The Missing Pankhurst(s)

A scrap from The Good Fight.

In The Good Fight, I have two members of the Pankhurst family as characters: Emmeline and her daughter Christabel. Emmeline had two other daughters, Sylvia and Adela, also political activists. I struggled with whether or not to include them, too. In the end I opted to leave them out in order to keep an already-unwieldy cast size and web of relationships from becoming even unwieldier.

Sylvia in particular still haunts me. Trained as an artist at the Manchester School of Art and the Royal College of Art, she worked, like her mother and sister Christabel, for women’s rights. At first, she worked through the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) that Emmeline and Christabel headed. But unlike them, she was not a one-issue person. They wanted votes for women; what she wanted for women, particularly working women, included votes, food, shelter, child care, and physical safety. In addition to crusading for the vote, she opened cooperative kitchens and legal aid offices.

In early 1914, Sylvia’s mother and sister expelled her from the WSPU because she was willing to work in concert with left-wing political parties led by men. A friend of Emmeline’s described this expulsion as a “private family execution.”

Sylvia appealed to me because she worked to help women in a variety of ways and was willing to do so with a variety of allies. I admire her range and flexibility much more than Christabel and Emmeline’s autocratic style; if nothing else, it’s hard to wholeheartedly admire the perpetrators of a “private family execution.” Yet in the end I chose to exclude her from my telling of the story. It was possible for me to tell the story of the suffragette bodyguard without her, but not without them.

Some quotes from Sylvia’s book The Suffragette Movement:

Not then, but many a time as we grew older, he [her father, Dr. Richard Pankhurst] would say to us playfully, and yet in earnest: “If you ever go back into religion you will not have been worth the upbringing.” Always he added, and more passionately: “If you do not work for others you will not have been worth the upbringing!”

As a speaker, a pamphlet-seller, a chalker of pavements, a canvasser on doorsteps, you are wanted; as an artist the world has no real use for you; in that capacity you must fight a purely egotistical struggle. [Ed.: Ouch.]

The Suffrage movement, which lived through the vast holocaust of peaceful life, was a more intelligent and informed movement than that which, gallant as it was, had fought the desperate, pre-war fight. Gone was the mirage of a society regenerated by enfranchised womanhood as by a magic wand. Men and women had been drawn closer together by the suffering and sacrifice of the War. Awed and humbled by the great catastrophe, and by the huge economic problems it had thrown into naked prominence, the women of the Suffrage movement had learned that social regeneration is a long and mighty work. The profound divergences of opinion on war and peace had been shown to know no sex.

For further reading:

Pankhurst, Richard (2001): Suffragette sisters in old age: unpublished correspondence between Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, 1953–57, Women’s History Review, 10:3, 483-537

Pankhurst, Sylvia (1931): The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals.

Purvis, June (2002): Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. London and New York: Routledge.

Wikipedia: Sylvia Pankhurst.


  1. Peg
    March 24, 2016

    Don’t you wonder what the women of that time would make of the issues of today?

  2. Anne
    March 24, 2016

    I think they would be dismayed that some of the issues have not changed since their day.

  3. Peg
    March 25, 2016

    I think they would also be dismayed on the one hand by the apathy so many exhibit and on the other by the “religious” excuses for curbing hard-won rights.

    1. Anne
      March 25, 2016

      I agree.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top