Olivia Logan in conversation with Rachel Holmes: author of Sylvia Pankhurst Natural Born Rebel, a biography of the suffragette, communist, journalist and anti-fascist activist

CN: sexual assault, rape, torture

Sylvia Pankhurst grew up in one of Britain’s most radical political families, with famous socialists, abolitionists, anarchists, suffragists and freethinkers passing through her childhood home. Yet her initial interest was in art. Was it inevitable that she would leave this avenue behind to focus on politics?
I think with all figures, and particularly with women, it’s never inevitable. And if it looks inevitable I think that what tells you is that someone has actually, not in the Greek mythic sense, fulfilled their destiny, I don’t believe in that, [rather] that they’ve actually just filled a set of values and principles that are consistent and make sense. And often what that means in the end, is that someone has actually been themselves and survived. 

[…]I think that the household environment is really important, because it’s really important who people meet and what they have the opportunity to engage with. Other people Sylvia worked with, such as Keir Hardie and Annie Kenney would have to wait until different times in their lives [for that opportunity]. Keir Hardie had to have the opportunity of moving in other circles outside of his upbringing to [engage with anti-racist politics], whereas Sylvia had already had that opportunity at home.

Sylvia Pankhurst in 1909

But I don’t think she ever does leave the art [behind] – because I think that her importance as a campaigning artist is profound. The ability to transform those skills into animating and illustrating a movement and politics is one of the reasons the suffragettes succeeded. […] I think that the ability to brand, what we now call branding, to give an identity and colour using those skills, whether it’s the caps, the banners, making the badges and all that kind of stuff, is not only [about] fundraising but it’s also that sense of bringing people in, particularly young women, to say, “This is for you”, and to speak across generations and classes.

When you are in a crisis, when you’re in a state of emergency […] there is no choice

And she wasn’t just good at [art], not like a prime minister who can also play the piano, she was really brilliant. The scholarship to Manchester School of Art, the national scholarships to The Royal College of Art, these are premium institutions and yet when she’s at The Royal College of Art […] she can’t not be herself. And it’s interesting because it’s not entirely about the sense of a dilemma, but about a sense of injustice and she clearly has that flame. I think that she really could have [worked as an artist] and we can see demonstrably that there is actually that period where she is earning money from it. So, she really could have made a living from it.

Biographer Rachel Holmes

[…] And I think it’s really relevant to Black Lives Matter but more importantly to Extinction Rebellion, because Black Lives Matter is a reiteration of a much longer movement, but when you are in a crisis, when you’re in a state of emergency, and I would use the analogy of the climate crisis now, there is no choice. You know? I don’t expect that Greta Thunberg particularly wanted to take time out of school. […]I have friends in Palestine who would obviously rather be doing something else, but they aren’t going to be able to live with their family and friends in the place they come from unless this is made right. I think it’s important to see that as quite a natural, human and almost sort of, normal thing, rather than thinking it makes for exceptionalism.

I think that [she had] no choice. We talk about it as a dilemma but in the end there is no choice. But, I think there is more work to be done in asking how do you use art and situationism and almost installation as a way of engaging people in these ways? To really focus on the artistic and creative techniques and skills that she used and indeed the whole movement used, whether it was music, dance [or] theatre.

Sylvia is predominantly known in relation to her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, but their personal relationship was laden with deep political differences. Can you explain the rift which includes Sylvia being expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union by her mother and sister Christabel?
The Pankhursts all started from the same position; they evolved out of a shared belief in social democracy and socialism. I think it’s really important to remember that the Women’s Social and Political Union emerged from the Independent Labour Party. To summarise it, when Emmeline Pankhurst, whose statue stands in Victoria Gardens precisely because she renounced her socialism and because she became a Tory candidate, writes her own memoir, she airbrushes out the fact that [the Pankhursts] were all Independent Labour Party [members]. 

