My history hero: Emma Barnett chooses Sylvia Pankhurst (1882–1960)

BBC broadcaster Emma Barnett chooses women's suffrage activist Sylvia Pankhurst as her history hero

Sylvia Pankhurst is taken into custody

Sylvia Pankhurst: in profile

Born in Manchester, Sylvia Pankhurst trained as an artist but became an activist for women’s suffrage alongside her mother, Emmeline, and sister Christabel. She was force-fed repeatedly in prison after going on hunger strike. A pacifist, she diverged from her family during the First World War because of their support for the British effort. After the war, she helped found the British Communist party, and supported Ethiopian independence after the Italians invaded in 1935. She lived in the African nation from 1956 until her death.

When did you first hear about Pankhurst?

I’ve always known her name, as I went to the same school as her and her sisters. Much was made of the suffragette girls being part of our school heritage in Manchester. But I didn’t know very much about Sylvia and her work until I went to a show a few years ago featuring her beautiful drawings and paintings. Understandably, history tends to focus more on her mother, the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

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What kind of person was she?

The Pankhurst women were trailblazers in fighting for women to have a voice. But Sylvia took her fight in a different direction, leading her to go against her mother’s wishes (no mean feat if your mother is Emmeline Pankhurst). In her early twenties, she set off on a tour of northern England and Scotland to document the lives of female workers. She wanted to get up close and personal with the grim circumstances women found themselves in. Her ambitious trip in the summer of 1907 took her to potteries, fisheries, chain-makers, pit brows and farms.

Frustrated with her mother and elder sister’s bourgeois focus, Sylvia wanted to find out how the working women of Britain were being treated alongside male labourers. The answer? Terribly. As her drawings and notes attest, conditions for most workers back then were appalling, regardless of gender, but for women things were particularly bad.

Sylvia looked to the poorest in society for their truth and tried to tell their story when no one else really was

She never followed a set path and ended her life in Ethiopia, having agitated on behalf of the country. I am proud to call her granddaughter, Dr Helen Pankhurst – a formidable campaigner for women’s rights in the developing world – a good friend. She is herself based in Ethiopia, following unexpected paths on behalf of women in need.

What made her a hero?

She looked to the poorest in society for their truth and tried to tell their story when no one else really was. What Sylvia witnessed was the harshest side of life and she didn’t shy away from it, dedicating her energies to working women and to securing their rights.

Sylvia had a meticulous eye for detail, recording how these women’s days played out – often with them working a double shift, labouring as hard at home as in the factories, preparing everyone’s food and clothing. The stories she uncovered were heartbreaking. She gave the voiceless a voice that has transcended the decades.

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

I would never dare compare myself. But I gain inspiration from people who don’t take the world at face value, who push for answers and don’t shy away from posing difficult questions. Sylvia and her quest for information personifies that curious and furious combination.

Emma Barnett presents The Emma Barnett Show on Radio 5 Live and Newsnight on BBC Two, and recently published a book on women’s health called Period: It’s About Bloody Time (HQ, 2019)

LISTEN: Barbara Castle selected Sylvia Pankhurst in an episode of Radio 4’s Great Lives

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This article was first published in the March 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine