This article is part of the NCAFC Women & Non-Binary zine being distributed at this week’s NUS Women’s Conference. You can find the whole zine here.
By Justine Canady
Liberalism has pushed the militant radicalism out of the current feminist movement. The focus on women in board rooms and self-preservation has left serious issues in the dust. In the age of Brexit, the rise of the alt-right, and the rise of poverty and homelessness globally, Sylvia Pankhurst’s militant and dangerous feminism is a lesson for us all. Women’s liberation, economic justice, and racial justice are inherently wed, and Sylvia’s story gives a vision of what our movement should look like.
Sylvia was an enemy of both the state and her own family. She was not interested in individual achievement (think “Lean In”), but pushed a revolutionary view of feminism. These sentiments are perhaps best illustrated by here quote “I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me. It is wrong that people like you should be comfortable and well fed while all around you people are starving.” Unlike her mother and sisters, she was offensive and bold.In the MI5 Archives is a file dated 1948 discussing strategies for ‘Muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’. She went on numerous hunger strikes and risked prison and violence to keep fascism off the streets. Sylvia fought her way into “macho” “men’s” spaces, like trade unions and Labour politics, to push feminist policies. Although these actions were no doubt dangerous and tolling, she understood that only through dismantling capitalism, would women and colonised people be free, thus she put her own physical safety on the line to fight for liberation.
On International Women’s Day (8 March 1914) Sylvia Pankhurst after being expelled from the suffragette organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by her mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel, launched the Women’s Dreadnought, a working-class women’s paper. Sylvia called the Dreadnought “a medium through which working women, however unlettered, might express themselves, and find their interests defended.”
Unlike her mother and sister, Sylvia did not see the right to vote as in end of itself. The movement she started in East London was “not merely for votes but towards an egalitarian society – an effort to awaken the women submerged in poverty to struggle for better social conditions and bring them into line with the most advanced sections of the movement of the awakened proletariat”. Sylvia fought against harsh criticisms and prejudices, including those by her sister who said that organizing with working class women “a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent”.
In 1927, the birth of her only child as an unmarried 45-year-old woman horrified many people inside and outside of the labour movement pushed Sylvia to campaign for radical support for mothers- including maternity rights and better conditions for working-class women and children.
Anti-facism and anti-racism
Upon arriving to northern Italy and seeing the murder of the Italian Socialist Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, Sylvia became a devoted anti-fascist and founded the anti-fascist pressure group, the Women’s International Matteotti Committee. In Woodford, she worked to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, helped Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and was the leader of anti-racism demonstration in the UK. After the Italian occupation, Sylvia launched a campaign against colonialism in Ethiopia. In 1935 she began a weekly journal, The Ethiopian News, that publicized the efforts made by Emperor Haile Selassie to lobby the League of Nations to prevent colonization. Sylvia died in Addis Ababa in 1960 and received a state funeral where was was named “an honorary Ethopian” for her work promoting the state’s freedom and self-determination.