But the division between the sisters and mother represents a broader split, so that’s the point of telling the story. It’s not just them, it’s everybody and it’s over two things, which fundamentally do come down to principles, values and belief in equality. Sylvia believed that the women’s movement had to be linked to all other movements for equality, race equality, equality for the franchise for women and men. Many people forget that a lot of working men didn’t have the vote at the time. [For Sylvia] the principle of including working women, for the movement being a cross-class movement, was absolutely essential. Emmeline and Christabel were willing to do without that. 

[To paraphrase] Christabel: “Bourgeois women, we look nice and we speak nice so we are less threatening and we can use our femininity to get our way, then when we’ve done that we’ll open the doors for everyone else.” But Sylvia disagrees. So their split over the inclusion of working women in the women’s vote, is absolutely profound. In Germany, France and Italy, women who considered themselves feminists were questioning how there could be a demand for anything other than universal suffrage. If posh women and some white working men could vote, this was not about feminism. It was about class. 

Then came the First World War. Sylvia and many other socialists were pacifists and saw the war as a manufactured, capitalist war. Emmeline and Christabel supported the war, with brutal xenophobia and racism against Germans and Italians. It’s really important to remember that they are also split over Ireland and of course, Sylvia supports Irish nationalism. It is a political split and I think that’s really important. As feminists we need to constantly acknowledge and have these conversations about divisions within our movement and that’s why it’s so important [that] questions of race […] are about questions of class as well. 

Sylvia met Scottish trade unionist and founder of the Independent Labour Party, Keir Hardie, when she was 12. The pair would later become romantically involved in what was a formative, but extramarital and very private relationship. How did Sylvia influence Hardie?
Sylvia Pankhurst influenced Keir Hardie in very decisive ways and again it’s linked to the influence of the whole Pankhurst family. The very fact that Hardie stood up at Labour conferences and said [to paraphrase]: “If we do not ask for a solution on supporting the suffragettes, I’m stepping down.” He literally put his own career on the line for that. And she is significant because she keeps taking him back to that [cause], keeps reminding him.

Keir Hardie didn’t make Sylvia a feminist, she was a feminist already

Sylvia Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square

But the other aspect to it, and this is really important in superimposing anachronisms, or even misinterpreting a relationship, is the sense in which she very clearly pushes back and fights back. She influences him, but really in the end is the one woman that says no. Because she knows she can’t have what they wanted to have and that was never going to be possible. It’s tragic. And when it came to it, Sylvia, a much younger woman, said she wasn’t going to carry on living like that forever because that was necessary for the leadership or because that was the arrangement. I think it’s really important not to underestimate that.

It’s been a matter of huge interest to me that some think of theirs as an unhealthy, negative relationship and that he was a bad person because he was having an affair and she was just the mistress – because no feminist ever has an affair or sleeps with somebody else’s boyfriend or husband! We are all saints!

Some younger women I have spoken to think, “This is terrible, he was grooming her.” Of course those relationships do exist and they are inappropriate, they can be damaging, they are a form of sexual abuse and there is no doubt that happens, but that is not what happened in this instance. 

Also, it is really important to remember the age gap between Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst. People don’t judge “the mighty Emmeline Pankhurst” but if anything, Emmeline had a much more pedagogical relationship with Richard Pankhurst, who made her a feminist. Keir Hardie didn’t make Sylvia a feminist, she was a feminist already. 

It’s also often said that Sylvia didn’t have any guilt or anxiety about Lillie, Hardie’s wife. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no doubt that she felt conflicted about it and that is apparent in the accounts of her dreams and short stories. 

Also, she taught him to drink coffee!

Sylvia travelled all over, often studying factory working conditions, prison conditions and interviewing inmates. In 1912 she made a seminal trip to the US, visiting the newly socialist governed Milwaukee and meeting the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)*. What did she learn and bring back from this trip?
I think what she brings back is an independent Sylvia Pankhurst, because it really gives her the opportunity to break free of her family and stand on her own feet. But her engagement with the US women’s rights movement is really important. Again, we go back to the fact that she met really significant activists, leading activists from the movement such as Harriet Stanton Blatch via her own family in England. So these links were [already] firmly established. 

