How I met Sylvia Pankhurst by Rachel Holmes

How I met Sylvia Pankhurst by Rachel Holmes

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"How and why did you choose this subject?" 

As a biographer, this is the question I'm most frequently asked. I've been on the road with my latest book, Eleanor Marx: A Life for nearly two years since it was published on May Day 2014, and there's not a single event, interview, lecture or festival so far where this question hasn't come up. 

The answer to the how and why is that the subjects choose me.  

The best way I can describe it is that it's like being tapped on the shoulder and that it's always unexpected.  We meet, introduce ourselves, and fall into easy dialogue.  And then -- I never see it coming -- the tap. The nature of the tap is always in the style of the personality. I think that's one of the reasons I know it's them -- because I recognise and feel the character in the tap. Dr James Barry rapped me very smartly in military style and asked me to walk with him on the beach in Cape Town. Saartjie Baartman high fived and invited me to join her for some kweito in a local shebeen. Eleanor Marx smiled broadly and put her hand on my shoulder in a forceful, decisive and inescapable grip. 

I spent seven years with Eleanor Marx, who I know intimately as Tussy. And then came the tap. Eleanor introduced me to Sylvia Pankhurst. 

Now I'm writing my next book, about Sylvia (1882-1960) and am again quizzed in the same way. Although less frequently, now I'm happily entering near monastic writing seclusion. 

â??True, Sylvia is a compelling spirit of restless radicalism, ceaseless invention, creativity and fearless iconoclasm. And yes, she throws herself body, brain and soul four square into every key historical event and ideological battleground of the twentieth century. Certainly, she is the decisive force and defining mind of first wave British political feminism. She is a founder and a leader, of the Suffragette movement and of the British Communist Party. She is a first time unmarried mother at 45, living in open partnership with Italian anarchist, journalist and refugee Silvio Corio, with who she shares her life until he dies in his bed of natural causes. The natural causes are notable for me, because my subjects have typically suffered from bad or mysterious deaths. 

â??But for all her evident historical stature, I also owe myself an explanation for why I'm now immersed in the mind of a complex militant revolutionary dissident vegetarian teetotaller who is a terrible cook, has a problematic relationship to authority and a bursting vault of intelligence files that spell endless trouble. Sylvia is terrifyingly fearless, physically, mentally and emotionally. It is scary and challenging to live with and write about someone so uncompromising in her lifelong quest for what it means to be free. 

Sylvia’s infuriating refusal to fit into people’s expectations, most particularly those of her Suffragette family, are taking me on a journey encompassing Soviet Russia, late-colonial India and partition, the occupation and later liberation of Ethiopia, twentieth-century France, Germany, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the USA, calling in along the way on the Spanish Civil War, the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, and the fight for an independent Botswana. Her anti-racism and pro-independence activism add to the already long checklist I have for rootling in the security files of "this confounded Pankhurst woman", as a British diplomat labelled her. State surveillance of Sylvia began in the first years of the twentieth century when she was a Suffragette and anti-war pacifist, and barely closed upon her death in 1960. 

This is how Eleanor Marx introduced me to Sylvia Pankhurst.

It was 1896 and I’d followed Eleanor to the Mosley Hotel in Manchester for a reception held in honour of the Marxes’ old family friend and political ally, the revolutionary socialist William Liebknecht, nicknamed Library by the Marx daughters for a reason no one can remember. Liebknecht is the co-founder of a tiny group that has become Germany’s biggest political party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The barrister, socialist and women’s rights campaigner Dr Richard Pankhurst, husband of Emmeline – 20 years his junior and not yet a Suffragette -- gives the vote of thanks. The Liebknecht, Marx and Pankhurst families are home to some notable revolutionary sons and daughters. 

â??At 41, Eleanor Marx has long since emerged from the shadow of her famous philosopher-economist father, and is claimed by British trade unionists and socialists as “Our Mother.” She is at the high point of her political career, immersed in the emerging Independent Labour Party – and just two years from her shocking death. William Liebknecht is father to Karl, who addresses Eleanor as “Aunt Tussy”, and will in due course found the Communist Party of Germany with Rosa Luxemburg and eventually be murdered for his trouble. Richard -- the ‘Red Doctor’ -- Pankhurst has brought along his 13-year-old Sylvia, the youngest member of the audience. Sylvia goes everywhere with her father, perching on hard seats in draughty halls, sheltering in doorways out of the rain whilst he speechifies on street corners and outside factory gates.  

â??Sylvia is introduced to Eleanor. The political teenager is transfixed by the famous socialist-feminist. She feels the concentrated strength and sunniness of Eleanor’s presence, is impressed by her voice, and is visually struck by her “dark brows and strong, vivid colouring.” Conversely, Eleanor’s partner, Edward Aveling, prompts instinctive recoil -- young Sylvia sums him up as “repellent.” This word is used so often about Aveling, by both men and women, that I feel rather sorry for him; until I remember that Sylvia’s aversion is provoked by Edward’s behaviour towards Tussy, not his looks. Trying to divert attention away from Eleanor, as he always did, Edward grumbles to her about “that confounded draught.” 

