SYLVIA PANKHURST

(1882-1960)

With her mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel, Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the founders of the militant suffrage group, the WSPU. Her repudiation of her mother and sister's war-induced jingoism cemented the political and personal rift which had developed between them. Sylvia Pankhurst spent the war years in London's East End, among the city's poorest inhabitants,where the effects of the war-time exploitation of London's laboring classes was only too evident. The Home Front ( 1933) records her responses to what she experienced there.

 

Out of 27,241 women who had by this time registered for war service,only 2,332 had been given work. Propaganda was insistent to get women into the munition factories, and every sort of work ordinarily performed by men. The sections clamouring for the military conscription of men saw in the industrial service of women a means to their end. Feminists who were advocates of Conscription for men believed themselves adding to the importance of women by demanding that women also should be conscripts.

The reawakened W.S.P.U.' was loudest in the demand for 'compulsory national service for men and women alike'; Lloyd George now possessed the implicit confidence of his old enemies Christabel and Mrs. Pankhurst; he was cheerfully disposed to accept their services. He agreed to receive a women's War Service deputation, to be organized by them on Saturday, July 17th; and to review a great procession which was to march with it. He promised finance for the show out of Government funds, and placed the official War Service registers at the disposal of the W.S.P.U. The Press boomed the function

1 The Women's Social and Political Union: the radical suffragette movement begun byEmmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia's mother, together with Sylvia's sister, Christabel. TheWSPU engaged in direct action to further the cause of votes for women and its memberswere frequently jailed as a result. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, had long opposedthe Pankhursts' efforts. With the outbreak of the war, they became allies, on theunderstanding the WSPU would suspend its civil disobedience campaign in deferenceto the war effort and the tacit agreement that the vote would be forthcoming afterthe war.

The Home Front 23

as a national event. Women with handbills advertising it were rushinground the East End. A letter signed E. Pankhurst, calling women to the War Service demonstration, was mistaken by some in our district as an appeal from me. That cut me to the quick; for my struggle was to prevent the exploitation of the people in the interests of the war.

Old militants of the W.S.P.U., who had suffered the hunger strikeand been forcibly fed, were now interrupting its meetings with cries of 'Votes for Women.' Members of our Federation joined in the heckling. I did not want that; I desired our women to employ themselves in constructive effort, not in the fruitless decrying of those once our comrades, who had departed, as we considered, from progressive paths. If we must attack, let us attack the Government which held the power. At our members' general meeting I got a resolution passed that it was no part of our policy to interrupt the meetings of other Suffrage Societies.

Yet I could not rest content that this jingo demonstration, with its demand for compulsory War service, should stand forth unchallenged as representing the womanhood of the nation. Still less could I let pass,without protest, the new legislation which was so adversely determining the industrial position of women in war time. Our Federation also demanded an interview with Lloyd George and arranged a procession to Parliament for the night of Tuesday, July 20th.
'No National Service under Makers of Private Profit!' 'Down with sweating!2 A Man's Wage for a Man's job!' 'Down with High Prices and Big Profits!'
Such were our slogans.

Lloyd George refused to receive us, but many both Labour andLiberal Members of Parliament urged us to persevere, including J.R.Clynes, though he was one of the greatest jingoes 3 in the LabourParty, and Philip Snowden, who wrote:

'The fight is awfully hard, I know, but you are doing magnificent work.'

How greatly subsequent events were to alter his political attitude!

The big W.S.P.U. procession was produced according to promise.Boomed as it was, it could not have been otherwise. There were twomiles of closely massed ranks, a pageant of the nations, led by Belgium


2 Exploitive labor practises.
3 War-monger

24                      Sylvia Pankhurst

with bare feet in sandals bearing a tattered flag. There were repre-sentations of the trades and professions in which women were called 'upon to serve. Women who had registered for War work and could not get it, munitions workers and trainees released from the grind of their seven days' work that they might march, warmongers, war workers and soldiers' wives out for a jaunt, women of all sorts and conditions fell in behind the banners and bands, and sang the popular war-songs, 'Tipperary' and all the rest. The procession was lauded as a magnificent achievement, and a proof of the enthusiasm of women for the National Cause.                       

The significant fact remained that the organization of this demonstration had been paid for by the Government; whereas in the pre-War struggle of the Suffragettes larger and more elaboratedemonstrations had been financed by the enthusiasts of the movemen titself. Where were those enthusiasts now? Scattered in a hundred directions. Even in the thinned ranks of those who remained supporters of the W.S.P.U. in its changed policy there was not a disposition to sacrifice all for the Union, which had made it a power in its votes for women fight.

