Book Review: Sylvia Pankhurst-Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire

Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire by Katherine Connelly.

Katherine Connelly. Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire. London: Pluto Press, 2013. RRP £14.99 paperback.

Sylvia is my favourite Pankhurst. Her mother and older sister Emmeline and Christabel are the most famous Pankhursts, but their conservative and authoritarian tendencies are off putting. Adela is fascinating, but it is hard to like her because of her conversion to far-right nationalism in the 1940s. Sylvia, however, remained committed to her socialist principles throughout her life, and campaigned tirelessly to make like better for marginalised groups of all kinds. She has been one of my heroes for some time, so I was excited to read Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire and find out more about this fierce campaigner. The book is part of Pluto Press’ Revolutionary Lives series: short, critical biographies of prominent radical figures ranging from Gerard Winstanley to Leila Khaled.

Sylvia was above all profoundly committed to a radical, far-reaching conception of democracy for women, for workers and for people struggling to overthrow the dominance of Empire…For those in today’s social movements who want to change the world, Sylvia’s ideas, campaigns and the dilemmas she confronted with are more important that we have been led to believe.

Connelly, 2013; p.3.

Katherine Connelly has written an engaging, well-paced, and insightful biography. Sylvia’s life was so varied and eventful that it would be hard to write a boring biography, but Connelly’s style is clear and logical. The text is punctuated with quotes from Sylvia herself and those who knew and encountered her, which introduces a broad range of perspectives. There is no denying that Sylvia was pretty awesome. From her suffrage activity, to her rejection of stereotypical family values, to her defence of Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy in 1935, to her rejection of all colonialism, there is lots about her to admire. It is tempting to put historical figures like Sylvia on a pedestal, portraying them as perfect visionaries who cannot be critiqued. Connelly does not fall into this trap, pointing out the moments when Sylvia could have made better strategic decisions, or when her beliefs held her back from building connections with other activists and groups.

Sylvia was involved in a dazzling array of organisations during her lifetime, and left-wing groups are not particularly known for having catchy, easy to remember names. Even Sylvia’s own organisation in the East End of London changed it’s name multiple times to reflect Sylvia’s evolving beliefs. Starting as the East London Federation of the WSPU, it became the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914, then the Worker’s Suffrage Foundation in 1916, the Worker’s Socialist Federation in 1918, the the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) – not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain – and finally the Communist Worker’s Party before it dissolved itself in 1924. In other books I have read about this period I have got confused by the huge range of radical groups and their different perspectives, but this wasn’t the case as I read Sylvia Pankhurst. Perhaps because the focus is on how Sylvia’s changing political sensibilities were manifested through the organisations she led and worked with rather than the groups themselves, I found it easy to keep everything straight in my head.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a truly fascinating and inspiring woman, and Connelly has done an excellent job of telling her life story. I enjoyed learning more not just about what Sylvia did, but why she did it, how her political beliefs drove and shaped her. If you know Sylvia’s story well then you will still get a lot out of this book, and if you don’t know much about her then you should definitely read it – Sylvia deserves to be better known, and there is much that modern activists could learn from her.

Turbulent Londoners: Daisy Parsons, 1890-1957

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. My next Turbulent Londoner is Daisy Parsons, a Suffragette and the first female Mayor of West Ham.


 

Daisy Parsons

Daisy Parsons, MBE (Source: Newham Story).

Daisy Parsons was a formidable woman. Despite leaving school at the age of 12 to help support her family she became a force to be reckoned with in East End politics, working closely with Sylvia Pankhurst in the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), then going on to become the first female Mayor of West Ham.

Born Marguerite Lena Millo on the 25th of May 1890, Daisy must have had a difficult childhood. She was born in Poplar in East London, her family moving to nearby Canning Town when Daisy was 8 months old. She had 5 younger brothers, and because her father was an invalid, her mother had to take on washing and charring work. Daisy was given a certificate of exemption in 1902 so that she could leave Beckton Road School early to look after her brothers, a necessity she always regretted. When she was 14 she left home to work as a maid, but later became a cigarette packer at the Carreras Tobacco Company in Aldgate, because the pay was better. Women and girls were paid 3d for every 1000 cigarettes they packed (most managed about 3000 a day).

It was whilst working at the tobacco company that Daisy had her first contact with the trade union movement; male employees at the factory had a fixed lunch hour and a space to eat because their union had fought for them. Female employees had to eat in the toilets! Daisy’s husband Tom was a driver for Stepney Borough Council and an active union member. They married in December 1908 when Daisy was 18.

Daisy obviously had a keen interest in politics in her own right- she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and the International Labour Party, and was one of the founding members and the secretary of the ELFS. She was remembered as being assertive and persuasive. She was clearly not one to shy away from action- at Suffragette demonstrations she carried a ‘Saturday Nights’ (a length of hemp rope tied at one end, a sort of improvised cosh) hidden up her sleeve in case she needed to defend herself.

