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A British Suffragette in America

Katherine Connelly

British suffragette and socialist Sylvia Pankhurst didn't just want to talk to "society ladies" about the right to vote. She wanted the women's movement to be part of a broader emancipatory project.

Sylvia Pankhurst at work on the new East London Federation headquarters of the WSPU in Bow Road, London, October 11, 1912. Hulton Archive / Getty

Interview by
David Broder

In the period of World War I, Sylvia Pankhurst was one of Britain’s most prominent socialists. Daughter of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and herself a leading light in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), she insisted that the fight for voting rights must also be part of a broader emancipatory project. Expelled from the WSPU for her militant socialist positions, in 1914 she founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes, eventually becoming the Workers’ Socialist Federation.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s affinity with labor had already been evident in her two tours of the United States in 1911 and 1912. Indeed, while she visited the United States in order to promote her book on the recent history of the suffragette movement in Britain, she did not just want to tell society ladies about the fight for the vote. Hers was also an activist journey in which she made contacts with striking garment workers and antiracists.

While she was in America, Pankhurst sent a series of letters back home, mostly addressed to Labour Party founder Keir Hardie. The resulting texts, which included reflections on such varied themes as labor militancy, socialists’ activity in local office, and conditions in the jails, appear in a new bookA Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change.

Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to the book’s editor Katherine Connelly about how Sylvia Pankhurst’s time in the United States affected her vision of what suffragettes were fighting for, her contacts with the rising labor movement, and the importance of a socialism based on democratic control from below.


DB

Before Sylvia Pankhurst’s first lecture tour in America there had been an upsurge in women’s labor militancy, including the garment workers’ strikes in New York and Chicago in 1909–10. The shocking conditions in that industry were further illustrated by the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, which killed 146 mostly migrant workers. How far were these events in US labor a formative experience for Pankhurst herself — and did they shape her view of what the WSPU were fighting for?

KC

Sylvia Pankhurst had been interested in women’s working conditions long before her tour of the United States. In the summer of 1907, she began an independent tour of northern Britain observing different kinds of women’s employment with a view to producing a book on the subject. The very nature of this project contrasted with the WSPU’s approach at this time which was to marginalize working-class women from the campaign and to exclude issues specific to them. So, Sylvia Pankhurst’s political disagreements with the WSPU were nothing new.

What the tours of America did provide, however, was an extensive space and time away from the WSPU leadership: her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, and her older sister Christabel Pankhurst. As the representative of the suffragettes in the US, Sylvia was able to articulate her own (far more radical) view of the suffrage struggle in Britain and integrate the results of her research into women’s work into arguments for political representation.

Being in America during a period of sustained working-class militancy, in which women were frequently in the forefront, did have a profound effect on Sylvia. This movement was a living rebuttal of the WSPU leaders’ view of working women as weak, passive victims who needed wealthier women to represent them. As you say, Sylvia Pankhurst was also in America when the Triangle fire broke out and she joined the funeral procession for the victims. We know this affected her because she wrote about it in the book and spoke about it to American audiences. Speaking alongside labor organizer Rose Schneiderman in 1912, Sylvia Pankhurst said that the Triangle fire was the result of working-class people being denied the power to represent themselves. In the face of both the achievements of the workers’ movement and the terrible tragedy at the Triangle, Sylvia drew the same conclusion: working-class people could and must be able to control how they lived their lives.

A similar wave of working-class militancy swept Britain from 1910 up to the outbreak of war in 1914, and upon her return from America in 1912 Sylvia created a WSPU branch in working-class East London which sought to link the suffrage struggle with striking women workers. It was for this that Sylvia Pankhurst and the entire branch was expelled from the WSPU in January 1914 by Christabel. The differences between the two organizations would become starkly apparently later that year when Britain entered the First World War. While the WSPU suspended its campaign for women’s political rights and prioritized support for the British Empire, Sylvia’s organization in East London did not stop campaigning and would eventually become an explicitly antiwar organization.

DB

You describe how her research had led her to focus on the “double burden” on working women, whose oppression as women allowed employers to increase their exploitation as workers. Yet you also highlight that her more elite US audiences were convinced this was only a problem in the “old country” or among immigrants, not among American women. How did Sylvia Pankhurst counter this argument? What links did she establish with immigrant organizations and labor unions in the US? How far was this an “organizing” trip rather than just a lecture tour?