Lloyd George received the deputation in the wooden buildings erected for the Ministry of Munitions in the Embankment Gardens,and he and Mrs. Pankhurst went together on to the balcony to speak to the women outside. There was mutual praise and laudation. Mrs.Pankhurst said that the women munitioners should have equal pay with men. Cases of sweating had been brought to her notice and she knew that Mr. Lloyd George did not want that. Having just put through the Munitions Act 4 from which equal pay for women had been deliberately excluded, he repeated to her the pledge he had made to me, and assured her that the munition factories would becontrolled and the Government would see that there was no sweated labour.

The Suffragette, the lynx-eyed organ of the W.S.P.U., which prided itself on its ability to discern and unmask the subterfuges of politicians,received the evasion complacently:

Our opinion is that we must see how these assurances work out inpractice,
and any complaint or criticism made before that would be unreasonable,
destructive and injurious.

4 The Act regulated employment in war-related industries. Among other things, it laidout the conditions under which workers could leave their jobs.

The Home Front

Yet the sweating was flagrantly obvious to all who cared to lookfor it! It was all for the War, and the War before all with the W.S.P.U!

Sylvia Pankhurst fired off a letter to Lloyd George, complaining about the vagueness of his assurances and giving specific instances where women's labor was being exploited. She also objected to the fact that wages were regulated while the price of food was not. She announced a deputation which would march to see him shortly. She received no answer.

Opposing the great engines of war propaganda, as we were, with only the contributions of a small knot of enthusiasts to assist us in printing handbills to make our procession known, we could not hope that nightto rival the great sightseer's carnival of the Saturday afternoon. With the factories working overtime, the home workers held more rigidly than ever to their sweated toil by the rising cost of living, the procession surprised me by its size and stirred my heart by its earnestness. The Old Ford Road was alive with the hurrying people. The workers were hastening straight from the factories to march in the ranks, or if they could not march, at least to give the marchers a cheer.

'We would come with you if we could!' Many called to us. 'I wishI could come, but I am too old, too tired, too worn out with standing all day - my feet are too sore! -I am almost dropping with coming this far to see you!' I must run home to the children; they have missed me all day; but I came to see you start. I wish I could come!''Good luck!' 'Good luck!' 'Bravo!' and 'Bless you all!'

Yet thousands came with us, facing the long march to Westminster after their twelve-hour working day without even staying to get a bite.Some joined our six-deep ranks; some went beside us on the pavement,'Because my boots are so bad, and the sets5 in the road hurt my feet.' Folk thronged the roadway from kerb to kerb, because the police charges of recent, pre-war remembrance made our East End crowds prefer to mass together in a swarm. Many of the women were carrying babies, some pushing a child or two in a perambulator. The colour bearer took us along so fast that many could not keep up, and

5 Cobblestones.

26                      Sylvia Pankhurst

were left behind. Yet more held on, swollen feet, varicose ulcers, prolapses and poor health notwithstanding. They were marching for vital needs, and their hearts were full. They carried the banners bravely, though the strong wind tugged at them. A woman told me that she had gone to join the Saturday procession; but she had bought our Dreadnought from a paper seller on the Embankment; and on reading it, had left those ranks, convinced that her place was with the workers' procession on Tuesday night. She was making packingcases at Dingwall's from 8:30 am to 7 pm for 12s a week. The man she had replaced got 35s. Home workers spoke of the poor price they got for making and finishing soldier's garments; a mother with little children to maintain got only 3d. for stitching 54 buttons on soldiers' trousers. These women were not urging a point of which they had read in books or heard on platforms; they were the sweated workers come to plead their own cause.

The Bethnal Green contingent awaited us with a big crowd assembled to wish them luck, and the faithful 'Cowboys' band, with their fifes and drums, who had rallied to us in many a Suffragettedisplay. It was dark when we met the Poplar procession at Gardiner'scorner. Girls from the biscuit and provision factories, dockers and gasworkers with the red regalia of their Union, members of the Leagueof Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives, known by their regalia, 'Suffragette Crusaders' from South-East London, militants who had broken away from the war party, with their gold and purple banners. Masses of people cheered and waved to us. Mounted police galloped around us, their horses rearing.

* * *

We were a large company walking home through the dark streets tothe East End that night; with all the power in the land against us, high-hearted in our crusade.