September 27

This Day in History

General Interest

Sep 27, 1960:

Sylvia Pankhurst dies

Sylvia Pankhurst, British suffragette and international socialist, dies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the age of 78.

Born in Manchester, England, in 1882, Sylvia Pankhurst was the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, a champion of woman suffrage who became active in the late 1880s. Sylvia won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and in London divided her time between her studies and involvement in her mother's campaign to win women the right to vote. With her mother and older sister--Christabel--she helped found the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, a political organization dedicated to achieving equality between the sexes, with an emphasis on female enfranchisement.

In 1906, she abandoned her studies and a promising career in art to pursue politics full time. A socialist, she believed that lower-class women would never be liberated until they were brought out of poverty. Because of this view, she began to drift from her more conservative mother and sister, who were focused on the goal of woman suffrage. Nevertheless, she remained a dedicated member of the WSPU and, like her sister and mother, was arrested numerous times for nonviolent protests and conducted hunger strikes. When Christabel and other members of the WSPU began to advocate violent acts of agitation--particularly arson--Sylvia, a pacifist, opposed them.

In 1914, Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU for her insistence on involving working-class women in the suffrage movement. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst felt that suffrage could best be achieved through the efforts of middle-class women like themselves. Bringing leftist politics into the movement, they reasoned, would only enflame the British government. The gulf between the Pankhursts grew wider when Emmeline and Christabel called off their suffrage campaign at the outbreak of World War I and became adamant supporters of the British war effort. These actions won them the admiration of the British government, but Sylvia refused to compromise her pacifist beliefs and took an opposite approach.

From her base in the poor East End of London, Sylvia ran the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) and published a working-class women's paper, the Woman's Dreadnought. She became regarded as a leader of working-class men as well as women and convinced a few labor organizations to oppose the war. Because non-agricultural male laborers had also not yet been granted the vote, she changed the name of the ELFS to the Workers' Suffrage Federation in 1916, and in 1917 the Woman's Dreadnought became the Workers' Dreadnought. She corresponded with Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and in 1920 was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). In 1921, however, she was expelled from the party when she refused to close the Workers' Dreadnought in favor of a single CPGB paper.

Britain granted universal male suffrage in 1918. Soon after, women age 30 or over were guaranteed the vote. In 1928, the voting age for women was lowered to 21, the age that men could vote. By then, Sylvia Pankhurst had shifted her energies to opposing racism and the rise of fascism in Europe. In 1935, she campaigned vigorously against the invasion of Ethiopia by Fascist Italy and founded The New Times and Ethiopia News to publicize the plight of the Ethiopians and other victims of fascism. She later helped settle Jewish refugees from Germany.

In 1956, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie invited her to live in Ethiopia, and she accepted the invitation. Although in her 70s, she founded the Ethiopia Observer and edited the paper for four years. She died on September 27, 1960, and was given a state funeral by the Ethiopian government in recognition of her service to the country.

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