Although she was born in Manchester, Sylvia Pankhurst had strong connections to the East End of London, particularly in Bow. A leading member of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s, she, her mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel, fought tirelessly for women’s rights and equality.
Sylvia’s work in Bow and the East End in general, however, did more than simply help women; she wanted to help all of the local population.
Sylvia Pankhurst Brings the Suffragette Movement to Bow
Sylvia’s early life was influenced by her mother’s suffrage activities, but she initially seemed destined for a different route through life and a more creative career. She trained at the Manchester School of Art, studied art in Venice and Florence and then won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1900. However, by 1906, she was working in the suffragette movement on a formal basis.
Sylvia Pankhurst originally worked at the Women’s Social and Political Union with her mother and sister, even though her beliefs did not exactly gel with theirs. Over time, however, she found it more and more difficult to agree with some of the more militant and violent activities of the WSPU and she distanced herself by moving to Bow, in the East End of London. She was initially there to run the East End branch of the WSPU, which was located in a former bakery, but ultimately turned these offices into her own organisation, the East London Federation of Suffragettes, when she parted company with the WSPU.
Unlike her mother and sister, Sylvia believed that the suffragette movement should be based in socialism and she did not believe in military conscription. Most importantly of all, at least for the East End, she believed that emancipation should apply to all women, including working class women.
The Role of The Suffragette
In addition, as far as she was concerned, the role of the suffragette was not simply about lobbying for equal rights for women. She was also aware that there was a bigger picture, including wider social issues and problems that affected the working class and prevented both men and women from living fair and decent lives. She believed that a truly democratic system emancipated both men and women in the working class equally, but that this could not be achieved unless people fought against poverty and eradicated it.
This was not necessarily the view of the WSPU who favoured equal rights for genteel women, or ladies of a certain class only. They were not concerned with the rights of the working class as much. Sylvia’s insistence that the organisation should also include men as its members did not go down too well either! By 1914, her support for a local male labour activist incensed her mother and sister so much that she was thrown out of the WSPU. She then turned her base in Bow into the main ELFS office, working in competition with her family, before moving into larger premises in Roman Road
Although Sylvia’s first targets remained universal suffrage and lobbying against participation in the First World War, the ELFS soon began to help out the local population to ease some problems. The organisation set up a chain of cheap restaurants in the East End and established a toy factory to help give local workers access to jobs. They ran a free clinic, a crèche, a library and a Montessori nursery. Residents across the East End could come to the organisation’s offices to get free bread, milk and medicine funded by the ELFS. These may all seem like small things now, but they made a very real difference to locals at the time.
Despite her good works, Sylvia’s suffrage activities meant that she continued to come up against the law on a fairly frequent basis. She was arrested in the area a number of times, but as soon as she was released on licence, she would come back to Bow and carry on giving speeches to the local population and her followers. Much of her time during this period involved trying not to get caught by local police as she carried on political activities that were forbidden to her.
Sylvia Pankhurst in The 1930s
By the 1930s, Sylvia was taking a broader view of human rights and she moved away from her initial focus in the East End to work on international initiatives. She is perhaps best known at this time for her support of Haile Selassie and her resistance to the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy. After the liberation of the country, she continued to work to promote it. She was monitored and tracked through all these years by M15 who are alleged to have dubbed her; “the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst.”
Disenchanted with Britain, Sylvia Pankhurst moved to Addis Ababa in the 1950s with her son. She died there in 1960 and was given a full state funeral as an “honorary Ethiopian.”