Sylvia Pankhurst—socialism, suffrage and the sisterhood?

Lucy Honan concludes our series on revolutionary women with a look at the politics of feminism’s most famous family

Just how powerful is the feminist sisterhood? Nothing captures the confusion of “first wave” feminism better than the political divisions within the famous Pankhurst family.

Their divergent roles led Christabel to Adventist Christianity in the USA. Emmeline ran for the Conservative Party and Adela dealt in pacifism, communism then fascism in Australia. But Sylvia Pankhurst pushed the suffragette campaign to mobilise and fight for working class women. Her experience shows how women could have won not only universal adult suffrage but also real widespread improvements for women and men.

Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. At its inception the WSPU was a working class women’s organisation. Though the main focus was women’s suffrage, at first the WSPU also supported strikes, maternity benefits and progressive reforms for working women.

At first, all four Pankhurst women worked together within the WSPU. They wrote and distributed papers, held mass meetings, organised stunts and stormed parliament. Most impressive of all were the WSPU organised demonstrations that grew from 20,000 to 500,000 by June 1908.

Division takes root

However the logic of organising working women separately to working men led the organisation to elevate a common sisterhood over a common class. By the end of its third year the WSPU cut loose the working class orientation. Christabel Pankhurst claimed “ours is not a class movement at all. We take in everybody—the highest and the lowest, the richest and the poorest. The bond is womanhood!”

But as soon as the working class focus was gone the sisterhood revealed a bias toward ruling women. By 1907 the WSPU focused exclusively on attaining the vote. Though they united “rich and poor” to fight for it, the WSPU demanded only votes for wealthy women with property.

It was not long before Christabel and Emmeline also became dismissive of the role for poor women in the struggle. The mass demonstrations reached their peak in 1908. But instead of pushing unions for strikes and moratoriums, Christabel and Emmeline decided a small elite of activists could win suffrage, either by making huge donations to the WSPU or by taking individualistic actions, like arson, window breaking, hunger striking or assault against other members of the ruling elite.

From the East End of London, Sylvia Pankhurst remained focused on organising working women. She began the East London Federation, a working class base for the WSPU. Though she did not break from the WSPU immediately, she disagreed with their elitist tactics. She said of the time: “I believed, then and always, that the movement required, not more serious militancy by the few, but a stronger appeal to the great masses to join the struggle.”

The Great Unrest, a spate of strikes and mobilisations in every key section of industry finally tore apart the illusion that sisterhood was more powerful than class.

Sylvia related enthusiastically to the unrest, speaking at lockouts, mass meetings and rallies. “Every day,” wrote The Daily Herald, “the industrial rebels and the suffrage rebels march nearer together”.

But because Christabel and Emmeline had split entirely from their labour roots their politics deteriorated into open conservatism. They were hostile to the working class struggle. Their paper Votes for Women coldly condemned strikers for resorting to industrial action instead of using their votes.

There was no room for working class women in the sisterhood when they fought alongside working class men for radical social change. The WSPU expelled Sylvia after she spoke publicly in support of locked out Dublin workers.

The East London Federation of the WSPU became the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). The ELFS and its paper, the Women’s Dreadnought were “to deal with the franchise question from the working woman’s point of view”.

World War One

Their ruling class allegiance had sunk the WSPU so profoundly into conservatism that they eventually abandoned the very demand for “votes for women” to the greater project of preserving the system.

With the outbreak of war, the WSPU called again for unity—this time, the unity of men and women behind the British war machine. Their members sent out white feathers to shame the unenlisted and encouraged an end to industrial action in favour of uniting to defend “King and Country”.

But Sylvia’s working class politics armed her well to continue the struggle for women’s political rights and the rights of all working people. The ELFS maintained the fight for suffrage. They demanded fair wages for women who replaced men in factories.

Most significantly, Sylvia was openly and vocally opposed the war. She renamed the Women’s Dreadnought the Workers’ Dreadnought, and through this paper she agitated relentlessly for the end of the war, and in defence of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution.

The lesson of the Pankhursts speaks clearly to women fighting sexism today. A movement that seeks to unite all women and ignores class can only mean subordinating our demands for equal pay and rights at work. It won’t be radical enough or strong enough to take us any closer to real liberation.

We need working class politics to unite us.


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