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POLITICS & WORLD AFFAIRS

Sylvia on Anti-Nazi March
Sylvia holds forth at an anti-fascist demonstration in London's Hyde Park

Throughout her life, Sylvia Pankhurst was driven by her social conscience and never stopped trying to think of ways in which society could be improved. Her political ideals were never static, developing over time as her awareness of the world increased.

With her mother and sister she had fought for women's suffrage but Sylvia believed strongly in universal suffrage, feeling that the more participation people had in deciding their own destiny, the sooner they would see a fairer society. However, winning the vote was not enough, and her own work would continue long after that.

After leaving the Women's Social & Political Union in 1913, Sylvia went to work for the Labour Party, to drum up more support in the East End of London. She also became involved in the international women’s peace movement, bringing warring nations together at an international conference. The International Congress of Women met in the Hague in 1915 to protest against the World War; some 1500 women attended, coming from Europe and the United States. Afterwards, the Women's Peace Party was formed.

When it came to political lobbying, Sylvia aimed high. George Bernard Shaw wrote of her later, 'Like Joan of Arc she lectured, talked, won and over-ruled statesmen and prelates. She pooh-poohed the plans of generals leading their troops to victory. She had unbounded and quite unconcealed contempt for official opinion, judgement and authority.'

In 1918 Sylvia was invited to Moscow by Lenin, who had become leader of the Russian Communist Party after the 1917 Revolution. When World War I ended she had turned her hopes towards the new Russia; seeing Communism as the world's future. Lenin and Sylvia did not see eye to eye about everything, however.

By this time Sylvia and a revolutionary Italian journalist, Silvio Corio, were working together for Communism, and Sylvia's magazine the Workers’ Dreadnought (which she had formerly called the Woman's Dreadnought) their voice in Britain.

Sylvia became a keen Anti-Fascist when, in northern Italy, she saw Fascist groups using violence against other political groups and members of the public. Following the murder in 1924 by Fascists of the Italian Socialist Deputy, Giacomo Matteotti, she founded an Anti-Fascist pressure group, the Women's International Matteotti Committee.

Continuing her fight for world peace, back hom in Woodford she erected a monument against aerial warfare; she felt strongly that bombing innocent people from the sky was not a fair way to fight. In the 1930s she supported the Republicans in Spain, then helped Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Suspecting the lives of Ethiopians could be threatened by Italian occupation, Sylvia campaigned against it, but did not get the support of the British Government she hoped for. Sir Winston Churchill, MP for Woodford, had a long-running exchange with her about this in 1936 on the letters page of the Woodford Times.

Sylvia remained active in politics throughout her life, taking on specific causes that moved her including anti-racism. She was, incidentally, the first person in Britain to employ a black journalist. Britain remained suspicious of her, along with many other political figures who had at some time been allied to the Communist Party; in the MI5 Archives is a file dated 1948 discussing strategies for 'Muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst'. Her efforts on behalf of Ethiopia, however, were never forgotten in that country, where she was eventually to spend the last years of her life.

Also in the 'About Sylvia Pankhurst' section:
About Sylvia Pankhurst: Introduction, Background, The Pankhurst Family, Politics & World Affairs, and Sylvia in Woodford.