â??Tussy smiles at him, and turns up the collar of his coat. 

â??Here is Eleanor, champion of social justice, formidable socialist feminist trade unionist activist-writer-translator, her father and Engels’ ideas not only made flesh but vastly developed and improved upon, sitting amongst her comrades – stalwarts of the socialist and reformist movements that gave birth to modern British democracy. And here is the gentle Tussy, a woman who mollifies a cranky, narcissistic patriarch who can’t stand, never mind sit down in, her limelight.  

In that solicitous gesture of protecting him against the inconvenience of a cold neck, 13-year-old Sylvia sees that the mighty 41 year old Eleanor Marx is subordinated to a domestic tyrant and that her rights as a human are compromised in her own home.  

â??Three decades after this encounter, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence writes to Sylvia, “I think it is simply wonderful the way you are able to link your personal life and your life of public service and make the one equipment do for the other.” 1970s feminists reformulated this as the proposition that “the personal is political." Like Eleanor, Sylvia captures our attention because her life and thought are driven by the pursuit of a feminism that demands the personal and political be indivisible. Not only in words, but in deeds. Every day. This they have in common. Unlike Eleanor, Sylvia succeeded in living the undivided life. I'm taking the journey through her life to find out how she did it. 

Sylvia is now my central focus, but Eleanor remains a constant presence. It seems she's moved in, and is here to stay. Fortunately -- and perhaps not surprisingly, since Eleanor the grown woman activist was a mentor and inspiration to teenage Sylvia -- they get along together very well. Except, that is, for the radical difference in their drinking habits. Temperance was an alien concept to champagne, party-loving Tussy. To start the new year, I've been celebrating the first national Eleanor Marx Day with the GMB, Britain's largest trade union, that Eleanor played a key role in founding. The National Union of General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union (GMB), that has a membership of more than 631,000 (more than the current combined membership of all our parliamentary parties), began life as the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers in 1889. Its key co-founders were Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx. Yet for a time Eleanor Marx was forgotten by the very trade unions that she had helped to create. 

Last year, I was greeted at the GMB Annual Congress in Dublin with a surprise. Inspired by reading my biography, David Hamblin proposed a resolution on behalf of the Wales & South West region for an annual Eleanor Marx Day to be held on her birthday. Congress passed the resolution unanimously, and this month we celebrated Tussy's 160th birthday at an event organised by the brilliant feminist trade union organiser and activist Nadine Houghton and the sisters of the GMB. Celebrations following the speakers included a glorious birthday cake complete with white icing and red roses - Tussy's favourite colour and her favourite flower.  

I spoke also at an event organised by The Socialist Party on her birthday in Sydenham, where Eleanor lived. Just before we began, a man I now know as Steve Grindlay, came up to me with an intriguing brown manilla folder zipped into a plastic ziplock. Carefully removing and unfolding it, he proudly presented me with Eleanor's original purchase lease for the first and only property she bought, 7 Jew's Walk in Sydenham. She loved the house and garden, and it's poignant that the home where she finally made her own security and happiness became the scene of her tragic and mysterious death. Nevertheless, reading the lease, with the full flourish of her inked signature, brought her presence once again into the everyday life of Sydenham, where she is now a proudly remembered local historical resident.  

Tim Roache, general secretary elect of the GMB, who succeeds the legendary Paul Kenny, came to Tussy's birthday party. "Though air-brushed out of the picture during the cold war," Roache said to the Morning Star, "Eleanor Marx was one of the central figures in the foundation of the GMB. She provided much of the inspiration, a core ideology and a real flair for administration. She is the first link in a powerful train of women activists and organisers in the GMB that stretches from Eleanor Marx to Mary MacArthur and to Jeyaban Desai. Those very struggles that she led on -- the defence of vulnerable workers, those saddled with ill-defined or unlimited working times -- are those which GMB is at the forefront of campaigning on today." After the event, Tim Roache tweeted, "Our GMB owe it to the legacy of Eleanor Marx to ensure our brilliant women play a full part in our future. That is my promise from tonight." 

The GMB Women's Task Force had already taken action that will hold their new leadership to account on the role of women in the union. I would have been perfectly content with the cake, but there was one more surprise announcement that evening. The launch of an annual Eleanor Marx Award to recognise the contribution of a woman activist. The nominations, open to all members of the union, are now taking place across the UK, and I will be presenting the award and a bound copy of my biography to the first winner, announced at GMB Congress in June. 

The Eleanor Marx Award is for those who most actively demonstrate the values of her legacy today. The award is, quite rightly, not open to posthumous nominations. But if it was, I'll take a punt that Tussy would nudge me to nominate Sylvia. 

Rachel Holmes