1990s >> 1999 >> no-1143-november-1999

Book Review: ‘Sylvia Pankhurst – A Life in Radical Politics’

Votes for Ladies

‘Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics’. By Mary Davis, Pluto Press.

Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the daughters of the famous suffragette leader Mrs (Emily) Pankhurst, will have done at least one thing for modern feminists: drawn their attention to the complexity of the votes issue before 1914.

Most people will probably think that the suffragettes who chained themselves to railings, knocked off policemen’s hats, etc were demanding universal suffrage, i.e. votes for all adult men and women. Actually—and this was a conscious policy decision by the Women’s Social and Political Union to which they belonged—they were campaigning for “Votes for Women on the Same Terms as then obtained for Men”. But before 1914 not all men had the vote; owing to a property qualification, admittedly fairly low, only about 70 percent of them did. To have extended the vote to women on these terms would (according to one figure quoted by Mary Davis) have enfranchised less than 8 percent of women. Nearly all married women would have remained voteless as their family’s “property” was in the name of their husbands.

The WSPU was aware of this and was prepared to go along with it. This meant that what their militant tactics aimed at was, in the contemporary phrase, “Votes for Ladies”, votes for rich women. In other words, they were not democrats who were campaigning for votes for all women but, whether intentionally or not, people whose policy would have strengthened the political power of the propertied class by increasing the proportion of capitalist voters at the expense of working class voters. No wonder the Socialists of the time opposed them, as did many ordinary democrats.

However, not all suffragettes were in the WSPU and not all of those in the WSPU favoured this policy aim, Sylvia Pankhurst among them. In fact she fell out with her mother and elder sister over the issue and was expelled from the WSPU in 1914. Her branch became the independent East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) which pursued a different strategy, of including working class women and demanding universal suffrage.

When the war broke out, the WSPU went super-patriotic. The name of their paper was changed from The Suffragette to Britannia and they began, as Sylvia Pankhurst put it, to hand “the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress”. She moved in the opposite direction, opposing the war. In 1916 the ELFS changed its name to Workers Suffrage Federation and in 1917 its paper ‘Woman’s Dreadnought’ became ‘Workers’ Dreadnought’; in 1918 the WSF became the Workers Socialist Federation. The WSF was one of the organisations involved in the founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1921. Pankhurst, however, was by this time an anti-parliamentarian (so much for votes, for men as well as women) and was opposed to the new party seeking to be affiliated to Labour. For this she was denounced by Lenin as an “ultra-leftist”. She lasted only six months in the CPGB before being expelled.

The ‘Workers’ Dreadnought’ continued to appear until 1924 and was a valuable source of information and documentation on the opposition groups in Russia, including those who argued—as indeed did Pankhurst herself—that Russia was heading for state capitalism not socialism. Mary Davis records that in 1923 Pankhurst set up a rival unemployed organisation to that of the CPGB, “the Unemployed Workers’ Organisation (UWO), whose slogan, ‘Abolition of the Wages System’, was supposed to expose the ‘reformist’ nature of the demand of its rival—’Work or Full Maintenance'”. This could only have been a gesture, but one Socialists can appreciate.

By 1924 Pankhurst had tired of the working class and radical working class politics and reverted to being essentially a single-issue reformist. She remained a feminist (deliberately choosing to become “an unmarried mother”) advocating such reforms as the introduction of maternity benefit. In 1948 she joined the Labour Party. But from the 1930s on her main centre of interest became Ethiopia. She championed its cause against fascist Italy and came to be a friend of Emperor Haile Selassie. In 1956 she went to live in Ethiopia where she died four years later at the age of 78 and is buried there.

It has been reported (Times, 18 August) that Gordon Brown is supporting the idea that the vacant plinth at Trafalgar Square should be filled by a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst. Evidently, he is unaware that she once advocated the abolition of the wages system and money. Still, come to think of it, better a statue to someone who held this view however briefly than to some warmonger.

Adam Buick

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