Last week the Morning Star published an interview with Katherine Connelly, author of the Revolutionary Lives biography Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto, 2013), in which she spoke to writer Louise Raw about Sylvia Pankhurst and why her legacy still matters today.
The feature was published first on 24th January. We’ve reproduced an extract on the Pluto blog. You can see the whole thing on the Morning Star website.
Check out our video with Katherine where she talks about the book some more. If you want to buy it, it’s available on the Pluto website for just £11.50 (that’s 10% off) with free UK P&P. Click here, or on the cover image for more details.
Katherine Connelly wants to change the world. While she’s by no means alone in that, the extent to which she’s already had a good crack at it is impressive.
Having talked to her at length, I’m not surprised to learn that her first foray into the proud ranks of the awkward squad came during primary school, where she campaigned, successfully, against a uniform policy that banned girls from wearing trousers.
In fact, the only wonder is that she waited so long and wasn’t organising nursery school walkouts – toddle-outs? – against nap time.
By the age of 17 Connelly was leading a student strike against the Iraq war.
In 2013 she co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign to celebrate the centenary of the suffragette’s death at the Epsom Derby.
Despite a marked lack of enthusiasm from the Derby committee, which rejected the idea of a minute’s silence in memory of Davison’s fatal protest as too upsetting for their well-heeled guests (whether it was her death or the painful reminder of women getting the vote that was potentially distressing remains unclear), Connelly was instrumental in bringing the matter to public attention via the Channel 4 documentary on Davison presented by Clare “National Treasure” Balding.
Even as a PhD student there are no flies on Connelly. Many have studied the writings of Karl Marx, but few made the savvy decision to focus on the influence of Parisian popular culture on the same, necessitating – quel dommage – frequent trips to Paris.
I say this with no trace of bitterness. East London, the locus of my own thesis, being equally lovely in the springtime.
Twenty-thirteen also saw Connelly – still, disconcertingly, only 27 – somehow find the time to produce a significant new work on the life and politics of Sylvia Pankhurst.
Those of us who haven’t even got as far as making new year resolutions may feel slightly exhausted by this persistent polymathery.
However, I must report that Connelly is not only charming and modest in person, but as bracingly and sincerely political as one could wish for.
She is entirely serious about wanting to change the world, and not in a nebulous way – she has refined upon the careers of the likes of past lefty greats in order to extract useful lessons from history.
The Pankhurst book accordingly provides insight into the logistics of building mass movements alongside the biography.
It in part is something of a handbook for today’s activists, and its timing is significant. She tells me: “With the explosion in mass movements, there is a new relevance in Sylvia’s ideas and a new generation of protesters who could benefit from them.”
It’s an intriguing idea – there is, too often, a disconnect between political generations which can lead to hard-won wisdom being lost and necessitate the constant reinvention of various wheels.
It’s all too easy to rest on one’s laurels and criticise new forms of protest and political engagement, but this serves little purpose when the left so badly needs to unite its troops against capitalism, not each other.
If anyone understood the need to concentrate on issues not personalities it was Pankhurst, who grew up with some of the biggest in the suffrage movement.
Her break with her mother and sister, Christabel and Emmeline, and from the Women’s Social and Political Union is well-known, but the complex reasons for it perhaps less so.
Sylvia Pankhurst’s analysis of class had set her apart from Christabel, in particular, well before the ultimate rupture.
Her politics had been strongly influenced by those of her father Richard.
Known, rather wonderfully, as the Red Doctor, Richard Pankhurst was a qualified barrister but campaigned tirelessly for numerous causes as well as suffrage, including – deep breath – Irish home rule, Indian independence, secular education, disestablishment of the Church of England and abolition of the House of Lords.
He was responsible for drafting the Women’s Disabilities Removal Bill, the first women’s suffrage Bill in England.
With his younger wife Emmeline, he formed the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was established at the Pankhurst family home in Manchester in 1903.
Richard Pankhurst stood for Parliament twice, unsuccessfully, before dying suddenly when Sylvia was 16.
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