Estelle Sylvia Corio (Pankhurst) (1882 - 1960)

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Birthplace: Manchester, Greater Manchester, UK
Death: Died
Managed by: Randy Schoenberg
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About Estelle Sylvia Corio (Pankhurst)

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst (5 May 1882 – 27 September 1960) was an English campaigner for the suffragist movement in the United Kingdom. She was for a time a prominent left communist who then devoted herself to the cause of anti-fascism.

Early life

Sylvia Pankhurst was born in Manchester, a daughter of Dr. Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, members of the Independent Labour Party and (especially Emmeline) much concerned with women's rights. She and her sisters attended the Manchester High School for Girls. Her sister Christabel would also become an activist.

Sylvia trained as an artist at the Manchester School of Art, and in 1900 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington.


In 1906 Sylvia Pankhurst started to work full-time with the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her sister and her mother. In contrast to them she retained an affiliation with the labour movement, and unlike them she concentrated her activity on local campaigning with the East London Federation of the WSPU, rather than leading the national organisation. Sylvia Pankhurst contributed articles to the WSPU's newspaper, Votes for Women, and in 1911 she published a propagandist history of the WSPU's campaign, The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. By 1914 Sylvia had many disagreements with the route the WSPU was taking: while the WSPU had become independent of any political party, she wanted an explicitly socialist organisation tackling wider issues than women's suffrage, aligned with the Independent Labour Party. She had a very close personal relationship with anti-war Labour politician Keir Hardie. In 1914 she broke with the WSPU to set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), which over the years evolved politically and changed its name accordingly, first to Women's Suffrage Federation and then to the Workers' Socialist Federation. She founded the newspaper of the WSF, Women's Dreadnought, which subsequently became the Workers' Dreadnought. It organized against the war, and some of its members hid conscientious objectors from the police.

First World War

During the First World War, Sylvia was horrified to see her mother and her sister Christabel become enthusiastic supporters of the war drive, and campaigning in favour of military conscription. She herself was opposed to the war. Her organization attempted to organize the defence of the interests of women in the poorer parts of London. They set up "cost-price" restaurants to feed the hungry, without the taint of charity. They also established a toy factory in order to give work to women who had become unemployed because of the war. Sylvia worked incessantly to defend soldiers' wives rights to decent allowances while their partners were away, both practically by setting up legal advice centres, and politically by running campaigns to oblige the government to take into account the poverty of soldiers' wives. She supported the International Women's Peace Congress, held during the war at The Hague, support which lost her some of her allies at home.


The group continued to move leftwards and hosted the inaugural meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). Workers' Dreadnought published "A Constitution for British Soviets" at this meeting. This was an article by Sylvia, in which she highlighted the role of Household Soviets - "In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up". The CP(BSTI) was opposed to parliamentarism, in contrast to the views of the newly founded British Socialist Party which formed the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in August 1920. The CP(BSTI) soon dissolved itself into the larger, official Communist Party. This unity was to be short-lived and when the leadership of the CPGB proposed that Pankhurst hand over the Workers Dreadnought to the party she revolted. As a result she was expelled from the CPGB and moved to found the short-lived Communist Workers Party.

Sylvia by this time adhered to left or council communism. She was an important figure in the communist movement at the time and attended meetings of the International[disambiguation needed] in Russia and Amsterdam and also those of the Italian Socialist Party. She disagreed with Vladimir Lenin on important points of Communist theory and strategy and was supportive of "left communists" such as Anton Pannekoek.

International Auxiliary Language Movement

Pankhurst also applied her energies to the consideration of a satisfactory International Auxiliary Language. To this end, she wrote and published a monograph on the topic in which she considers the history of the movement, historical and contemporary attempts at creating a non-national interlangauge and delves into the issues of how the ideal interlanguage should look, what conditions it should satisfy and how it should be implemented.

Partner and son

Sylvia Pankhurst objected to entering into a marriage contract and taking a husband's name. At about the end of the First World War, she began living with Italian anarchist Silvo Corio and moved to Woodford Green for over 30 years. A blue plaque and Pankhurst Green opposite Woodford tube station commemorate her link to the area. In 1927 she gave birth to a son, Richard. As she refused to marry the child's father, her own mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, broke with her and did not speak to her again.

Supporter of Ethiopia


In the early 1930s, Pankhurst drifted away from communist politics but remained involved in movements connected with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism. In 1932 she was instrumental in the establishment of the Socialist Workers' National Health Council. She responded to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by publishing The New Times and Ethiopia News from 1936, and became a supporter of Haile Selassie. She raised funds for Ethiopia's first teaching hospital and wrote extensively on Ethiopian art and culture; her research was published as Ethiopia, a Cultural History (London: Lalibela House, 1955).

From 1936, MI5 kept a watch on Pankhurst's correspondence. In 1940, she wrote to Viscount Swinton as the chairman of a committee investigating Fifth Columnists, sending him a list of active Fascists still at large and of anti-Fascists who had been interned. A copy of this letter on MI5's file carries a note in Swinton's hand reading "I should think a most doubtful source of information."

After the post-war liberation of Ethiopia, she became a strong supporter of union between Ethiopia and the former Italian Somaliland, and MI5's file continued to follow her activities. In 1948, MI5 considered strategies for "muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst".

Pankhurst became a friend and adviser to the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and followed a consistently anti-British stance. She moved to Addis Ababa at Haile Selassie's invitation in 1956 with her son, Richard, (who continues to live there), and founded a monthly journal, Ethiopia Observer, which reported on many aspects of Ethiopian life and development.

She died in Addis Ababa in 1960, and was given a full state funeral at which Haile Selassie named her "an honorary Ethiopian". She is the only foreigner buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, in the area reserved for patriots of the Italian war.

Writings (selection)

The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement (London: Gay & Hancock, 1911)

The Home Front (1932; reissued 1987 by The Cresset Library) ISBN 0-09-172911-4
Soviet Russia as I saw it (Workers' Dreadnought, 16 April 1921)
The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (1931; reissued 1984 by Chatto & Windus)
A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader, ed. by Kathryn Dodd (Manchester University Press, 1993)
Non-Leninist Marxism: Writings on the Workers Councils (includes Pankhurst's "Communism and its Tactics"), (St. Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2007). ISBN 978-0-9791813-6-8
Delphos or the Future of International Language (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., undated, but probably around 1927)

Secondary literature

Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (Pluto Press, 1999) ISBN 0-7453-1518-6
Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: Artist and Crusader, An Intimate Portrait (Virago Ltd, 1979) ISBN 0-448-22840-8
Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: Counsel for Ethiopia (Hollywood, Calif.: Tsehai, 2003) London: Global
Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst, A Crusading Life 1882–1960 (Aurum Press, 2004)
Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst, Citizen of the World (Hornbeam Publishing Ltd, 2009), ISBN 978-0-9553963-2-8
Barbara Castle, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst (Penguin Books, 1987) ISBN 0-14-008761-3
Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts (Penguin Books, 2002)
Patricia W. Romero, E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Portrait of a Radical (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987)
Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996) ISBN 0-312-16268-5
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Sylvia Pankhurst's Timeline

Manchester, Greater Manchester, UK
Age 78