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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Sylvia Pankhurst

b. 1882, Manchester, England; d. 1960, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Born into the Pankhurst clan of radical activists, Sylvia Pankhurst adopted the socialist and feminist politics of her mother and father. In 1903, together with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), through which they coordinated a militant campaign to obtain the vote for women. Sylvia was imprisoned many times and participated in hunger strikes, but she drew the line at arson, a tactic adopted by Emmeline, Christabel, and other militants around 1912. She broke with the WSPU and concentrated on building the rank-and-file constituency of the Labour Party. In 1914, she started a socialist newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought, aimed at working-class women. The outbreak of World War I created additional tension between Sylvia and her family, as Emmeline and Christabel threw themselves into the war effort and became fervent nationalists. Sylvia was appalled; she was a pacifist and, unlike her mother and sister, had never repudiated her socialist commitments. She co-founded the Women’s Peace Army and campaigned against the war in the Dreadnought; with Dr. Barbara Tchaykovsky, she opened four mother-and-baby clinics in London. Her support of the Russian Revolution (1917) in the pages of her paper brought a charge of sedition, and she spent five months in prison. Her relationship with an Italian socialist produced a child but she refused to marry. Sylvia Pankhurst was a vocal opponent of fascism; in the 1930s, she supported the Republicans in Spain, assisted Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and opposed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. After World War II, she moved to Addis Ababa and remained there for the rest of her life.