Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst's Granddaughter on How Her Grandma Changed Her Life

On International Women's Day, Sylvia Pankhurst's granddaughter Helen talks about what her life would have been like without the pivotal suffragette and anti-colonial organizer.

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Mar 8 2017, 5:00pm

Sylvia Pankhurst. Photo via Flickr user LSE Library

What would your life be like without a pivotal female influence? On the day of the Women's Strike—which envisions a world without the contributions of women—CARE International senior advisor Helen Pankhurst talks about her grandmother, the anti-fascist left-wing suffragette who campaigned for women's equality.

Sylvia Pankhurst was the daughter of Emmeline; she took part in the whole suffragette campaign, initially with her sister and mother. There was a split between them about a number of things, including strategy, but primarily to do with Sylvia's sense that the women's rights cause needed to be understood in the context of social inequality. She became involved with setting up an organization [the East London Federation of Suffragettes] that addressed both class and gender issues.

There are so many things about Sylvia that are really fascinating and have influenced me. I have Sylvia as my middle name and I also spend a lot of time in her room in Addis Ababa. I very much feel like I'm following in her footsteps, but I never knew her—she died in 1960 and I was born in 1964.

My parents and I talked about her a lot. There are two reasons why I would select her as a person that has had really major influence in my life. Firstly, it was because of her that I was born in Ethiopia—I spend half my time in Ethiopia, I speak the language fluently. The second issue is also the feminism that has defined me. Two of my prime interests are international feminism and Ethiopian feminism, and they come directly from her.

In the early 1930s [and earlier], Sylvia became worried about the growth of fascism in Italy and started to report on some of the stories that were coming out. And then Italy invaded Ethiopia. So then she started a publication, the Ethiopian Observer, to raise awareness of what was going on, and then in the 40s when Ethiopia was liberated she continued to write about Ethiopia and then in '56 she moved there and died there in 1960.

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This was a time of massive social change; [Sylvia's mother Emmeline] became more conservative and Sylvia moved more to the left. Sylvia, from the beginning, understood those intersections [of gender, class, and color]. She was the first person to employ a black writer as a journalist in her newspaper in the UK. With religion issues, she was very supportive of anti anti-Semitic activities. She was very involved with pan-Africanism. It wasn't a superficial "let's do a good cause" approach that she brought to anything. It was always with whoever was involved in that struggle, and she would never do anything from above and in her own voice.

Sylvia Pankhurst protesting iBritish policy in India at Trafalgar Square, London in 1932. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Whereas I think Emmeline felt—possibly tactically—Let's do this one at a time and the most important thing is to address gender inequality. That was what she identified with. You can see it happen, can't you? If that becomes your prime issue, then your enemies become your friends. The government was at war with other countries, so you become a nationalist, and then you also become an imperalist because that was the time they were living in. Both were drifting in different directions. Luckily, the world has drifted in Sylvia's direction. To a large extent, the world has more reflected the values that she upheld.

My father inherited some of Sylvia's qualities. There was a tremendous dedication to social issues and to change, in the sense that you are put on this earth to make a different and individuals can make a difference. That very much came from her, and my father passed that on to me.

Helen Pankhurst at the CARE March4Women in 2017. Photo courtesy of CARE International.

Sylvia also had that tenacity, and a great gentleness which is slightly unusual—you would expect, with that surname and the issues that they fought for, that these would be aggressive, loud, in-your-face type people. And that was the very opposite of what Sylvia and my father were like. There was a gentleness, a thoughtfulness, and a self-effacing quality to how they wanted to ensure change.

I think those qualities are phenomenally important, especially if you want to make a difference. I'm a little bit of a introvert. I have found myself often in positions where I have to give speeches, and I value that you can say things thoughtfully. I can do that in many ways more powerfully than the strident approach. It's what you do with your life, but also how you do it. That has come through her.

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[From Sylvia, I see in myself] a sense of understanding how complicated things are, and how reflection and analysis is required. Dogged determination doesn't get you very far if you don't understand the whole situation. Also, empathy is really important—sometimes empathy is put in a different category from Sylvia's analysis, and I think it's the link between the two that is very important. A strong value of humanity is very important to me. The work of CARE International is about building a more enabling world for people. It's about understanding people's vulnerabilities globally and the benefit of a world that is supportive of those in need support at the particular point and time and knowing that things change.

if you talk to anyone that knows me, they would say that the defining aspects of my identity are Ethiopia and feminism. There all sorts of other things that I am keen on—my kids and all sorts of things—but those two aspects are the most important parts of me. I don't know what I would do or how I would behave if Sylvia Pankhurst hadn't been part of my life.

—as told to Zing Tsjeng

For more stories around International Women's Day and the women's strike, go here.