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17 February 2023

A new musical proves it – Sylvia Pankhurst is the feminist icon we need

While her mother Emmeline has traditionally been the most famous Pankhurst, the Old Vic’s new show is just the latest to recognise socialist Sylvia’s more lasting impact.

By Rachel Holmes

The opening of the Old Vic’s musical Sylvia could not be more timely. Sylvia Pankhurst, the red suffragette, is emerging as the most relevant member of the famous feminist family. Kate Prince’s production comes down incontrovertibly on the side of Sylvia in the Pankhurst civil war – and the audience cheers.    

This spirited show is an explicit “celebration” of her life, set to soul, hip hop, funk and rap composed by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde. It stars Sharon Rose (Hamilton) as Sylvia, and the singer Beverley Knight (The Bodyguard) as her mother Emmeline. Focusing on the suffragette campaign, the musical avoids the all-too-common trap of ending with the qualified women’s vote of 1918. Instead, Sylvia and still-disenfranchised working women march on in red aprons towards the crucial victory of votes for all women and men in 1928. 

Sylvia Pankhurst was the original intersectional feminist: a socialist internationalist practicing the allyship that those born before 1980 call solidarity. Her concern for working-class women and men, and not just the vote for more privileged ladies, meant Sylvia was always the better known and loved Pankhurst for the Labour Party and trade union movements. Despite the friendship between the Pankhursts and Labour’s founder Keir Hardie, only Sylvia stayed loyal to him. (Her love affair with Hardie forms part of the story of Sylvia, the personal and political intertwined.)

Conservatives understandably prefer her mother, the renowned, militant orator Emmeline, and older sister Christabel – both of whom would abandon socialism. While Sylvia opposed the First World War, her mother and sister were jingoistic enough to suspend the suffrage campaign, rebrand its paper Britannia and expel Sylvia from the Women’s Social and Political Union that they ran autocratically. Emmeline ended up as the Tory candidate for Whitechapel and St Georges – a fact that elicited audible gasps from the Old Vic audience – while Christabel later found God and a career as a Californian televangelist. In my 2020 biography of Sylvia, I explore how the schism in the first family of feminism started an ongoing split in feminist thinking between left-intersectional struggles and the narrower interests of already relatively privileged women.

Sylvia was an artist, newspaper editor and journalist – her diverse campaigning skills continue to resonate with today’s young. So does her work on maternal and universal healthcare, cost-price restaurants for the precariat, and committed vegetarianism. She went on to work with her erstwhile opponent Winston Churchill in raising the alarm about European fascism. She took up the Ethiopian cause against Mussolini’s invasion when the likes of Evelyn Waugh were writing in the Evening Standard that it was “a barbarous country”. When the Home Office refused visas to German Jewish refugees, even after Kristallnacht in 1938, Sylvia wrote in the Manchester Guardian: “May we not plead for somewhat more humanity in dealing with these cases?” No wonder the author and playwright Lemn Sissay wrote, in response to my book, that “Sylvia Pankhurst was protesting that black lives matter before the term was invented”.

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Sylvia is buried in a patriot’s grave in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where a major city street had already been named for her. Kwame Nkrumah, Sylvia’s friend and later Ghana’s first prime minister, nicknamed her open home for the transnational African diaspora in Woodford “the Village” – a hub of radical African consciousness in north-east London. Her little son Richard loved the vinyl jazz and R&B his parents’ African political friends – fighters for decolonisation – brought to their home. The casting of so many black actors in this diverse ensemble is completely in keeping with Sylvia’s life and politics.

Vanessa Redgrave was the first to depict Sylvia on screen: she gives an electrifying speech in opposition to the First World War in Richard Attenborough’s 1969 adaptation of Joan Littlewood’s musical Oh! What a Lovely War. In 1974, Angela Down played the reluctant teenage militant Sylvia in the BBC TV miniseries Shoulder to Shoulder. At that point, Sylvia was still the best-known Pankhurst among progressive campaigners across the world. Emmeline and Christabel became prominent during the Thatcherite 1980s and remained so until the feminism-lite of Theresa May’s premiership: see Meryl Streep’s cameo appearance as Emmeline in Sarah Gavron’s 2015 film Suffragette.

With the far right returning, the pandemic’s magnification of socio-economic inequalities, and the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, Sylvia has become prominent again. In Sonali Bhattacharyya’s recent play Two Billion Beats, Sylvia is the inspiration for 17-year-old Asha in Leicester. The LSE recently held a screening of Joan Ashworth’s Sylvia Pankhurst, Artist Writer, Fighter, a mixed-media essay film about her work. The Sylvia musical is the latest production to recognise her lasting impact. 

Choreography is Kate Prince’s talent, and her dancers really deliver. Fittingly, Sylvia obsessively sketched and painted women’s dancing feet. This theatrical experience, through its constant collective movement, captures something of her legacy.

“Sylvia” runs at London’s Old Vic theatre until 8 April 2023. Rachel Holmes is the author of “Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel” (Bloomsbury, 2020) and editor of Sylvia Pankhurst’s “Between Two Fires” (Methuen Drama, 2022) 

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