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Today, 5 May, is the birthday of one of Britain’s greatest political activists – Sylvia Pankhurst. She was imprisoned for her beliefs more than any other woman in British political history. She led the campaign for women to have the vote on the same terms of men, in contrast to her more celebrated mother, Emmeline, who was content just for middle class women to have the vote. She was also a gifted artist and an evocative writer, and came from Manchester (well, Old Trafford, near enough; her birthplace has gone unfortunately).
When a group of women sold out the Suffragette campaign in 1914, taking money from the once-hated Liberal government in exchange for supporting the pointless Great War, she redoubled the push for parliamentary representation for women and the drive for peace. She became involved in the international women’s peace movement, bringing warring nations together at an international conference in The Hague in 1915 to protest against the World War.
When those who had accepted the sop from the government were given the vote in 1918, which meant that only some women were now enfranchised, Sylvia resolutely continued the fight to get women treated the same as men. When that victory was won she led the drive against a new menace – fascism – ignored by the establishment, Labour, Conservative and Liberal, in the 1920s.
Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was born at Drayton Terrace, Old Trafford, on 5 May 1882. Her father, Richard, was a committed socialist and a strong advocate of women’s suffrage who was the main figure responsible for the drafting of the women’s property bill passed by Parliament in 1870 that allowed married women to own property in their own right.
In 1903 Sylvia helped found the Women’s Social and Political Union. She won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art.
She was a leader and a legend. This is what George Bernard Shaw wrote of her. “Like Joan of Arc she lectured, talked, won and over-ruled statesmen and prelates. She pooh-poohed the plans of generals leading their troops to victory. She had unbounded and quite unconcealed contempt for official opinion, judgement and authority.”
Even Lenin lauded her, explaining in 1920 how ‘Comrade Sylvia Pankhurst represents the interests of hundreds upon hundreds of millions of people that are oppressed by the British and other capitalists. This is why she is subjected to a white terror….has been deprived of liberty…’
After the Second World War, in her later years, she emigrated to Ethiopia, whose campaigns against Italian colonialism under Mussolini she had backed so vociferously. She is buried in Addis Ababa Cathedral.