If public statues can be seen as a measure of contribution to the human good, then Sylvia Pankhurst’s place on a plinth is scandalously overdue. A statue of her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, was unveiled in 1930 beside the Palace of Westminster, and a plaque to her elder sister, Christabel, was added in 1959 in tribute to their battle for women’s suffrage. Yet a fundraising campaign to erect a statue of Sylvia on Camberwell Green, London, is still woefully short of its target, despite the fact that she made at least as many sacrifices in the cause of votes for women as her mother and sister, as well as working her entire life against racism and social inequality.
While Emmeline and Christabel are inextricably bound in the public mind with the suffragette movement, Sylvia’s central role is still overlooked, even though she spent longer in prison and – unlike them – was repeatedly force-fed. But the discrepancy has more to do with the divergence of their lives after the suffrage campaign than their work within it. As Emmeline and Christabel moved to the right and allied themselves firmly with the Establishment, Sylvia shifted so far to the left she was regarded as a public enemy – in Britain at least.
Rachel Holmes’s vivid, tender and comprehensive biography should add weight to Sylvia’s rehabilitation. A child of the Victorian age, Sylvia became a household name in the Edwardian era and lived into the 1960s. A lifelong feminist who despised fashion and make-up, lived unmarried with her partner and proudly gave birth