September 27th 1960: Sylvia Pankhurst dies

On this day in 1960 the prominent English suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst died in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia aged 78. Pankhurst was famous for her efforts to achieve female suffrage through peaceful means, unlike the more radical suffragettes. She was also an outspoken champion of left wing communist policies and anti-fascism. Pankhurst was a vocal opponent of British colonialism and it was in this capacity that she spent her final years in Ethiopia after becoming a champion of their cause for liberation. She refused to marry and take a man’s name but did have a long term partner and a son.

Emmeline Pankhurst: Why she kicks ass

  • She was a British political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement that helped women win the right to vote.
  • In 1999 Time named Pankhurst as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating: “she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.” 
  •  She was widely criticized for her militant tactics, but her work is recognised as a crucial element in achieving women’s suffrage in Britain.
  • She founded and became involved with the Women’s Franchise League, which advocated suffrage for both married and unmarried women. The WFL was considered a radical organisation, since in addition to women’s suffrage it supported equal rights for women in the areas of divorce and inheritance. It also advocated trade unionism and sought alliances with socialist organisations. 
  • When that organisation broke apart, she attempted to join the left-leaning Independent Labour Party through her friendship with socialist Keir Hardie but was initially refused membership by the local branch of the Party on account of her sex.
  • in 1898, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an all-women suffrage advocacy organisation dedicated to “deeds, not words.” The group placed itself separately from–and often in opposition to–political parties. The group quickly became infamous when its members smashed windows and assaulted police officers. Pankhurst, her daughters, and other WSPU activists were sentenced to repeated prison sentences, where they staged hunger strikes to secure better conditions.
  • When her oldest daughter took the helm of the WSPU, antagonism between the group and the government grew. Eventually arson became a common tactic among WSPU members, and more moderate organizations spoke out against the Pankhurst family. In 1913 several prominent individuals left the WSPU, among them her two other daughters. The family rift was never healed.
  •  In 1918 the Representation of the People Act granted votes to women over the age of 30. Pankhurst transformed the WSPU machinery into the Women’s Party, which was dedicated to promoting women’s equality in public life.
  • It was inside Holloway Prison that she staged her first hunger strike to improve conditions for other suffragettes in nearby cells. She described in her autobiography the trauma caused by force-feeding during the strike: "Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as the doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office." When prison officials tried to enter her cell, Pankhurst raised a clay jug over her head and announced: "If any of you dares so much as to take one step inside this cell I shall defend myself."
  • She wasn’t force-feed after this incident, but she continued to violate the law and – when imprisoned – starve herself in protest. During the following two years she was arrested numerous times but was frequently released after several days because of her ill-health. Later, the Asquith government enacted the Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed similar releases for other suffragettes facing ill-health due to hunger strikes. Prison officials recognised the potential public relations disaster that would erupt if the popular WSPU leader were force-fed or allowed to suffer extensively in jail.
  • Police officers arrested her during talks and as she marched. She tried to evade police harassment by wearing disguises and eventually the WSPU established a jujutsu-trained female bodyguard squad to physically protect her against the police. She and other escorts were targeted by police, resulting in violent scuffles as officers tried to detain her.
  • In 1922 she applied for Canadian “permission to land” (a prerequisite to status as a “British Subject with Canadian Domicile”) and rented a house in Toronto, where she moved with her four adopted children. She became active with the Canadian National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases (CNCCVD), which worked against the sexual double-standard which Pankhurst considered particularly harmful to women. During a tour, the mayor showed her a new building which would become the Home for Fallen Women. Pankhurst replied: “Ah! Where is your Home for Fallen Men?”

I just had the pleasure to (p)review an exciting upcoming graphic novel, Suffrajitsu,

"….With Europe on the brink of war, the leaders of the radical women’s rights movement are fugitives from the law. Their last line of defence is the elite secret society of ‘Amazons’; women trained in the martial art of Bartitsu and sworn to protect their leaders from arrest and assault.

The stakes dramatically rise when the Amazons are thrust into a deadly game of cat and mouse against an aristocratic, Utopian cult …”

Firstly, this is awesome. There is so much scope for this topic, and although it’s WWI, I’m sure there are dozens of folks in the Victorian/Steampunk communities who would enjoy this as much as folks who like to see ladies kick arse… and just lovers of a good tale!

So, here’s my actual review of the first installment:

Suffrajitsu is a fabulous read. Fast-paced, funny and richly immersive, the story tumbles from the pages with poise and energy that well-represents the champions of early feminism.

Informative without becoming bogged down in politics and with energetic illustrations that visually keep the plot flowing, this is a marvellous, compelling series of snapshots into a time undergoing great change.

The characters are diverse and endearing, holding a good range of viewpoints around such a socially-divisive issue. Many of them, especially the lead, exhibit the pluck, grace, and ingenuity reminiscent of classic tales of adventure.

Set against the looming tensions of war in Europe it’s easy to imagine this as a film adaptation by HBO or BBC.

Militant freedom fighters in petticoats- the stuff of legend!