Katherine Connelly. Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire. London: Pluto Press, 2013. RRP £14.99 paperback.
Sylvia is my favourite Pankhurst. Her mother and older sister Emmeline and Christabel are the most famous Pankhursts, but their conservative and authoritarian tendencies are off putting. Adela is fascinating, but it is hard to like her because of her conversion to far-right nationalism in the 1940s. Sylvia, however, remained committed to her socialist principles throughout her life, and campaigned tirelessly to make like better for marginalised groups of all kinds. She has been one of my heroes for some time, so I was excited to read Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire and find out more about this fierce campaigner. The book is part of Pluto Press’ Revolutionary Lives series: short, critical biographies of prominent radical figures ranging from Gerard Winstanley to Leila Khaled.
Sylvia was above all profoundly committed to a radical, far-reaching conception of democracy for women, for workers and for people struggling to overthrow the dominance of Empire…For those in today’s social movements who want to change the world, Sylvia’s ideas, campaigns and the dilemmas she confronted with are more important that we have been led to believe.Connelly, 2013; p.3.
Katherine Connelly has written an engaging, well-paced, and insightful biography. Sylvia’s life was so varied and eventful that it would be hard to write a boring biography, but Connelly’s style is clear and logical. The text is punctuated with quotes from Sylvia herself and those who knew and encountered her, which introduces a broad range of perspectives. There is no denying that Sylvia was pretty awesome. From her suffrage activity, to her rejection of stereotypical family values, to her defence of Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy in 1935, to her rejection of all colonialism, there is lots about her to admire. It is tempting to put historical figures like Sylvia on a pedestal, portraying them as perfect visionaries who cannot be critiqued. Connelly does not fall into this trap, pointing out the moments when Sylvia could have made better strategic decisions, or when her beliefs held her back from building connections with other activists and groups.
Sylvia was involved in a dazzling array of organisations during her lifetime, and left-wing groups are not particularly known for having catchy, easy to remember names. Even Sylvia’s own organisation in the East End of London changed it’s name multiple times to reflect Sylvia’s evolving beliefs. Starting as the East London Federation of the WSPU, it became the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914, then the Worker’s Suffrage Foundation in 1916, the Worker’s Socialist Federation in 1918, the the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) – not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain – and finally the Communist Worker’s Party before it dissolved itself in 1924. In other books I have read about this period I have got confused by the huge range of radical groups and their different perspectives, but this wasn’t the case as I read Sylvia Pankhurst. Perhaps because the focus is on how Sylvia’s changing political sensibilities were manifested through the organisations she led and worked with rather than the groups themselves, I found it easy to keep everything straight in my head.
Sylvia Pankhurst was a truly fascinating and inspiring woman, and Connelly has done an excellent job of telling her life story. I enjoyed learning more not just about what Sylvia did, but why she did it, how her political beliefs drove and shaped her. If you know Sylvia’s story well then you will still get a lot out of this book, and if you don’t know much about her then you should definitely read it – Sylvia deserves to be better known, and there is much that modern activists could learn from her.