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Suffragism and Socialism: Sylvia Pankhurst 1903–1914

  • Les Garner

Abstract

In the early twentieth century Sylvia Pankhurst fought for socialism, feminism and votes for women. An evaluation of her life in this period can enrich our understanding of all three. Surprisingly perhaps, though her activity in these years has been adequately recorded, principally by herself in The Suffragette Movement — An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals,1 it has often been misunderstood and undervalued. In particular Sylvia had much to contribute to the still unresolved debates surrounding class and sex and to the battle to integrate socialism and feminism, preventing them becoming exclusive terms and ideologies. Sylvia also played an important part in creating a political climate that made votes for women more rather than less likely, arguably more so than her renowned sister Christabel. An understanding of this can perhaps further develop the re-evaluation of the importance of the WSPU to the suffrage campaign. However, this chapter will not re-tell the suffragette story, nor give a narrative account of Sylvia’s role in it except when recent misconceptions make it necessary to do so. Instead, through Sylvia it intends to analyse the thorny dilemmas and complex struggles which socialists, feminists and suffragists like her faced.

Keywords

Trade Union Limited Measure Labour Party Democratic Constitution Class Issue 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement — An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (London: Longmans, 1931). Though written several years after the events described took place and in spite of the problem of hindsight and an occasional tendency to exaggerate, Sylvia’s book is still crucial to an understanding of her life and work.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    P. Romero, E. Sylvia Pankhurst — Portrait of a Radical (London: Yale University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    A biographical approach is certainly useful and has proved to be extremely popular for this period. Recent work, for example, has included E. Linklater, A Unhusbanded Life — Charlotte Despard: Suffragette, Socialist and Sinn Feiner (London: Hutchinson, 1980).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    D. Nield Chew, The Life and Writings of Ada Nield Chew (London: Virago, 1982).Google Scholar
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    J. Liddington, The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel (London: Virago, 1984).Google Scholar
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    L. Garner, A Brave and Beautiful Spirit — Dora Marsden 1882–1960 (London: Avebury, 1990).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Anti-Suffrage Review, 1910. Quoted in L. Garner, Stepping Stones to Women’s Liberty — Feminist Ideas in the Women’s Suffrage Movement 1900–1918 (London: originally Heinemann, now Gower Press, 1984), p. 9. See ch. 1, ‘Feminism and the 1900s’ for a further discussion of this theme.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    S. Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1974), p. 50.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    For a further discussion of the parliamentary obstacles suffragists faced see D. Morgan, Suffragists and Liberals: The Politics of Women’s Suffrage in Britain (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975).Google Scholar
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    M. Pugh, Electoral Reform in War and Peace 1906–1918 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).Google Scholar
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    E. B. Bax, The Fraud of Feminism (London: Grant Richards, 1913).Google Scholar
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    See, for example, S. Rowbotham, Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It (London: Pluto Press, 1977).Google Scholar
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    For a further discussion of party political attitudes to the franchise and its importance to conflict over the constitution see N. Blewitt, The Peers, The Parties and The People: The General Election of 1910 (London: Macmillan, 1972).Google Scholar
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    The connection between an anti-women’s suffrage position and opposition to universal suffrage is discussed throughout B. Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage (London: Croom Helm, 1978).Google Scholar
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    M. Macmillan, The Life of Rachel Macmillan (London: Dent, 1927) p. 75. Quoted in J. Liddington and J. Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us — The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement p. 131.Google Scholar
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    A. Rosen, Rise Up Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903–1914 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974) p. 30.Google Scholar
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    A fascinating contrast of experience of working-class members of the WSPU is provided by the autobiographies of Mitchell and Kenney: A. Kenney, Memories of a Militant (London: Edward Arnold, 1924).Google Scholar
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    H. Mitchell, The Hard Way Up: An Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell, Suffragette and Rebel (London: Faber and Faber, 1968).Google Scholar
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    C. Pankhurst, Unshackled: Or How We Won The Vote (London: Hutchinson, 1959), p. 67.Google Scholar
  20. 28.
    See T. Billington-Greig, The Militant Suffrage Movement — Emancipation in A Hurry (London: F. Palmer, 1911). In this she complained that ‘the movement has lost status as a serious rebellion and become a mere emotional obsession, a conventional campaign for a limited measure of legislation, with militancy as its instrument of publicity and the expression of its hurry’, p. 113.Google Scholar
  21. 30.
    There is as yet no thorough work on the history of the Women’s Freedom League. For the suffrage period, see Garner, Stepping Stones pp. 28–43; for a brief review of its long history see S. Newsome, The Women’s Freedom League 1907–1957 (London: WFL, 1957).Google Scholar
  22. 32.
    E. Pankhurst, Why We Are Militant (London: WSPU, 1913), p. 7. WSPU pamphlet.Google Scholar
  23. 34.
    C. Pankhurst, Some Questions Answered (London: WSPU c. 1911) WSPU leaflet.Google Scholar
  24. 35.
    E. Pankhurst, The Importance of the Vote (London: WSPU 1914). WSPU pamphlet, p. 9.Google Scholar
  25. 36.
    C. Pankhurst, The Great Scourge and How To End It (London: WSPU, 1913).Google Scholar
  26. 40.
    E. S. Pankhurst, The Suffragette (London: Gay and Hancock, 1911) p. iv.Google Scholar
  27. 45.
    The Countess of Oxford and Asquith (ed.) Myself When Young by Famous Women of Today (London: F Muller, 1938), p. 289–90.Google Scholar
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    E. S. Pankhurst, The Suffragette. The history of the women’s militant suffrage movement 1905–1910 (New York: Sturgis and Walton, 1911) p. 173–4.Google Scholar
  29. 49.
    B. Winslow, ‘Sylvia Pankhurst (1905–24), Suffragette and Communist’, Ph. D thesis for Washington University, pp. 69–80. (Sylvia’s own account of her visits to North America is briefly sketched in The Suffrage Movement pp. 347–50.)Google Scholar
  30. 77.
    See Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement pp. 563–77, Woman’s Dreadnought 20 June and 27 June 1914.Google Scholar
  31. 78.
    H. H. Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, (edited by M. and E. Brock) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).Google Scholar
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    E. Pethick-Lawrence, My Part In A Changing World (London: Gollanz, 1938), pp. 304–5.Google Scholar
  33. 93.
    See Tony Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation 1640 to the Present Day (London: Bookmarks, 1984) pp. 125–32. Though excellent on the limitations of reformism, Cliff underestimates the consciousness raising potential of movements like the battle for Women’s Suffrage and misunderstands in particular Sylvia’s ‘collaboration with bourgeois feminists’ (p. 131).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ian Bullock and Richard Pankhurst 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Les Garner

There are no affiliations available

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