IN 1977, I spent several weekends as a volunteer helping to renovate the then run-down 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, once home of the Pankhurst family. Now a museum, it was where Emmeline and her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela, began their campaign for women’s suffrage. It took them from Manchester to London, from parlour meetings to huge rallies, from their dream to an ideal shared by thousands. It involved remarkable organisational and PR skills as well as great suffering — especially through hunger strikes — and civil disobedience and questionable violence.
At the time, I imagined we renovators were like the Pankhursts: united by a common purpose. But,as Rachel Holmes’s new biography of Sylvia Pankhurst makes clear, the women wanting votes were far from a united sisterhood. For the Pankhursts themselves, common cause gave way to rows about tactics, arguments about the final aims of the suffrage movement, and even bust-ups about their private lives.
Holmes has written a vivid and compelling account of a compelling woman: she had great intelligence; gifts as an orator, artist, and writer; and was fiercely brave. She was the suffragette who was most frequently tortured with force-feeding during her numerous prison hunger strikes. Her jailings followed arrests after outlawed demonstrations and vandalism, but she drew the line at Christabel’s demand that she commit arson.
While her sister and mother advocated votes for middle-class women of property, Sylvia became an impassioned champion of working-class women living in dire poverty, although her later revolutionary communism meant that she eventually viewed Parliament as a bourgeois construct. Later, she became one of the loudest voices to warn against fascism in 1930s Europe.
Pictorial Press/AlamySylvia Pankhurst working for the Women’s War Emergency Council, 1940
Despite Sylvia’s atheism, she had time for others’ religious leanings, such as the Christian Socialism of her lover, Keir Hardie. Yet ,in 840 pages, Holmes regrettably finds no space at all for the Catholic Women’s Suffrage League, nor the Church League for Women’s Suffrage.
Yet she embraces the suffragettes’ borrowing from religion the notion that they were martyrs. They were certainly brave, but martyrs in Christian thinking are people who do not willingly participate in aggressive acts, or engage in battle. Nor do they choose death through a probably suicidal act, as Emily Wilding Davison did, beneath the feet of a racehorse at the Derby.
If there is any connection between Christian women martyrs and the suffragettes, it is the way in which men target their bodies to inflict their power and torture on them. Whether Perpetua or women of the Reformation, or Sylvia Pankhurst, they show in their response that they are capable of courage beyond those men’s imaginings.
Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet and the author of Martyrdom: Why martyrs still matter (SPCK, 2020).
Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural born rebel
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