Born in Manchester in 1882, Sylvia was the second daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women's Social & Political Union; the movement known as the Suffragettes which campaigned to get women the vote. Sylvia's father was the barrister and legal reformer Dr Richard Pankhurst, and regular visitors to her childhood home included the designer and socialist William Morris and the founder of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie.
Sylvia herself was an early force in the campaign for women’s right to vote. She was repeatedly imprisoned for her protests – more than any other Suffragette – but she had many other interests, both idealogical and cultural. Sylvia was a gifted painter and graphic designer who had trained at the Royal College of Art. Influenced by Walter Crane, William Morris and others, her early paintings and decorative art were of very high quality, and she created some memorable designs for the Suffragette movement. At the Royal College of Art she discovered that most of the scholarships were only offered to men, but her protests were ignored even after Keir Hardie brought the matter up in Parliament. She was commissioned to decorate Pankhurst Hall in Salford, erected by the Independent Labour Party and named after her father, only to find later to her disgust that women were not to be admitted to the building. It was this discovery of Sylvia's that spurred her mother Emmeline into founding the WSPU.
Sylvia abandoned her artistic career, however, in favour of altruistic work, initially after discovering the appalling conditions suffered by women in the East End just before the first world war. 'Wherever there is a need,' she said, 'there is my country'.
She was imprisoned again in 1920, for the publication of political articles in the Workers' Dreadnought – actually written for her by the American journalist Claude McKay. She published literature all her life; not only political however. She had a lifelong interest in the care of mothers and babies, and in 1930 she published Save the Mothers: A plea for measures to prevent the annual loss of about 3000 child-bearing mothers and 20,000 infant lives in England and Wales and a similar grievous wastage in other countries.
Meanwhile, she had met an Italian revolutionary called Silvio Corio. Born in Turin in 1877, he had trained in Italy as a printer and typographer but was also a journalist with an interest in politics. They fell in love, and went to live together in Woodford from 1924 until Silvio died in 1954. Their son Richard was born in 1927.
For the rest of her life she remained constantly active, campaigning against political oppression and promoting worldwide human rights. When she finally moved to Ethiopia in 1956 at the request of Emperor Haile Selassie, she turned her attentions once again to improving conditions for mothers and babies, and campaigned to open a specialist women's hospital. On her death, she was given an Ethiopian state funeral, and was buried in a place reserved for Ethiopian heroes.