The Suffragette and the Emperor: Sylvia Pankhurst 'Honorary Ethiopian'

Sylvia Pankhurst at a rally in 1932
Sylvia Pankhurst became a supporter, advisor and friend to Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie

The Pankhurst name is synonymous with the fight to gain women the right to vote in the early 20th century. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which conducted disruptive, violent, and noisy demonstrations to raise public awareness for their cause. They became known as the suffragettes and amongst their ranks was Emmeline’s own daughters: Sylvia, Christabel, and Adela.

Sylvia Pankhurst was born in 1882 in Manchester and, just like her sisters, had a strong moral compass guiding her from an early age. A gifted artist, Sylvia spent two years training at the Royal College of Art in London. However, a career dedicated to human rights beckoned and she soon found herself spending more and more of her time fighting for the suffragette cause. On multiple occasions, Sylvia embarked on hunger strikes and found herself imprisoned for her protests.

As time went on, Sylvia began to adopt more pacifist views putting her less at ease with the increasingly militant tactics of the WSPU. The organisation was also aiming itself towards the middle-class at the expense of working-class women. A rift started to appear between Sylvia and her mother and Christabel. Eventually, Sylvia left the movement to start her own party that enveloped her socialist views, as well her beliefs on women's rights.

Initially called the East London Federation of Suffragettes, the party eventually settled on the Workers' Socialist Federation, a clear indication of the political stance Sylvia was turning towards.

As fighting broke out in Europe in 1914, the WSPU backed the war effort to the delight of the British government. On the contrary, Sylvia urged her supporters to do the opposite, campaigning instead for peace.

In 1918, women over 30 were granted the right to vote and in 1928, that right was extended to all women over 21, giving complete gender voting equality. Although the fight for suffrage was now over, Sylvia's social beliefs drove her to find other ways to improve society.

Inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, Sylvia’s party began to lean further and further to the left until it was renamed the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). The party was eventually absorbed into the main official Communist Party in Britain, one that Sylvia ended up leaving. Not, however, before she had taken the opportunity to converse with Lenin, the Russian revolutionary and communist leader. The pair didn’t always see eye-to-eye but met on multiple occasions across the globe, including in Moscow.

Sylvia then fell in love with an Italian revolutionary called Silvio Corio. The pair had a baby together out of wedlock in 1927, which caused such a societal stir that Sylvia’s mother disowned her.

The 1930s brought about a shift in Sylvia's politics as she began focusing her efforts on world peace and movements connected with anti-fascism and anti-colonialism.

In 1935, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia, so Sylvia turned her attention towards the conflict. Outraged by the lack of concern given by the British government towards the aggressive actions of Italy, Sylvia decided to campaign against the invasion. It became a cause close to her heart and one she’d dedicate the rest of her life to.

When the British media began to tire of the plight of the Ethiopians, Sylvia decided to create her own magazine and called it the New Times and Ethiopia News. She became a supporter and advisor to Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian Emperor who’d been exiled to England after the Italian invasion.

‘I grew up in London surrounded by Ethiopian exiles visiting my mother, who was always busy organising meetings and fundraising for the Ethiopian cause,’ said Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia’s son, to the BBC in 2016.

After Ethiopia was liberated towards the end of WWII, Sylvia took it upon herself to visit the country in 1944. By this stage, an MI5 file had already been created on the activist that spoke of strategies for ‘muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’.

In 1950, she returned to Ethiopia with her son. ‘It was my first introduction to the Third World and poverty,’ Richard said. ‘Many of the Ethiopians we befriended in London were now in government.’

It was in 1956 that Sylvia's desire to protect Ethiopia had grown to such a point that she decided to move there permanently after an invitation from Haile Selassie. Richard went along with her.

She created a popular monthly magazine called the Ethiopia Observer which was based in the capital, Addis Ababa. The magazine focused on many aspects of Ethiopian life and development, highlighting the true potential of a country that Sylvia felt was too often overlooked and underappreciated.

Her reporting took her across the country as she visited schools, hospitals, and other development projects. Even in those later years, she showed no signs of slowing down.

However, time finally caught up with her and she passed away in Addis Ababa in 1960, aged 78. She was given a full state funeral and was named by Haile Selassie as an ‘honorary Ethiopian’, in dedication to her service to the country. She was buried in front of the capital city’s Trinity Cathedral, becoming the only foreigner to lie among the graves of famous Ethiopian patriots of the Italian war.

Her son continued to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting injustices in their adopted homeland of Ethiopia.

Driven by a strong social and moral conscious, Sylvia Pankhurst spent a lifetime fighting political oppression, suffrage, violence, poverty, and injustice whilst promoting worldwide human rights. She was by many accounts one of the great activists of the 20th century.