KC

It was to counter the arguments that sweatshops were not central to American capitalism, and that women’s work was peripheral to the family budget, that Sylvia Pankhurst began to research her book. She read a lot of reports and conducted interviews with women workers herself. She used the results of this research to show that women’s inferior status (embodied in their lack of political rights) enabled employers to pay them less and, indeed, to increasingly feminize the workforce to maximize profits. Women’s work, Sylvia concluded, was becoming more important and families were becoming more reliant upon their meager wages. Therefore, capitalism was not tending towards prosperity for all, as some claimed, instead it was producing increasing impoverishment which could only be countered by democratizing society. It is perhaps more accurate, then, to say that the lecture tour also functioned as a research trip.

The organizations with which Sylvia was most impressed were the more radical Settlement Houses, particularly Hull House in Chicago and Henry Street in New York, which prioritized actual experience of working people’s lives. Both these Houses were closely linked to their local Women’s Trade Union League, whose representatives Sylvia spoke alongside, and had experience of organizing with immigrant communities. Sylvia remained in contact with Lillian Wald at Henry Street and Jane Addams at Hull House after her departure from America.

The most important contact that Sylvia Pankhurst made while in America was Zelie Emerson, a Settlement worker in Chicago who was deeply involved in supporting the garment workers’ strike (1910–11) in that city. Zelie Emerson would travel to Britain in 1912 to help Sylvia Pankhurst establish the suffragette branch in East London. In this way, we see Sylvia Pankhurst drawing upon her experiences in America to change political activism in Britain.

DB

A theme of debates among US suffragettes was the embrace or otherwise of “militancy,” a debate which again resurfaced during Sylvia Pankhurst’s second tour. On March 1, 1912, while she was in America, back in London the famous attack on 10 Downing Street took place, in which her mother Emmeline smashed the windows with stones. But if such acts drew criticisms among some US suffragettes, did this debate over militant tactics reflect different visions of what the suffragettes were fighting for? What role did Sylvia Pankhurst play in the legislative efforts to allow American women to vote?

KC

Militancy had begun on October 13, 1905 when WSPU members Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney attended a Liberal rally and asked the candidates whether, if the Liberals won the forthcoming general election (which they did), they would grant votes for women. When their question was ignored, they asked again, standing on their chairs and waving banners, only to be very roughly ejected by the stewards and arrested for obstruction outside the meeting. In court, they refused to pay a fine and were sentenced to imprisonment.

At once, women’s suffrage was on the front page of the newspapers and could no longer be ignored. It’s important to remember that militancy began with women demanding that their questions be answered. Militancy, which in the beginning encompassed civil disobedience, street protests, and mass mobilizations, reflected the WSPU’s origins in the labor movement which was employing similar tactics around this time — for example, to make unemployment an election issue. Of course, deliberately breaking the law was also a way of showing that women were denied any other means of influencing the political process and that they were no longer going to ask politely and patiently.

New tactics were often informed by the level of state brutality the activists were faced with. For example, suffragettes first smashed windows (again of 10 Downing Street) when a demonstration outside Parliament was met with police violence including sexual assault. This tactic was both a protest against the priorities of the British state (in which private property is sacrosanct) and a practical measure: why subject yourself to a prolonged assault when you could get arrested far more quickly by smashing a window? Hunger striking was likewise a protest at suffragettes’ treatment in prison. Over time, the nature of suffragette militancy began to change: faced with the intransigence of the government women resorted to more extreme forms of protest. Sylvia Pankhurst believed that militancy had the capacity to inspire the public by demonstrating the courage and commitment of the suffragettes. She felt that it was only counterproductive when it did not win wider support. By contrast, in 1912 Christabel Pankhurst defended arson as an attack on the complacency of the British public — by this point she did not see militancy as a way to connect with people outside the movement. Sylvia Pankhurst felt that approach was elitist, which would not help galvanize the mass support needed to win.

But in some ways, the controversy over militant tactics masked many of the similarities between the campaigns. By 1911 the militants Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were prepared to accept a very limited women’s suffrage bill and their campaign was increasingly socially conservative — in that year they organized a “Coronation procession” in honor of the new king! This was not particularly distant from the social conservatism of many American nonmilitant suffragist leaders and the reactionary alliances that they were prepared to make.

Originating as a tactic of the labor movement, by 1911–12 militancy was a response to the intransigence of a government which was itself locked in a constitutional crisis. In the United States things were different — women’s suffrage had been won in some states, others were holding referendums on the issue, so there seemed to be a viable “constitutional” route.

Sylvia helped to advance the cause in the United States in a number of ways: she was invited to speak before state governments in Michigan and Des Moines, she participated in various state-wide campaigns, she marched in the front row of a large demonstration in Boston and in Fargo, North Dakota she helped suffragists establish their own campaign group.

DB

One contradiction is Sylvia Pankhurst’s campaigning focus on the conditions to which suffragettes were subject in prison, and the embrace of the argument that women should not be treated “like prisoners” by being refused the vote. How did this sit with a call for prison reform, or indeed her antiracism?

KC

I’m not sure that this was a particularly contradictory position. Pointing out that prisoners were denied the vote was a way of exposing the hypocrisy of anti-suffrage arguments which claimed that women were morally superior to the world of politics. Defenders of such arguments liked to present themselves as the guardians of a chivalrous society — it was important for women’s suffrage campaigners to be able to show that society was not protecting or respectful of women. The worldview of the ruling elites themselves proved it: they denied representation to those they viewed as unworthy and inferior.

Interestingly, Christabel Pankhurst did not want suffragettes to focus on prison conditions or to call for prison reform because she felt it distracted from the campaign for the vote. But many suffragettes, including Sylvia Pankhurst, were so horrified by what they experienced in prison that they felt compelled to speak out. They met women prisoners who were really the victims of male violence and these experiences further informed their arguments for the vote: that women would continue to suffer injustice if they were denied a voice. Many of the suffragettes did not want anyone to be treated “like prisoners”: the prisons were the epitome of a rotten system. This view is starkly apparent in Sylvia’s writing on the prisons in Nashville where she provides harrowing descriptions of the way in which racism is resulting in the terrorizing and criminalization of black people.

There’s another important dimension here: the British prison system in theory recognized political prisoners and distinguished them from “common criminals,” but suffragettes were frequently denied the status of political prisoners. Protesting at their treatment in prison — for example through the hunger strike — was a means of exposing the tyrannical behavior of the government.

DB

Sylvia Pankhurst is well-known for her embrace of anti-colonial causes, not least her activism against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Yet already in the period of her visits to America, she took a strong line against the racism that colored much of the United States suffragette movement. What drove this aspect of her thinking? What kind of contacts did she have in America which nurtured this interest?

KC

Sylvia Pankhurst grew up in a political tradition of solidarity with the anti-slavery struggle in the US. Sylvia was born in Manchester, or “Cottonopolis”: a city that grew rich from the labor in cotton mills. During the American Civil War, workers in the cotton industry were steadfast in their support for the blockade of the Confederate states, refusing to bow to pressure to work on cotton produced by slave labor despite the threat to their own livelihoods. Sylvia’s grandfather was a prominent supporter of the anti-slavery movement.

Moreover, some of the earliest women’s suffrage campaigners in Britain and America were ardent abolitionists. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, settled in Britain in the 1880s, she joined the Women’s Franchise League — a radical women’s suffrage group in which the Pankhursts were leading members. This group disagreed with contemporary suffrage organizations which were prepared to countenance giving the vote only to single women. The Women’s Franchise League compared their position of votes to women whether unmarried or married to that of the most radical abolitionists in the United States. In 1911 it was Harriot Stanton Blatch who invited Sylvia Pankhurst to America.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s continued adherence to this political heritage was informed by her conviction that struggles against oppression and for democracy were strengthened by uniting together. She did not believe that it benefited any struggle for democratic change to opportunistically disparage or hinder other progressive movements. Thus, in the book she recalls her visit to Fisk University in Nashville, a college for black students which her suffragist hosts had tried to stop her attending.

