From the March 1890 issue: Woman suffrage, pro and con
Sylvia drew on this experience in her showdown with Vladimir Lenin seven years later. By then, she’d already broken with both her mother and her sister. Christabel had come to see men as the enemy, crusading under the slogan “Votes for women and chastity for men.” For Christabel, as for her mother, the singular issue was suffrage, and women would have to go it alone. Sylvia, by contrast, had a white-hot social conscience and was committed to the class struggle; during World War I, she’d become a pacifist as well. She took as her lover Keir Hardie, a founder of Britain’s Labour Party. The women’s movement, as Sylvia saw it, was inseparable from the socialist crusade.
Her Workers’ Suffrage Federation had been among the first of Britain’s socialist groups to establish relations with Moscow after the revolution. At the Kremlin for the meeting of the Communist International, Sylvia sized up the Russian leader. He was no fan of women, she deduced. Nor did he share her tactical sense. Lenin thought that British communism needed to work through Parliament and with the Labour Party; amalgamation and centralization were in order. Sylvia disagreed: “Though I am a socialist, I have fought a long, long time in the suffrage movement and I have seen how important it is to be extreme.” Lenin’s pamphlet about her position, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, commemorated the quarrel for all time.
Sylvia lost her fight with Lenin and was ejected from the Communist Party. She went on to devote her life to anti-racist, anti-imperial causes. Often overshadowed by her early years as a suffragist, these later campaigns are where Holmes rightly lays her emphasis. Her Sylvia is a Cassandra, foresighted but rarely heeded, who as early as 1923 raised the alarm about fascism. When, in 1935, the Italians invaded Ethiopia, she launched a press campaign to urge the British government to stand up to Mussolini. “Unless the peoples of Europe will rise to the menace overhanging them, another greater catastrophe will shortly follow,” she admonished.
To each of these endeavors, Pankhurst applied the lessons she’d learned as a suffragist. She’d emerged from the movement a dogged opponent of authority not founded on the consent of the governed; she believed in the power of the press and the importance of action rather than talking. “Dictatorship is the absolute negation of the women’s movement, the death of progress,” she explained. Why? she was asked. “Because it rests on force” was her answer. She loathed violence but wasn’t frightened off by it. Denouncing Joseph Stalin—she was an early, trenchant critic—she publicized evidence of his purges in the New Times and Ethiopia News, the paper she founded.
She was, the playwright George Bernard Shaw said, a latter-day Joan of Arc, hurling herself full-tilt against the entirety of society. Her approach wasn’t a recipe for popularity: “This horrid old harridan should be choked to death with her own pamphlets,” one British diplomat groused. But Pankhurst had long since dispensed with a womanly need for approbation. That included the good opinion of her mother and sister. To her quarrels with them about pacifism and socialism, she added the indignity (as her family saw it) of an illegitimate son, the product of her union with an Italian anarchist. The gulf among the Pankhursts grew ever wider. Emmeline campaigned for Parliament as a Conservative. Christabel moved to California and became a Second Adventist preacher.