And of course the [US] movement divides as the British movement does, along race and class lines. But what’s really important is her engagement with socialist women, particularly in the industrial towns. That intersection gives her an insight into forms of organising and activism which were very coherent and successful in the US. I think the other thing is the difference in class. US feminists […] had a different interaction and different way of being than the conventions of class in Britain.

Crucially, she saw the way that feminism could be a mass movement, because of how big the US is. She saw the possibility of that, but also, through individuals and groups, she encountered different forms of organisations that were hugely important to informing her when she came back. We can see that in her move to East London, her establishment the East London Federation of Suffragettes and inviting Zelie Emerson to come and contribute to all of that.

Another really important aspect of her US trip was going to black colleges and [universities such as Fisk], meeting the NAACP and understanding forms of black and race-based organisations which were very far progressed [in comparison] to how it was in Britain. This made Sylvia more sensitive so that when she saw the 1920s [rise of racism and fascism] in Europe, she was aware of it.

Lenin quite correctly regarded Sylvia as the most important socialist leader in Britain. […] He recognised the importance of her influence and her ability to engage people in the movement

Sylvia was the most imprisoned suffragette in history and was regularly victim to the horrific violence of force feeding. What was her relationship to the police and how did her experiences shape her understanding of the prison system?
Her relationship to the police is an interesting one, as is her relationship to her prison wardens. Because to Sylvia, the police are working men. They are men, but they are workers. Also, they are often men who may not have had the vote or who had only recently been enfranchised.

And I think that this is important as, even when she’s in prison, she has, given what she went through, extraordinary empathy and understanding. The wardresses are fellow women, they are women workers and the thing is, they were extraordinary. These women were being offered three or four times as much pay and more holiday, so those who refused to do [force feeding] were showing solidarity [with the suffragettes].

As much as Sylvia could have been an artist, she could have had a whole career as a prison reformer. It’s a basic question of: if you believe in rehabilitative justice, what is the point of prisons? Also, for people who have been disenfranchised, if you’re a woman without a vote, you live in another kind of prison, even when you’re not in prison anyway.

As regards to the question of torture, violence and abuse I think we do sanitise this, because it’s difficult. [The suffragette history] is taught at school and you can’t say: “Okay, they had their nipples twisted, they had their undergarments ripped off, they were dragged down side streets and raped, vaginally, anally, they were beaten up.” When they were rounded up into the vans in Trafalgar Square, they were made to pull their skirts up and tie them over their heads. All this humiliation, and we forget the extent of it. We forget the brutality of attacks of [police] on horseback or with truncheons. There were also [many] agent provocateurs, a great deal of surveillance and a combination of the two, just as there is now with Extinction Rebellion. It’s really important not to forget that there would be roughing up and horrible physical violence by paid agent provocateurs, who were police agents as well as the police themselves, to make these women scared of what they were doing.

The fact of the matter is that we airbrush that stuff out in the telling. And we do it ourselves. I spoke to quite a lot of people and the advice of the people I trusted was [to include it in the book]. There is so much stuff that is written out. For example the prevalence of anal and vaginal force feeding, is very underwritten. Historically, it’s a difficult situation. 

And now, we have something different which Sylvia and her sisters didn’t have, with Sarah Everard’s murder, women’s response to that and the appalling disproportionate policing on that Clapham event, we have a woman who is defending [violence against women] and frankly shouldn’t be in her job for it.

I think it’s really important that we relate this to the present. Again, in terms of what’s been happening [in London recently], the police have been pulling apart the glued hands of Extinction Rebellion activists. That is the kind of policing that you use on criminals who refuse to get out of stolen vehicles.

During the First World War, out of Sylvia’s radical, anti-war East London Federation of Suffragettes, came the ‘Mothers’ Arms’ a community base with daycare centres, nurseries, baby clinics and libraries, built to simultaneously sustain the organisation’s anti-war work. Building on these experiences, in 1930, she published Save The Mothers. What was the lasting impact of Sylvia’s research on maternal health?