The contacts that Sylvia Pankhurst maintained from her American tours were those who were likewise committed to struggles against racism. For example, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sylvia had so much affection for Lillian Wald, who was among the founders of the NAACP at a founding meeting in the Henry Street Settlement. Later on, Sylvia would correspond with W.E.B. Du Bois and refer to the stance she took in Nashville in 1912, so this remained very important to her.

DB

One of the experiences on the US left that interested Sylvia Pankhurst was the socialist city council in Milwaukee. Her somewhat critical account provided the jumping off point for a reflection on socialism “from below” as opposed to seeing city administration as a “science” performed by the enlightened. How far did this intersect with arguments in the Labour Party, for instance around Fabianism? What role did this kind of vision of workers’ democracy have in her break with the WSPU?

KC

One of the exciting aspects of Sylvia’s manuscript on America is that we can see the development of her thinking around democracy. Sylvia, like all suffrage campaigners, was trying to envisage how a more democratic society might function and this is why she was so keen to visit Milwaukee. As a socialist, she wanted to see what socialism might look like. While she had much respect for the socialists’ integrity there, she was dismayed by their “top down” approach to reform which emphasized efficiency above working-class emancipation. It is in response to Milwaukee that we see Sylvia articulating her view that the formation of legislation must be done by those with actual experience of working people’s lives. Later, after the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Sylvia would champion the soviets (or workers’ councils) as more profoundly democratic form because it placed power directly in working-class people’s hands.

In her manuscript written in 1913, it is an authority to speak of workers’ lives that she seeks — and one reason that she was so impressed by the Settlement Houses. The research conducted by Fabians into social conditions went some way towards this — and she comments that the Fabians Sydney and Beatrice Webb would be better suited to sit in government than the Liberal John Burns. But the Pankhursts had long been disillusioned with the Fabians because they had supported Britain in the Boer War.

The notion that Sylvia develops in the manuscript, that true representation is to have knowledge of those whose lives will be affected by legislation, inevitably informed her breach with the WSPU leadership which maintained that wealthy women could best represent their poorer sisters in the struggle. Sylvia would later write that her decision to launch a working-class suffragette branch was based on her view that working women should be “fighters on their own account … revolting against the hideous conditions about them, and demanding for themselves and their families a full share of the benefits of civilization and progress.”

DB

A Suffragette in America is based on an unpublished book that Sylvia Pankhurst planned called American Letters. Most are addressed to Labour Party founder Keir Hardie, others to Emmeline Pethick Lawrence. Could you please tell us a bit about the history of the book itself — why did Sylvia Pankhurst plan to publish these letters, why didn’t she — and what is important about publishing them today?

KC

The manuscript is eight chapters of a book that Sylvia was evidently preparing for publication. It was based on her letters, mostly to Keir Hardie and one to the suffragette Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, which Sylvia had edited and rewritten. This is why I felt it was appropriate to publish the text: it was something that Sylvia wanted people to read.

Sylvia kept many of the letters in her archive, and, although they are an informative historical resource which is valid to refer to and quote from, I would not have published them as a book because that is not what Sylvia intended. The letters to Keir Hardie are deeply personal because she and Hardie were in love and in a relationship which could not be openly expressed as Hardie was married. Pankhurst’s archive is online now so all those letters can be read, and researchers can take from them what they feel is important. But I think we have to have a responsibility to our subjects about what we publish as books.

The important thing about the letters, from the perspective of this book, is that they tell us that at exactly the time that the WSPU was trying to separate the women’s and labor movements, Sylvia was discussing with Keir Hardie how they related to each other. She did not finish the manuscript, which we know she was writing at the height of the militant campaign she was leading in East London. I think the reason for this was that the problem she had been trying to answer in the book, about the relationship between the women’s and labor movements, was being surpassed by her own creation of a movement that was uniting the two in practice.

Today, the manuscript tells us about that crucial moment in Sylvia’s activism — when her long-held, private disagreements were channeled into action. That’s an interesting and overlooked part of the suffragette story in itself. But beyond that, Sylvia was writing as an experienced political activist about women’s oppression, racism, and exploitation under capitalism. These are problems that we face today, and Sylvia’s words can educate and inspire us to fight for a better world — just as she hoped they would when she was writing them.