramatically as Britain entered the war. Sylvia opposed the war, and in no uncertain terms. On the other hand, Emmeline and Christabel led the WSPU into unreserved support for the British ruling class. They renamed their paper the Britannia and took to the streets handing out white feathers to men not wearing uniform. From radical arsonists to patriotism personified, Emmeline and Christabel called for the conscription of women to fight the "German Peril" - a year before conscription for men was even introduced! They even called for the right to vote of men fighting as a priority over women!

The repugnant degeneration of Emmeline and Christabel is made even worse when compared to what was probably Sylvia's finest work.The movement she built in the East End was the result of consistent hard work; of actually being part of the day-to-day grind of life in the East End. From the beginning of the war she initiated and organised to relieve the misery of the poverty of working women and their families.

Sylvia's work here was not that of the Lady Bountiful, like much of the relief work of the time. Sylvia's work was that of a socialist, an internationalist, a revolutionary. The ELFS set up cost-price workers' restaurants and baby clinics to deal with the malnutrition and common childhood illnesses that ravaged and all too often killed the children of the working class; it set up nurseries and a toy factory, and all this at the same time as producing a weekly newspaper. Working class women managed and ran these services for themselves. They were able to take some control of important aspects of their lives in the most adverse circumstances. And it was through this crucial work that Sylvia was able to gradually win over working people to oppose the war as it was not in their interests, and to support many causes that were in the interests of working class people everywhere.

Organising marches and demonstrations for a woman's right to vote, calling for equal pay for equal work and an end to the "sweating trades", Sylvia and ELFS were able to mobilise thousands of women and men.

Walter Holmes, eventually a journalist on the Communist Party paper, the Daily Worker, talked of his direct experience of Sylvia during the early war years in a tribute to her after her death in 1960: "What she aroused in the East End was a mass movement. Not only an enthusiastic following of young working class women joined in her franchise campaign... young workers came with them... They filled the streets with their marching. The Red Flag and The Intemationale resounded under the dim lights of 1914-15... Sylvia Pankhurst contributed a powerful opposition to the imperialist war."

The Woman's Dreadnought fast gained the reputation of an open, broad paper, attempting to offer basic socialist education;, practical advice on all sorts of things from dealing with bailiffs to organising rent strikes; agitation for women's rights, for the vote, equal pay and end to the "sweating trades"; detailed reports on what was going on in Parliament. From the beginning it covered international events and issues and, by 1915-16. had articles highlighting the plight of interned Germans. In 1916, the Woman's Dreadnought gave extensive coverage to the Easter Rising and frequently raised the banner for Irish liberation. In 1917, Siegfried Sassoon chose the Dreadnought to first publish his famous statement opposing the war. As always, Sylvia showed tremendous courage in publishing views and ideas that laid herself and the paper wide open to raids, bans and arrest.

By 1916 ELFS had changed its name to the Workers' Suffrage Federation, both reflecting and having helped to create a general shift in the labour movement towards a genuine fight for adult human suffrage. In 1917 the Woman's Dreadnought became the Workers' Dreadnought inspired by the rank and file activism in Britain and the Bolshevik-led workers revolution in Russia. Still with a circulation of around 10,000 the Workers' Dreadnought, continued to have an important impact and influence. Sylvia's work remained diligent and consistent, relentlessly making propaganda for the overthrow of the capitalist system and in support of the Russian Russia.

Increasingly, the paper carried articles and reprints of works by most of the leading socialists and revolutionaries. Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and even Trotsky can be found in the pages of the Workers' Dreadnought. In one copy of a 1917 paper alongside extensive coverage of the Russian Revolution was the first part of a discussion on childcare, looking at the contribution to thinking in this area by the radical Maria Montesorri (now revered by the middle class and an expensive, private alternative to state nursery schools) - at the time an important and practical contribution to early years education for children of poor working class families.

In 1918, Sylvia established the People's Russia Information Bureau. With a small financial contribution from Moscow, the Bureau's work was to put out pro-Bolshevik propaganda to workers in Britain.

Harry Pollitt, who later became the General Secretary of the Communist Party, said that the work that Sylvia did amongst the working class of the East End was to lay the foundations for the refusal of East London dockers to load munitions on to the Jolly George, a ship bound for Russia and the White Army, in 1920. Sylvia's organisation, the Workers Socialist Federation (previously the Workers Suffrage Federation) was the first left group in Britain to affiliate to the newly formed Third International (Comintern). In her capacity of Secretary of the WSF, Sylvia wrote to Lenin about the pressing question of left groups in Britain affiliating to the Labour Party and any newly formed Communist Party relationship to the Labour Party and parliamentarism. Sylvia held an ultra-left position, and was in a minority amongst the serious left in Britain. Lenin disagreed with her; he wrote an initial reply in the form a letter and later responded to Sylvia and many others in Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Sylvia was invited to attend the Second Congress of the Comintern to put her case.

Around this time the WSF, alongside the British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party, and South Wales Socialist Societies, were in unity talks about establishing a Communist Party in Britain. Once set up, Sylvia's relationship with the CPGB was short lived. She was in prison during the inaugural conference in January 1921 in Leeds. On her release, the CPGB discussed closing the Dreadnought down, arguing the party should speak with just one voice - applying, perhaps, the logic of the Russian situation to the very different British situation. Sylvia argued that the Dreadnought remained a popular paper, with a strong reputation and readership, and that the party could cope with, indeed benefit from, a variety of publications. Sylvia was expelled from the CPGB on release from prison. Weak and depressed by the experience of her latest incarceration and the general political situation, the CPGB showed little tolerance towards her or democracy.

Sylvia's drift from independent working class politics started here, and was gradually replaced by anti-racist and anti-fascist work. In 1927, she shocked and horrified many inside and outside of the establishment when she gave birth to Richard Pankhurst, her first and only child. Sylvia was 45 years old and unmarried, but remained a brave, free spirit, still totally unafraid of swimming against the tide. Motherhood seems to have pulled her back towards fighting for the woman's cause, campaigning for maternity rights and better conditions for working-class women and children. She died aged 78 in Ethiopia, having made it her home four years earlier on the invitation of Haile Seslassie, though her relationship with this country started in 1935 when she got involved with supporting the liberation of Ethiopia.

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was born into a family of middle class, radical socialists. She trained as an artist and could have led a comfortable middle class life, expressing herself through her art. Having just turned 20 Sylvia vowed she could not return to art having seen the poverty and misery experienced by so many.

Sylvia Pankhurst should not be seen as extraordinary because she was a woman, though she was an extraordinary woman, but because she was an extraordinary human being and an equal to any man of her time.

From Workers' Liberty 58

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