Pankhurst in 1928 with her son Richard

Save the Mothers isn’t very interesting to read unless you’re interested in stats and figures, it’s technical and science based but it’s also profoundly about maternal health, literally about what makes the world go round. She writes that there should be a non-means tested, national maternal health service that is accessible to all women across class, because rich, bourgeois women are dying in their grand houses and poor women are also dying. If you look at the list of endorsements [in Save the Mothers], they were politicians, thinkers, writers, lots of people who didn’t agree with her politically.

And in 1948 when the NHS [is being established, politicians] were looking round for models and instructions, these ideas that had sat around. The civil service aspect of it is not a sexy story. But all it took is that someone in the civil service thought, “Oh yes, let’s see, what are we going to have to do? We’re actually going to have to see what some women have written and said about this. Oh, do you remember when Sylvia Pankhurst was banging on about it?” And all of this work became part of the materials that are used [in the formation of the NHS].

Often when women make a direct impact on history and, [in Sylvia’s case], their technical work is used [to set up] a national free maternity service or NHS, their work has been read, looked at, consulted and they’ve been invited to have meetings. Well what do the blokes do that’s any different, except get an f-ing, and I don’t mean feminism when I say f-ing, statue put up? The fact is that women make huge influences and innovations.

At our peril, do we think that the only forms of fascism come from an antisemitic man with a short moustache and storm troopers. Yes, absolutely, but that is only the final stage

In 1920 Sylvia smuggled herself into Soviet Russia to debate Lenin at a congress of the Third International. How did the pair come to meet and how did their politics differ?
Lenin quite correctly regarded Sylvia as the most important socialist leader in Britain. This is very indicative because at this time he was the most famous revolutionary leader in the world. He recognised the importance of her influence and her ability to engage people in the movement.

They came to know each other because they met, as I describe in the book, in the Kremlin. Lenin wanted to meet Sylvia in person to […] persuade her that […] if the Communist Party of Great Britain were founded it should seek to be affiliated with the Labour Party and also that it should participate in parliamentary democracy. Lenin thought that members [of The Communist Party of Great Britain] should stand for election and use the platform to communicate to people why there might be other, different and better ways of doing things. Which most people, apart from me, Sylvia Pankhurst and about four other people, still think is a highly reasonable and sensible position in how you influence and how you participate [in politics].

I think that Sylvia and Lenin were both right. From where Lenin was standing, Russia had nothing, whereas Britain already had these structures that could be worked with or pulled together, but [the two counties] were [in] very different situations. However, that was precisely the point because, [to paraphrase what Sylvia meant] was, “You have an opportunity to do this differently because [British parliamentary democracy] has evolved over 600 hundred years and it’s still not representing any women, any black people, it’s antisemitic and it’s basically a club for rich people!”

I think this is so fascinating because of Sylvia’s experience of being a suffragette. The Votes for Women demand was precisely for participation and parliamentary representation. Also, she was there at the birth of the Labour Party. The Labour Party came out of […] a split between the Fabians and socialists of the Independent Labour Party. I think Sylvia had too much knowledge on the ground and Lenin had too little.

Following the 1935-1936 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Sylvia began the New Times & Ethiopia News and a new chapter of her life, focused on anti-facist, anti-imperialist and anti-racist politics. She joined the struggle for Ethiopian independence and in 1956, at the invitation of Haile Selassi, she moved to Addis Ababa where she remained until her death in 1960. How did this development come about?
Sylvia begins in a household where many of the people visiting were American abolitionists. [These people were] already engaged in a race struggle which was an earlier iteration of the same [anti-racist movement] we are seeing now, which has its roots and emerges from it, as well as the women’s movement. And these things were always interconnected by socialism. Therefore to me, where she ends up is very logical. Because what is the point of any form of socialism if not absolutely to be, as it was and as it will have to be again, at the forefront of the fight against fascism. 

