Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters were as intense and volatile as their mother. One of them was also a painter, and the Tate has rescued her from obscurity.
On a Pot Bank: Finishing Off the Edges of the Unbaked Plates on a Whirler, 1907, gouache on paper, Sylvia Pankhurst, courtesy Tate Britain
Artist Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the daughters of the famous British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. Four of her gouaches were recently acquired by the Tate. They’re competent and historically important. They hint at a career that might have been brilliant had the artist not been derailed by politics.
Sylvia was a gifted student who trained at Manchester School of Art, and the Royal College of Art. She gave up art totally in 1912 to dedicate herself fully to the Pankhurst family business of political protest.
The Tate gouaches were painted during a tour of British mills and potteries that employed women. Her written commentary was as vibrant as the paintings themselves. In Glasgow she wrote about “the almost deafening noise of the machinery and the oppressive heat… so hot and airless that I fainted within an hour.”
In a Glasgow Cotton Mill: Minding a Pair of Fine Frames, 1907, gouache on paper, Sylvia Pankhurst, courtesy Tate Britain
The Pankhursts were middle-class, so the grueling conditions in the mills were a novelty to Sylvia. Still, they suffered. They were famous cranks in a society that valued order. Their beliefs destroyed any chance of a peaceful, happy existence.
Richard Pankhurst was a Socialist barrister of many and varied causes. His primary contribution to history were the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, and marrying Emmeline, 24 years his junior.
Emmeline did not found the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) until after his death, but he would have supported it. The Pankhursts never minded a little rough protest; they were both present at the Bloody Sunday Riotin Trafalgar Square.
The couple had five children. Both sons died young. All three daughters became suffragettes. The oldest, Christabel, directed the WSPU from exile during the period when its members were being force-fed in prison and slashing the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery. In 1914 she returned to England, reborn as a militant anti-German. She encouraged her followers to shame men for cowardice by handing out white feathers to those in civilian dress. She called for conscription and the internment of foreign nationals.
Christabel ruled the WSPU with an iron hand. “She was our mother’s favourite; we all knew it, and I, for one, never resented the fact,” wrote Sylvia.
In a Glasgow Cotton Spinning Mill: Changing the Bobbin, 1907, gouache on paper, Sylvia Pankhurst, courtesy Tate Britain
Adela, their younger sister, was a disappointment, even though she was arrested many times. “I would not care if you were multiplied by a hundred,” Christabel told Sylvia, “but one of Adela is too many.”
Adela was given £20, a ticket to Australia, a letter of introduction, and firm instructions from her mother to leave England. She never saw her family again.
Sylvia was a committed Communist, as interested in labor rights and pacifism as she was in feminism. With her friend Amy Bull, she founded the Workers’ Suffrage Federation. This was too much for Christabel, who was already consolidating her hold on the WSPU by expelling members who disagreed with her.
Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel (center) and Sylvia (right) at Waterloo Station, London, 1911. Courtesy Imperial War Museum
“She [Christabel] turned to me,” recollected Sylvia. “’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!’… I was oppressed by a sense of tragedy, grieved by her ruthlessness.”
At age 45, Sylvia gave birth to a son with her Italian anarchist partner, outside conventional marriage. She called this child “a triumph of eugenics,” since both parents were fit and bright. Her mother, who was standing for Parliament, was so furious that she never spoke to Sylvia again.
None of the Pankhurst daughters were destined to die in England. Adela married an Australian trade unionist and had a large family, veering from Communism to the far right in her later years. Sylvia spent her later life agitating on behalf of Ethiopia and died there. Christabel went to America to preach her religious theories. She was found dead, sitting bolt-upright in a straight-backed chair, at the age of 77.