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The incompatibility of feminism and Marxism, Part 3: Sylvia Pankhurst against feminism

October 15, 2018

Edited by Nuevo Curso


Christabel, was not the only daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst. Emmeline and Richard also had a younger daughter: Sylvia. In 1912, Sylvia convinced her sister and mother to launch a WSPU recruitment campaign at London's East End, the city's main working-class district. It entailed transforming the struggle for the right to vote "on the same terms as men" into a mass movement by incorporating working women.


“My aim was not merely to make some members and establish some branches, but the larger task of bringing the district as a whole into a mass movement, from which only a few would stand aside...The creation of a woman’s movement in that great abyss of poverty would be a call and a rallying cry to the rise of similar movements in all parts of the country.”


But unlike the WSPU, which denied any class struggle, Sylvia realized that women workers had interests of their own that were not going to advance simply because bourgeois and petty bourgeois women could vote and be elected to parliament. She knew that they had to organize, not just as women, but as workers.


“I was anxious, too, to fortify the position of the working woman when the vote should actually be given; the existence of a strong, self-reliant movement amongst working women would be the greatest aid in safeguarding their rights in the days of settlement. Moreover, I was looking to the future; I wanted to rouse these women of the submerged mass to be, not merely the argument of more fortunate people, but to be fighters on their own account, despising mere platitudes and catch-cries, revolting against the hideous conditions about them, and demanding for themselves and their families a full share of the benefits of civilization and progress.”[1]



Revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg understood, like Sylvia, that there did not exist a community of women that all shared the same interests. Luxemburg's advocacy of universal female suffrage in Germany was based on her belief that, since universal female suffrage would enfranchise all working class women, it would greatly aid in the advancement of the workers' movement. She also understood how the class interests of bourgeois women directly opposed its goals. "Most of these bourgeois women, who act as lionesses in the fight against ‘male privileges,’ would line up as docile little lambs in the ranks of conservative and clerical reaction if they had the right to vote.” Sylvia Pankhurst, as demonstrated by her eventual break with feminism, understood this. When her family, and with her the whole WSPU, definitively broke with the ILP, the feminist leadership decided to leave the East End, making it clear to Sylvia that she was stepping on more than one red line.


“Christabel, nursing a tiny Pomeranian dog, announced that the East London Federation of the WSPU must become a separate organization; the Suffragette would announce this, and unless we immediately chose to adopt one for ourselves, a new name would be given to us… She added: ‘You have a democratic constitution for your Federation; we do not agree with that.’ Moreover, she urged, a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. ‘Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We wanted picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!’ She turned to me. ‘You have your own ideas. We do not want that; we want all our women to take their instructions and walk in step like an army!’”[2]


It is clear that Christabel's vision of working women was inherent and not external to the nature of early feminism. It is also clear that Christabel, like the whole bourgeois world, saw humanity as part of a controllable machine. The belief that working-class women were politically inferior and less prepared than propertied women is not only completely false, it concealed what underpinned the political activity of proletarian women. The women of the working class, forming part of the proletariat, have an interest in fighting with all their forces against the world of capital and commodities, and this cannot but be in direct contradiction with the political objectives of feminism.


After the forced separation, Sylvia Pankhurst created the "Federation of Suffragettes of East London" (ELFS) which tried to combine class struggle with struggle for women's suffrage. However, the rupture became inevitable.[3] Sylvia Pankhurst spoke at a rally in support of the Irish workers arrested after the famous lock out of 1913. Emmeline and Christabel got angry and expelled the ELFS en bloc. After the expulsion Sylvia published the first issue of the ELFS weekly: "The Woman's Dreadnought". Sylvia's departure from the family "nest" of the WSPU, a gradual process, allowed her to distance herself from the increasingly violent drift of the organization.


“Secretly planned militancy was a method of desperation adopted in the hope of shortening the longer struggle…I must confess that these particular tactics never appealed to me. I took no part in them. I thoroughly disliked the destruction of works of art. I did not then and I do not now express one word of censure upon the brave women who were secret militants. They acted…largely at the instigation of my sister Christabel and my mother…my sister…declared that, without an element of real terrorism, the Government would never grant women the franchise”[4]


Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled by the suffragettes for participating in workers' struggles. She then took a leap when she turned her group into an organization of working women for universal suffrage.




