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Sylvia Pankhurst and the east end suffragettes

Sylvia Pankhurst developed a very different view from her mother and older sister of how the vote for women could be achieved. Although she did not speak out against it, she was opposed to the ‘terrorist’ turn which she believed “retarded a wonderful movement which was rising to a great climax”. For Sylvia a successful fight to win women the right to vote had to be based in the mass forces of the increasingly organised and politicised working class – both men and women.

In 1912 Sylvia chose to return to work in the East End of London where, in 1906, the WSPU had organised the first working class women’s’ demonstration of 500 women to march from the East End to parliament. The new campaign took off when George Lansbury, Labour MP for Poplar resigned his seat in 1912 and ran again on the single issue of ‘votes for women’.

However the opportunity to seize this chance and build a mass campaign was thwarted by Christabel’s increasing resistance to working with men and, in particular, working class organisations. After an initial flurry of activity, the WSPU did little to support Lansbury who was defeated by a Conservative. After the defeat, the WSPU wanted to close down their operation in the East End, but Sylvia and other WSPU activists were determined to carry on the work they had started.

The East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) was more that just a suffrage campaign. Sylvia understood that the question of democracy was inextricably linked to the struggle against poverty and exploitation. Women outnumbered men two to one in the sweated industries of the East End. Dominated by the docks, the vast majority of women tried to raise families in squalid housing and on poverty wages. Prostitution was widespread, along with alcoholism and high infant mortality. For a suffrage campaign to mean anything, it had to take up all of these issues.


The ELFS was a community and political organisation that allowed men to join, but was led by women. Sylvia wanted to build an organisation that could give a voice to women and in doing so, strengthen the working class as a whole. After finding an office on Roman Road in February 1913 they held their first public meeting in Bromley Public Hall, after which they marched to the local police station where some windows were broken. Sylvia and her American co-worker, Zelie Emerson, were arrested and imprisoned for two months with hard labour.

This was the beginning of a vicious and brutal campaign aimed at sapping and demoralising the suffragette activists. When working class men and women were jailed, their sacrifices were far greater that those of the respectable ‘West End ladies’. Jobs were lost, families were broken up and the treatment endured by working class prisoners was far worse than that experienced by the rich and influential.

Organising against repression
Sylvia, along with hundreds of activists used the tactics of hunger strikes to expose the brutality of their treatment by the government. Force-feeding and other forms of humiliation were meted out to the suffragettes, but despite this the campaign continued to grow amongst women in the East End.

The ELFS was a vibrant organisation. They had meetings in the afternoon and evening to ensure that both housewives and workers could attend. Classes were set up to train women speakers. Rose Leo took charge of these, but often men such as George Lansbury or John Scurr (a leading docker) would be invited so that the women could heckle and learn how to deal with hecklers! Its success was built on the support that Sylvia drew from the dockers’ community. Born leaders and agitators like Annie Barnes (docker’s wife), Julia Scurr , Charlotte Drake (ex-bar maid and mother of five) and Melvina Walker (one time ladies maid and a dockers wife) gave their blood and sweat to the movement and inspired thousands of other women to do so.

In December 1913 a week long school was held with lectures covering a range of topics from sex education, wages, housing, trade unionism, socialist history and female psychology. For Sylvia, the struggle for the vote was the struggle to ensure that women played an equal role to men in the movement to build a socialist society: “We must get women to work for themselves and feel they are working for their own emancipation.”

Repression continued and the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act was used regularly. Between February 1913 and August 1914, Sylvia was arrested eight times. Each time she went on hunger strike, was released, would defy the government by appearing on platforms in the East End while on ‘licence’, and was then hunted down by the police. Her arrests were always resisted violently by the community and her mixed bodyguard of women and dockers.

It was during this period that Sylvia helped establish the Peoples’ Army – a community self defence organisation that at its peak had 700 women. Sylvia was clear that only armed self defence could protect the working class against capitalist brutality: “I say to you that not until there is a popular uprising will you secure for us the vote. That is necessary. There is going to be drilling in the East End…Arm yourselves. Let us fight and we will win.”

Sylvia’s conception of the Peoples Army was that it should be more than just a force that could protect meetings. She saw it as an organisation that could draw women into other mass actions. In late 1913 the ELFS called for a rent strike across the East End, a tradition that went back to the Great Dock strike of 1889. The ELFS also played a key role in delivering solidarity to the Dublin Lockout in November 1913. Influenced by the textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, they organised the evacuation of children to the homes of workers in England.

Expulsion from the WSPU
It was Sylvia’s participation in this campaign of solidarity that was too much for her sister Christabel to stomach. In December 1913, Sylvia was called to Paris to meet with her sister in exile. Christabel failed to convince Sylvia to abandon her work and so the ELFS was expelled from the WSPU. Sylvia summed up Christabel’s views: “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 want picked women, the very strongest and the most intelligent!”

For Christabel, the suffragette campaign was the struggle for privileged and educated women to take their seat in their government and represent their class interests. For Sylvia the struggle for suffrage was the struggle for freedom from want, poverty and oppression. It was the struggle for working men and women to build a new society based on socialism. These two struggles would become diametrically opposed when the British Empire went to war in August 1914.

The ELFS and the war
The First World War brought enormous pressures on the suffragette movement. The ELFS went through a radical transition. It began a campaign to protect working class families from the ravages of war. It campaigned against price rises, for equal pay and a moratorium on debt. In the factories, as women replaced men called to the front, the ELFS exposed the conditions they suffered and sought to unionise and support women at work.

In March 1916, the ELFS was renamed the Workers Suffrage Federation. Again this indicated the further radicalisation that Sylvia and WSF went through under the influence of war. The WSF was explicitly anti-war, supported conscientious objectors and fought against conscription. The Russian Revolution was met with enormous enthusiasm by Sylvia and the WSF. Not only did the WSF support the revolution, but later in 1920 Sylvia was able to use the respect she had won amongst the dockers of the East End to persuade them not to load ammunition onto the ship the Jolly George which was bound for Poland’s war with Russia. After the war, Sylvia and the WSF were to play an important role in the founding of the Communist Party in Britain.

Popular history likes us to believe that the vote was won by the courageous acts of individual middle class women such as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. The experience of Sylvia and the East End suffragettes tells another story: that real social change comes from the actions of many, not just the few; that when working class communities come together, as the Dockers and the suffragettes of the East End did, they forge powerful, creative movements that challenge capitalism and strengthen the class as a whole in the fight for socialism.

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