Daisy Parsons- Suffragette Deputation

Daisy was part of a deputation to the Prime Minister from the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914. She is on the far right of this image (Source: Janice Brooker).

Daisy took part in a deputation of working women to Prime Minister Asquith on the 12th of June 1914, trying to persuade him of the necessity of female suffrage. By this point she had 2 daughters, and was also looking after her niece. Daisy stuck with Sylvia Pankhurst after the split with her mother and sister, and ELFS worked tirelessly during the first world war, setting up a Mother and Child Welfare Centre in West Ham to help women who were struggling whilst their husbands were away, or had been killed.

When women over 30 were given the right to vote in 1918 Daisy still couldn’t vote because she was only 29! This did not deter her from moving into mainstream local politics however, and she was elected as a Labour Councillor for Beckton ward in 1922. She became deputy Mayor of West Ham in 1931, and Mayor in 1936. She also became a Justice of the Peace in 1933, and an Alderman of West Ham in 1935. During World War 2 Daisy organised the evacuation of local children and helped to organise the Women’s Voluntary Service. Her efforts did not spare her from tragedy however; her brother and niece were killed in the Blitz.

Daisy Parsons- Beckton Lido

Daisy Parsons at the opening of the Beckton Lido in August 1927 (Source: Newham Photos).

Daisy Parsons was obviously respected and admired. She was awarded the Freedom of West Ham in 1939, the highest honour which the borough can bestow, and was made an MBE in 1951 in recognition of her public service. She had gone from radical Suffragette to respected local official, but I get the impression she retained her determined and caring nature.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Daisy Parsons, MBE.’ The Newham Story. No date, accessed 21st March 2016.  http://newhamstory.com/node/991

Brooker, Janice. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ Lost in London. Last modified 1st May 2007, accessed 21st March 2016. http://www.brooker.talktalk.net/daisy_parsons.htm

McCarthy, Ka. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ The Great British Community. Last modified 8th March 2016, accessed 21st March 2016. http://greatbritishcommunity.org/daisy-parsons/

Book Review: ‘Voices From History- East London Suffragettes’ by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor

'Voices from History: East London Suffragettes' by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor.

‘Voices from History: East London Suffragettes’ by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor.

Jackson, Sarah and Rosemary Taylor. Voices from History: East London Suffragettes. Stroud: The History Press, 2014.

Voices from History: East London Suffragettes marks 100 years since the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), a group led by Sylvia Pankhurst which was asked to leave the Women’s Social and Political Union after they refused to toe the party line. Not content with  campaigning for female suffrage, this inspiring group of women worked to aid and empower the local community. They started a nursery, 3 ‘cost-price’ restaurants and a co-operative toy factory, as well as campaigning for a living wage and better housing. Voices from History is a brilliant account of these achievements and others.

Voices from History is aptly named, telling the story of the ELFS with the aid of numerous first-hand accounts. One of the aims of the book is to celebrate the work of everyone involved in the Federation, even if their names have now been forgotten. The extensive quotes from multiple contemporary sources does this well, highlighting that the achievements of the Federation were down to the efforts of hundreds of individuals, not just well known leaders like Sylvia Pankhurst.

The book is very well contextualised, with female activism in the East End of London both before and after the  ELFS being detailed. I think it is often easy to view groups like the Suffragettes as isolated and unusual incidents, but in fact that is most often not the case, and the structure of the book demonstrates that well. There is a long tradition of radical activism in the East End, and the book situates the ELFS within this history. The final chapter discusses women’s activism in the East End since the suffragettes, right up to the present day. I particularly liked this way of concluding the book, as it shows that the story is not in fact over; there are many more battles to be fought against poverty and inequality in the East End.

Any criticisms that I have are minor really. In the middle of the book there are some wonderful pictures that illustrate the story brilliantly, but I would prefer it if they were interspersed throughout the book, so that you don’t have to keep skipping back and forth to the relevant images. Also, I would have liked more information about the archives and sources used during the research for the book. Even just a few sentences about how and where the research was conducted would have been much appreciated.

Voices from History is a thoroughly enjoyable read about a fascinating period of radicalism in the history of the East End of London. I attended the launch of the book as part of the East London Suffragette Festival in August this year and it was clear that the project was a labour of love for the two authors. Their admiration of the East London Suffragettes, and their determination that the ELFS get the recognition it deserves, shines through the pages of the book. The reader can’t help but feel the same.

What’s in a Name?

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Richard II meets the rebels on 13 June 1380. This image is from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart’s ‘Chronicles’.

Occupy. The French Revolution. The Notting Hill Riots. The Battle of Cable Street. The Gordon Riots. The American War of Independence.