Less than six months after the imperialist world war breaks out, millions of workers begin to be massacred on the battlefields. British feminism as a bloc joins the recruitment "demanding" the equal participation of women in the imperialist slaughter.


“It is obvious that even the most vigorous militancy of the W.S.P.U. is for the time being rendered less effective by contrast with the infinitely greater violence done in the present war not to mere property and economic prosperity alone, but to human life…it was inevitable that Great Britain should take part in the war and with that patriotism which has nerved women to endure endless torture in prison cells for the national good, we ardently desire that our country shall be victorious – this because we hold that the existence of all small nationalities is at stake and that the status of France and Great Britain is involved.”[5]


"The Woman's Dreadnought", by contrast, published Karl Liebknecht denouncing the imperialist character of the war. The opposition did not remain in publications, the ELFS, which became the "Workers Suffrage Federation" (WSF), called for demonstrations against the war and in 1916 carried a column of 20,000 people to Trafalgar Square. Her vision, however, was still fundamentally social-democratic. She believed that universal suffrage would put an end to war and sexual discrimination.


It was the February Revolution in Russia that radically changed her outlook. "The Women's Dreadnought" became "The Workers' Dreadnought" in July 1917. The change was more than a headline change. The news of the soviets, the novelties of the revolution, were changing the focus of the workers' movements and its concerns. The triumph of the world revolution in Russia had changed everything.




When the advancement of the struggle requires mobilizing the class as a whole, what is the point of restricting the organization to women only? Sylvia Pankhurst opened her organization for universal suffrage to all workers, regardless of sex.


On February 6, 1918, the British Parliament granted the right to vote to women property owners over 30 years old or with university degrees - there weren't many of them. The real meaning of this measure is best seen in November of 1918 in Germany. The outbreak of the Revolution lead the state to rush for peace from the allies, the republic was proclaimed and the social democrats tried to destroy the revolution at all costs by mixing repression, terrorism and... real universal suffrage. The right to vote for everyone, which, until then, seemed like a distant class conquest, had become the tool of containment of the old bourgeois states shaken by the world revolution. Nothing would ever be the same.


Sylvia Pankhurst and her colleagues realized that it was not the struggle for suffrage anymore, but the world revolution that was on the agenda. In May 1918, the "Workers' Suffrage Federation" became the "Workers' Socialist Federation" and the slogan "votes for all" was transformed into "for international socialism". The group became one of the founding nuclei of the Communist Party of Great Britain and then the base of the brief British communist left.[6]


War and Revolution changed everything: universal suffrage had ceased to be the means of the workers to change things, what was historically necessary, Pankhurst discovered, was to build the party of the Revolution.


Sylvia Pankhurst had approached the class from the feminism of the "Women's Social and Political Union" to convince the women workers to fight to get the vote for the women property owners. She realized that feminism, the notion that working class women shared a common interest with the women of possessing classes for belonging to the category of "woman," contradicted the fundamental class interests of proletarian women. She then led the movement to win the right to vote for all workers and in practice discovered that she could not divide them if she wanted to advance, that there is not a female proletariat and a male proletariat, but a single class called to end all forms of exploitation and oppression. Their effort had ended up becoming an organization for all workers, regardless of gender, fighting for universal suffrage. But by then, the historical era had changed, the imperialist world war made it clear that the era of ascendant capitalism was over forever and that a new era of crises, wars and world revolutions was opening up in which the struggle for parliamentary representation and standing for election no longer made sense. What the struggle demanded was to build the party of the Revolution and to promote the new forms of struggle: mass strikes and councils.


Sylvia Pankhurst's intellectual honesty lead her to break with feminism; and the new historical phase of capitalism lead her to recognize that the time of class parliamentarianism was over forever.






[1] Sarah Jackson, Rosemary Taylor, East London Suffragettes (Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2014)


[2] Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst, A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1993), 180


[3] “Sylvia Pankhurst: The Real Meaning of The Revolutionary Years.” Internationalist Communist Tendency.


[4] Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (London: Pluto Press, 1999), 32


[5] Andrew Rosen, Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1914 (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 1974), 278


[6] “Sylvia Pankhurst: The Real Meaning of the Revolutionary Years.” Internationalist Communist Tendency 

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