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With the help of Wikipedia I found out today about another of the Pankhurst suffragettes, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst.

Sylvia (she never used Estelle) was born in Manchester on 5th May 1882, another daughter for Dr. Richard Pankhurst and his wife Emmeline.  Both were members of the Labour Party, and Emmeline, a suffragette, was much concerned with women’s rights.  Sylvia and her 2 sisters attended the Manchester High School for Girls, and then Sylvia trained as an artist at the Manchester School of Art.  In 1900 she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in Kensington, and in 1907 toured the industrial towns of Northern England and Scotland painting working class women in their work environment.

In 1906 Sylvia started to work full-time with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) along with her sister and mother who had founded it, but argued with them that it leaned towards the middle classes at the expense of the working classes.   She consequently broke away and concentrated on local campaigning with the East London Federation of the WSPU, rather than leading the national organisation. Sylvia also contributed articles to the WSPU’s newspaper Votes for Women, and in 1911 she published a history of the WSPU’s campaign The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement.   She was also close to anti-war Labour politician Keir Hardie.

In 1914 Sylvia set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) which over the years evolved politically and changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF).  She founded the WSF newspaper, Women’s Dreadnought, which was against war, and some of its members hid conscientious objectors from the police (she was horrified to see her mother and sister Christabel campaigning in favour of military conscription).  The WSF set up cost-price restaurants to feed hungry women and children, and established a toy factory to give work to women who had become unemployed because of the war. Sylvia also worked to defend soldiers’ wives rights to decent allowances while their husbands were away, by setting up legal advice centres and by running campaigns to oblige the Government to take the poverty of soldiers’ wives into account.

The WSF continued towards the left and eventually adopted the title ‘Communist Party (British Section of the Third International)’. This was not the official British Communist Party and eventually the ‘Communist Party (British Section of the Third International)’ was absorbed into the official Communist Party of Great Britain. However, Sylvia’s association with this party did not last long. When the Communist Party of Great Britain told Sylvia to hand over her newspaper  to them, she refused and was expelled from the party. She created the Communist Workers’ Party as a rival to the Communist Party of Great Britain. This folded in 1924.  Sylvia also toured Europe speaking at left wing meetings and even visited Russia, speaking openly on why she disagreed with some of the policy statements Lenin had made – especially on censorship.

Sylvia objected to entering into a marriage contract and taking a husband’s name.  At the end of the First World War she began living with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio and moved to Woodford Green, where she lived for over 30 years.  In 1927 at the age of 45, she gave birth to a son, Richard.  When she refused to marry the child’s father, Sylvia’s mother Emmeline broke ties with her daughter and never spoke to her again.

In 1932 Sylvia was instrumental in the establishment of the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council, and also became a supporter of Haile Selassie.  She raised funds for Ethiopia’s first teaching hospital, and wrote extensively on Ethiopian art and culture.  Post-war she became a supporter of the union between Ethiopia and the former Italian Somaliland, and MI5 began to follow her activities.  In 1948 MI5 considered ‘strategies for muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’ who by now had become a friend and advisor to Emperor Haile Selassie.  She moved to Addis Ababa with her son Richard in 1956 at Haile Selassie’s invitation, and founded a monthly journal New Times and Ethiopia News, which reported on many aspects of Ethiopian life and development.

Sylvia died in Addis Ababa on September 27th 1960 aged 78, and received a full state funeral at which Haile Selassie named her an honorary Ethiopian.  She is the only foreigner buried in front of the Holy Trinity  Cathedral in Addis Ababa, in a section reserved for patriots of the Italian war.

 

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