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Sylvia: The Pankhurst Who Was Too Radical?

Sylvia Pankhurst died on 27th September, 1960. The British suffragette and international socialist came from a family of renowned campaigners for women’s rights, yet unlike her mother: Emmeline Pankhurst, and sister: Christabel Pankhurst, no statue of Sylvia can be found outside the Houses of Parliament.

The Pankhurst’s were a controversial family in their time, challenging establishment views which denied women the vote. While Emmeline and Christabel have since been celebrated, it seems Sylvia is still considered too radical. A split in political views which also divided the family.

 

Sylvia, born in Manchester in 1882, was one of five children of Dr. Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst. Her father was a committed socialist and advocate of women’s suffrage, among other things helping draft an amendment to the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869, which granted unmarried female houseowners the right to vote in local elections. He was also instrumental in the Women’s Property Bill which passed through Parliament in 1870.

When the family moved to London in 1886, their Russell Square home became a hub for the city’s socialists and suffragists. Richard and Emmeline continued their passionate campaigning for women’s rights and social reform, undoubtedly influencing their children. In 1903, Emmeline, along with Sylvia and Christabel, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU), a political organisation dedicated to achieving gender equality with a particular determination to win female enfranchisement.

Alongside her commitment to the WSPU, Sylvia remained deeply involved in the Labour movement, an interest which set her aside from her mother and older sister. Tension started to build up, Sylvia convinced the WSPU was pandering itself too much towards the middle class and neglecting the poorest in society. In 1913, she left the WPSU and with her long time friend Kier Hardie set up a new organisation: the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS).

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the differences between Sylvia, and her mother and sister, became increasingly acute. The ELFS was the only suffragette organisation that refused to support the war. Sylvia also wanted the campaign for women’s votes to continue through the conflict, but her family suspended theirs.

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