History loves nothing more than a beautiful heroine battling for a just cause. For the past 100 years, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst have been fixed in the collective mind as glamorous symbols of the protracted struggle for votes for women. In contrast, Sylvia, the second daughter of this remarkable family, remains, according to Rachel Holmes, “one of the greatest unsung political figures of the 20th century” – a marked failure of public recognition that Holmes hopes to correct in this exhaustively researched and deeply sympathetic study of a unique life.
It is not hard to see why it has taken Sylvia so long to emerge from the shadow of her mother and sister. There was nothing fashionable about her; friend and foe alike commented on her inattention to matters of appearance (she thought lipstick an abomination). And, while Sylvia arguably gave as much, if not more, to the fight for women’s suffrage as her mother and sister, once that struggle was finished, if not completely won (full adult female suffrage was not granted in the UK until 1928), she never stopped resisting authority and fighting unpopular battles. While Emmeline and Christabel became supporters of the First World War and empire loyalists, Sylvia remained a socialist and a fierce opponent of colonialism, and the encroaching threat of fascism.
As the subtitle of this volume suggests, the tenor and tenacity of Sylvia’s public life might have been foreseen. Born in 1882, the second daughter of the radical barrister Richard Pankhurst and the fiery, implacable Emmeline, her early years were spent in an intensely political household, first in Manchester, then in London and then back in Manchester after the collapse of Emmeline’s ill-fated and poorly managed “art furniture” shop in Euston: a kind of utopian, feminine forerunner of Habitat. The Pankhurst home was filled with radical and revolutionary figures of the time, such as the Labour giant Keir Hardie, the Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin and the Indian nationalist leader Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian member of the House of Commons. (Tellingly, Holmes notes, Christabel later “edited out her family’s intimate friendships with revolutionaries and radicals”.)
To modern eyes, elements of the Pankhurst children’s upbringing seem unduly harsh. There were regular battles with both parents over food, and Sylvia was sometimes tied to the bedpost all day for refusing to take cod-liver oil; the introspective, dreamy young girl “could not curb her will to resist”.…