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SYLVIA PANKHURST AND ETHIOPIA

by Rita Pankhurst

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Sylvia Pankhurst
Sylvia looking very happy – with Emperor Haile Selassie. Courtesy of Dr Richard Pankhurst and the LSE Library Archive

People not acquainted with the post-Suffragette part of Sylvia Pankhurst’s life are surprised that, in her seventies, she 'suddenly went off to Ethiopia'. In fact, her move to that country was a logical conclusion to all that preceded it

Fascism, Ethiopia, and New Times and Ethiopia News
Sylvia Pankhurst came from a politically active – and progressive – family. Visitors to the house of her parents, Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst, included socialists, anarchists, communists and free-thinkers from many parts of the country, the continent of Europe, the United States and India. Early in the 20th century, as a promising young student of art, she won a scholarship to study mosaics in Venice, where she developed a keen interest in Italy and Italian culture. On returning to Britain she was drawn into the newly established Suffragette movement.

In 1919 she travelled again to Italy, by then an active international socialist. In Bologna she witnessed Mussolini’s thugs, the squadristi, beating up their political opponents and others. This turned her almost overnight into an anti-Fascist. Three years afterwards, in 1922, Mussolini seized power, and two years later he ordered the assassination of the notable Socialist parliamentarian, Giacomo Matteotti.

Sylvia was deeply shocked. In 1928 she founded the Women’s International Matteotti Committee, which won the support of a galaxy of intellectuals of the Left, including Bertrand Russell and Harold and Frida Laski. The Committee had some similarities with her earlier East London Federation of the Suffragettes, which was concerned both with the political enfranchisement of women and with the bread-and-butter issues facing the people of the East End of London. Both organisations were organisations of women and both had a broad political purpose, as well as a practical humanitarian one. On the political level, Sylvia, through the Matteotti Committee, drew attention to the reactionary and repressive character of Italian Fascism.

Sylvia saw Fascism as the antithesis of everything she believed in: it was chauvinist and militarist, whereas she was an internationalist, opposed to war; Mussolini had no truck with democracy, whereas she, like her father, believed in its extension; Fascism held that women’s primary duty was breeding soldiers for the Duce, whereas she had been a feminist all her life; and, as a Socialist, she deplored the suppression of the Italian Socialist and trade union movements.

On the humanitarian level, Sylvia publicised the information that Silvio Corio, her life partner, learnt from Italy about the distressing situation of Matteotti’s widow, Velia, and the Matteotti children. Velia was not allowed to receive visitors. A searchlight was beamed on her house all night to deter them. Dr Germani, who attempted to see her, was imprisoned on the penal island of Ponza. Her two sons were forbidden to use their father’s name at school, and were obliged to salute an effigy of the Duce who had ordered their father’s death. Matteotti’s grave was frequently vandalised, and Velia was prevented from leaving the country. Sylvia, in her endeavour to draw attention to Velia’s plight, worked closely with Carlo Rosselli, editor of the Italian émigré newspaper, Giustizia e Libertà, who was later to be assassinated in Paris, not by coincidence, on the 13th anniversary of Matteotti’s death.

Sylvia found that, on the island of Ponza the prisoners did not receive adequate medical treatment, and that Dr Germani, who was a surgeon, could have helped his fellow prisoners had he had access to surgical equipment. Characteristically she tried to come to the aid of these particular detainees. By enlisting the help of the Socialist Medical Association, she succeeded in obtaining the necessary instruments. However, despite a promise from the Italian Embassy in London, Germani was not allowed to use them.

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Also in the 'Her Campaigns' section:
Her Campaigns: Introduction, Sylvia and Suffrage, Sylvia in London's East End, Sylvia and Ethiopia and The Stone Bomb