International Women’s Day 2012: Sylvia Pankhurst, the forgotten suffragette

Saleha Ali

Suffragettes 300x225 International Womens Day 2012: Sylvia Pankhurst, the forgotten suffragetteInternational Women’s Day (IWD) is traditionally celebrated on March 8th, with global organisations ranging from the UN and European Parliament to Google and the African Development Bank eager to lend their support. Yet its meaning today bears little resemblance to its internationalist origins. Forgotten heroine Sylvia Pankhurst exemplifies the original spirit of the day. In 1911 German socialist Clara Zetkin organised the first International Women’s Day as a day of international solidarity to fight for common objectives. In Europe alone, more than a million women and men attended rallies demanding women’s equality, the right to work, vote and hold public office: the right for women and working men to enter fully into public life. The disenfranchised, the vast majority in industrialised nations, demanded change and unrest regularly boiled over in the turbulent 1900s.

In Britain, the suffragette movement intensified its campaign for female enfranchisement and in 1906 petitions to parliament were replaced by direct action to try and force the government to support suffrage legislation. Women stormed parliament, smashed windows and damaged the property of the rich, resisted police arrest, organised bombings and arson attacks, and underwent imprisonment. The Pankhurst family led the way and Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst are today memorialized with statues outside parliament for their contribution to the fight for female suffrage.  But it is Emmeline’s lesser-known daughter Sylvia Pankhurst who proved to be the real thorn in the establishment’s side and whose fight for women’s equality remains exemplary, even today.

Like her counterpart Clara Zetkin, but unlike her mother and sister, for Sylvia the problem of women’s inequality was not the result of prejudices inside the minds of men, but a structural problem. Capitalism benefited from women’s second class position in the home, maintaining the family for free and as lesser paid workers in the sweated trades. The fight for women’s equality and democratic rights required a challenge to the system and working class women and men had every interest in taking it on. Emmeline and Christabel, meanwhile, wanted the vote for upper class women, not women of the great unwashed or the 42 per cent of working class men denied the vote. They expelled Sylvia from their elite campaign for her political convictions.

Unrepentant, Sylvia established the East London Federation of Suffragettes alongside the newspaper Women’s Dreadnought to mobilise the East End working class behind a movement for universal suffrage the political elite could not ignore. This was no plea for a ‘ladies vote’ but a threat to the establishment itself. As Britain geared up for war, her mother and sister dropped the fight for the vote altogether to support the war effort. Sylvia meanwhile opposed the war, supported freedom fighters in Ireland, sided with the young Bolsheviks in Russia and like Zetkin popularised internationalism as the way forward.

Today’s calls for state protection of women, for positive discrimination laws, for ‘gendered’ development and more, assumes women are vulnerable victims in need of help. The women behind International Women’s Day were not looking for pity or favours and were prepared to take the state on to win equality for all. International solidarity required a strident self interest that united people in common cause beyond national boundaries against their nation states. This is an outlook worth revisiting for this year’s International Women’s Day.

The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time

Saleha Ali is the presenter of the acclaimed documentary Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible

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  • CeriD

    Give me Sylvia Pankhurst rather than the women carrying on
    about Page 3 representation of women any day and especially on International
    Women’s Day. Sylvia would have had no time for censoriousness however scurrilous
    material relating to women at the time may have been and as the film shows there
    was plenty-portraying them as whining cats, lesbians in porkpie hats, men-hating
    home-wreckers. Sylvia would never have pleaded with Judges either as we are
    seeing with the Leveson inquiry, they were the ones that regularly slapped her
    in prison.

  • 2544andrew

    Sylvia would have had no time for feminism or censoriousness nor appeals for ‘protection’. Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible is a salutary reminder of the best of the womens tradition.

  • 1WPankhurst

    All in all, the Pankhurst women were strong, outspoken, and unrelenting. And in the end did a world of great things for the women of this world. So proud to be a decendent. 

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