Many episodes of protest and contentious politics have been given a catchy name by which they are remembered. It is one of those things that you ( or I, anyway) don’t tend to think about very much. A name is often the first thing you learn about an event or period of time, and it is frequently the only thing you remember long after you have forgotten any other details. As such, it has a lot of power to shape perceptions of the event or time period they are referring to. But names can be misleading, creating perceptions that are inaccurate, or even flat out wrong. I have recently come across several examples of such misconceptions, which highlight the importance of  an awareness of how these names came about, who came up with them, what their purpose was, and, on occasion, the need for a new name.

The recent BBC2 series Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives devotes an entire episode to John Ball, fourteenth century preacher and inspiration behind the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. In it, Bragg briefly argues the the Peasant’s Revolt is a misnomer, because  it was not only peasants that took part. Artisans, shopkeepers and other members of the middle class were also involved in the insurrection. Bragg doesn’t mention where the title Peasant’s Revolt came from, but it clearly may have served to belittle and minimise the movement by attributing it solely to the least powerful group in society. It may even have been a deliberate attempt to reduce the significance of the event in the eyes of history, by hiding the fact that a cross section of society were not supportive of the government, rather than just one group.

A similar example is the Matchgirl’s Strike of 1888. Louise Raw’s excellent book Striking a Light argues for the use of the term ‘matchwomen’ instead of ‘matchgirls’. Although many of the women involved were very young, the use of the word ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’ paints a particular picture of the strikers, portraying them as innocent, inexperienced, vulnerable, and in need of help. This image served the purposes of both supporters and critics of the strike at the time, but it has contributed to a skewing of the way that history views the events. Over time the agency of the women has been removed reducing the popular narrative of what happened  during the strike to an inaccurate caricature.

The effects of these derogatory names are not always negative, however. During the course of the wonderful East London Suffragette’s Festival recently, I learnt that the name ‘Suffragette’ was coined by a reporter for the Daily Mail, aiming to shame and belittle these women conducting themselves in such an outrageous manner. The insult backfired however, as the women of the suffrage movement embraced the title, taking ownership and turning it from an insult to a celebration of the women’s tactics.

Of course it is not possible for a name to encompass every single aspect of a protest or social movement, and I am not arguing that it should be able to. I am merely pointing out that, like most things, names are not neutral, unbiased descriptors. Like almost everything else, they should be viewed with a critical eye, and their purpose and effects should be carefully considered.

The Suffragette

The Suffragettes embraced the title meant as an insult (Source: Museum of London).

References

‘Now is the Time: John Ball.’ Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives. BBC2. Broadcast 2nd August 2014.

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

East London Suffragettes Festival

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‘The Awakening of Miss Appleby,’ a pro-suffrage play (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Between the 1st and the 10th of August 2014 was the East London Suffragettes Festival (http://eastlondonsuffragettes.tumblr.com), celebrating the centenary of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Over the course of the 10-day period, a series of events were organised across East London, including a film night, talks, a book launch, a walking tour and, on Saturday the 9th, a full day of talks, events, and stalls at Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets. Organised solely by volunteers, I think it is safe to say that the festival was a huge success. I attended the book launch, the day at Toynbee Hall, and the walking tour, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself at all three.

 

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East London Suffragettes Walking Tour, led by David Rosenberg (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The East London Federation of Suffragettes were more radical and broad in their aims than more well-known groups campaigning for women’s suffrage. The group started out as a branch of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), run by Sylvia Pankhurst. As the mainstream suffrage movement focussed on the emancipation of middle and upper class women, Sylvia worked with working class women in the East End of London.The East End women were asked to leave the WSPU when Sylvia disobeyed her mother’s (Emmeline Pankhurst) orders and spoke at a rally in support of Irish Home Rule. It was at this point that the East London Federation of Suffragettes came about. Whilst other suffrage groups suspended their campaigns during the First World War, Sylvia and her fellow activists kept campaigning, becoming increasingly anti-war as time progressed. As well as campaigning, the group set up a cost-price restaurant, a nursery, and a cooperative toy factory to help support the local community. 

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Poetry in Toynbee Hall (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

All of the above information I learnt during the course of the festival, I had no previous knowledge of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. So for me at least, the festival’s goal of revealing the ‘Hidden Histories’ (one of the panel discussions organised by the festival) of the women of the East End was a resounding success. Another of the festival’s goals was to look forward as well as back, connecting the work of the suffragettes with campaigns that are still going on today, in particular the issue of tackling domestic abuse in East London. This is an admirable goal, and it proves that the study of historical protest has a purpose beyond entertainment or commemoration. Activists and campaigners can learn from their past counterparts, and also take heart and inspiration. Sylvia Pankhurst and the women of the East End were brave, strong, and fiercely independent, embodying qualities that many modern women, campaigners or not, aspire to. We should remember them because they deserve to be celebrated, but also because their actions continue to inspire and empower.

Thank you and congratulations to everyone involved in the organising and running of the festival, you did a wonderful job.