Cover Image: Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst

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Member Reviews

What an inspirational and iconic woman Sylvia was, and how telling that she is generally known only within the context of the Pankhurst family and her work for the suffragette cause. This wonderfully readable biography is like three books in one: the first traces the lives of Sylvia Pankhurst's parents, especially her mother Emmeline; the second is a wonderfully-realised history of British progressive politics and activism including the birth of the Labour party; and the third is the life of Sylvia herself. Of course, all three are intertwined and are written about in great detail that never becomes wearisome. Holmes keeps this engaging and limits her footnotes (notably, they are only 5% of the volume so this seems to be positioning itself as a general rather than scholarly text as not everything is referenced for follow-up). 

There is, though, a massive amount that I didn't know about Sylvia - firstly her long love affair with Keir Hardie, first leader of the Labour Party; and, secondly, her long-term interest with and in Ethiopia and Haille Selassie which begins with Mussolini's invasion but which ends with Sylvia emigrating to Ethiopia, which is also where she died in 1960. This section might be of especial interest to readers of Maaza Mengiste's 'The Shadow King', currently on the Booker Shortlist 2020.

It's astonishing to think that Sylvia who was born in 1882 and grew up under Victoria's regime lived on into the twentieth century, dying in 1960, and so saw so much change in society: the growth of the labour, union, socialist and feminist movements; the Russian Revolution, fascism in Europe, the anti-racism and anti-colonial movements. Holmes is perhaps stronger on the local and national rather than the international but that may be due to where the sources are: certainly, there's far more detail about Sylvia's early life, not least her arrests and multiple imprisonments for militant suffragette activism and the horrific bouts of force-feeding during her hunger strikes and sleep strikes. 

This doesn't sidestep the splits in the suffrage movement and Sylvia's distressing falling out with her mother and sister Christabel who may have started out as radicals but became more reactionary over time, wanting to limit the female vote to propertied and married women while Sylvia became more radical, tying female suffrage to the wider issue of universal suffrage and the enfranchisement of working men.   

This is long but it never outstays its welcome, and it widens our attention to Sylvia beyond the proto-feminist suffragette activism to her work that formed the foundation of the NHS amongst other things - and I particularly liked her arguments with Lenin!
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The whole family is fabulous, but Sylvia is one of my heroes. She wasn't just committed to women's suffrage, but to socialism and greater opportunities and fairness for all. A complex woman, this book gives a real insight into her beliefs and the conflicts - both familial and external which created her as a campaigner. Loved this book and could not recommend it more highly
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