For IWD I have reposted this blog from my company Empowered Apparel, which I wrote last year
It’s a rarity that I have nothing to do of a weekend. Usually I’m off canvassing in a far away place (like Georgia was this weekend for the wonderful Caroline Lucas), seeing my boyfriend or more often than not I’m at a debating competition. However, due to a horrible break up last week, I was left with nothing to do. With a strong desire to do something, I ended up searching for free events in Manchester and came across a screening of ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible‘ at the Peoples History Museum, part of the Wonder Woman Festival (which I’m disappointed to say I lacked previous knowledge of and am absolutely gutted, having missed some fantastic events on my doorstep!) Having wanted to visit the museum for a while, and for obvious feminist-interest reasons, I signed myself up.
The museum was absolutely fascinating (although only featured a small section on the suffrage movement to my dismay). It showed a real in-depth history of the struggle that people faced for centuries in getting their voice heard, and showed political events right up to modern day (especially with the current exhibit on the General Election, which to my glee featured a version of the board game Guess Who with political leaders). But the highlight really was the film afterwards.
I confess that if you asked me to name all the members of the Pankhurst family, I’d probably struggle, despite studying the journey to the vote in depth right up to my A-Levels (because even when I didn’t call myself a feminist, I was still interested in how women gained the vote…) My knowledge of Sylvia Pankhurst probably extended to her name, and that sitting unread on my shelf was a biography by Katherine Connelly. Through the film and a fascinating biography delivered beforehand, I discovered she is more than a feminist hero.
In 1914, Sylvia left the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed by her mother and sister Christabel and formed her own East London Federation of Suffragettes. I, like many, had always been under the assumption that this was due to her disagreement with the Militant Tactics, but the real reason was far more complex.
Tired of her mother’s desire to focus on ‘respectable’ women, and refusing to commit herself to only campaigning for the enfranchisement of women, Sylvia Pankhurst wanted to create a mass-movement. Her mass-movement would help liberate the working classes and her choice of a poor part of London to create her movement reflected this. Sylvia began publishing the Workers Dreadnought, a newspaper, and was involved in setting up one of the first Communist Parties in Britain. In later life, Sylvia committed herself to the liberation of Ethiopia. As Louise Naw in The Morning Star commented “She died in 1960, having championed the cause of the oppressed all her days.”
In other words, Sylvia Pankhurst is the kind of feminist I believe we should all aspire to be. Sylvia didn’t just focus on the enfranchisement of women, but made her activism intersectional. She dealt with class and race and she was not afraid to splinter off her family to fight for the causes she knew to be incredibly important. In our modern movement, we need to ensure that we do the same. That while we fight for equality ourselves, we don’t oppress even more marginalised groups and that we don’t just focus on white, middle class women, as our movement often has. Just look at the current names in the feminist movement, all of whom are white, cis, able and middle class. Look at the issues we champion, all very important, but all focussing on middle class issues. The recent comments by Green Party Candidate Rupert Read show the oppression that trans women face in the name of our movement on a regular basis.
In choosing to brand our co-operative Georgia and I chose green, purple and white in solidarity with the Suffragette movement, colours which I learned were branded by Sylvia Pankhurst herself, who contributed largely to the image of the WSPU. And while the contribution of Sylvia Pankhurst’s family in gaining women the vote is something that can never be ignored, I will now forever idolise Sylvia’s place in the history of radical political movements. Sylvia Pankhurst was more than just a feminist, she was an intersectional feminist hero whose legacy has been wildly misrepresented. And we must remember her by helping to continue her mass movement that she desired to create.