Sylvia travelled through Berlin when there were swastika banners hanging everywhere. She went shopping with Silvio Corio, her Italian life partner who was no doubt mumbling in the shop, to buy food for the train to Romania. In the shop she can’t even buy food; this horrible patriarch won’t serve her. On that occasion she sees what Hitler’s fascism is doing to women and she says [to paraphrase]: “They come for the women first and they start saying, ‘Go back home and have babies!’” So when she comes back to Britain, having had that direct experience, she does a lecture tour warning: “Watch out, because they will come for us first.”

At our peril, do we think that the only forms of fascism come from an antisemitic man with a short moustache and storm troopers. Yes, absolutely, but that is only the final stage and how do you not get to that stage? I think that’s the answer about the alerts that Sylvia picks up on [before the Second World War]. Let’s remember that she goes to prison for six months for sedition, just short of treason, and one of the primary reasons for that is because she has published articles about racism within the industrial labour movement. 

But I think that for her to end up in Ethiopia, and specifically in Addis Ababa, in this period reminds us where the geographical, emotional and political centre of the world was seen to be. When people ask, “Why would she go there?”, it tells us a lot about how people see the world. 

I could dress it up in all different ways: people remember Sylvia Pankhurst as a suffragette but don’t remember that she was an anti-racist and an anti-facist and that her anti-fascism began in an anti-racist struggle [against] Italy’s [colonial project in East Africa], which nobody cared about. Why, because these people were black? Because everybody cared enough to go and [fight fascism] in Spain. There’s even no question about Ireland. But when people say, “I don’t know that side of her”, I think well, Black Lives Matter is making a point. We don’t remember history [of] anti-racism and that [these movements were] profoundly strong. 

It is all part of the same whole. We also have to recapture the sense of that [postwar] moment of a political, intellectual, creative, artistic recentering and repositioning of the world. Post 1945 was about the postcolonial and anti-imperial resettlement of the world which we are still living through.

[When Sylvia finally decides to move to Addis Ababa] everyone has died. Her partner [Silvio Corio] and her best, best friend [Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence] had both died. And can you imagine how exciting it was, the record shops that had jazz and music from North America, South America and Subsaharan Africa and poetry and theatre! How fabulous that she puts her cat underneath her arm, off she goes and she has this whole other chapter in her 70s.

Somebody recently said to me, “I don’t know why some of these reviews keep going on about how long the book is. Frankly, I don’t know how you managed to sum-up her life in only a thousand pages.”

Sylvia Pankhurst Natural Born Rebel is published by Bloomsbury and is now available in paperback.


*The F-Word recognise that the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’ includes a term that is now considered a slur. However, the NAACP continues to use their full name despite this and we acknowledge their decision to do so. Writing the name of the organisation in full is in accordance with The F-Word’s style guide

The cover image of this interview shows Sylvia Pankhurst standing on some scaffolding outside the East London Suffragettes shop front at 198 Bow Road, London. The image is used under a creative commons license with thanks to RV1864 on Flickr.

The second image is a 1909 black and white portrait of Sylvia Pankhurst holding a book. This image is by an unknown photographer and is used under the creative commons license.

The third image is a black and white portrait of author Rachel Holmes. She has short, curly blonde hair and is wearing a black blazer. This image is used with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.

The fourth image is a black and white photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst making a speech in Trafalgar Square. The image is used under a creative commons license with thanks to Nationaal Archief on Flickr.

The fifth image is a black and white portrait of Sylvia Pankhurst and her son Richard Pankhurst in 1928. Sylvia is wearing a long lace dress and has a short bob. A young Richard sits to her right wearing a jumper and shorts. This image is used a creative commons license with thanks to LSE Library on Wikimedia.

The sixth image is the cover of Rachel Holmes’ book. It shows a black and white portrait of a young Sylvia Pankhurst. The book’s title is written in large white and red print. The cover design is by Emma Ewbank and the image is used with permission from Bloomsbury publishing.