The life and causes of suffragette and radical Sylvia Pankhurst
E.Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a Radical, by Patricia W. Romero. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 334 pp. $30. Illustrated. Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) is best remembered as one of the family of ``fighting Pankhursts,'' but her early work as a suffragette was only the first of a succession of causes that would fill her 78 years. While her mother, Emmeline, and older sister, Christabel, made votes for women their chief concern, Sylvia - following the example of her father, who died when she was in her teens - identified herself with a broad range of causes, always on the side of the underdog. Devoted as she was to women's suffrage (she was frequently jailed and force-fed when she went on hunger strikes), Sylvia split with her mother and sister to champion women and men of London's impoverished East End. Emmeline and Christabel were staunch supporters of World War I; Sylvia was a pacifist. Emmeline in her last years was a Tory candidate for Parliament. Christabel became a female chauvinist who warned women to avoid contact with the entire male sex!
Sylvia was also given to extremes. After the war, she set about establishing a British branch of the international Communist Party. Indeed, it was in response to her extremist position (and that of the German Spartacists) that Lenin wrote a rebuking pamphlet entitled ```Left-Wing' Communism: An Infantile Disorder.''
Sylvia's first and deepest attachment in love was to the idealistic Scottish Labourite MP, James Keir Hardie, 26 years her senior. The relationship was sadly cut short by his death in 1915. Over a decade later, she had a child out of wedlock with an Italian anarchist, further alienating her already estranged mother and sister. With characteristic bravery - and her usual flair for publicity - Sylvia wrote an article about her experience as an unwed mother and her views on love, marriage, and children's welfare.
Sylvia's extremism, in the opinion of biographer Patricia Romero, was seldom the result of a fully thought-out ideological position.
In the process of researching her subject, Romero says she became aware of a widening gap between the ``real'' Sylvia and the self-portrait Sylvia painted in her autobiographical histories of the suffrage movement. The contrast was disillusioning. Romero found a woman who ``joined a cause, fought hard, then switched to another even before the first battle had been won. ... If there were no real enemy, she created one. Where the enemy was genuine, as in the case of Italy's attack on Ethiopia, her efforts as a publicist matched the protagonists' combat on the battlefield.'' Ethiopia, attacked by Fascist Italy, was her last great cause, and Emperor Haile Sellassie, her last great hero. She became a tireless publicist and propagandist for his nation and spent her last years in Addis Ababa, where a marble monument over her tomb commemorates her devotion.
At times, one feels that Romero may have expected too much of her subject: Sylvia was, after all, an activist, and not one of the select company of brilliant feminist theorists that includes Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. True, Sylvia made large claims for herself and it is a biographer's duty to examine such claims with a critical eye. Still, there is a certain lack of sympathy in this book. Objectivity is laudable, but in this case, objectivity seems to extend a vast distance between the biographer and her subject, between the narrative voice and the story being told. Often, this narrative seems interrupted in its flow, making it seem as though we are reading a book of pieced-together research rather than a fully integrated story.
This, the first biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, is the product of a great deal of original research and is filled with fascinating material from many sources. And it does accomplish its primary task, presenting an objective, balanced view of a woman who could be erratic, inspiring, foolish, one-sided, altruistic, infuriatingly stubborn, and incredibly courageous.