A thorn in their side

A review of Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible
A WorldWrite production. Format: DVCAM, 4:3, 90 minutes, January 2011.*

Marianna Cage

Throughout her adult life, Sylvia Pankhurst was a thorn in the side of the British establishment. She worked tirelessly for political and social rights for women, the general emancipation of the working class, and against the senseless slaughter of war and the machinations of the imperialist state. Yet Sylvia's story has been overshadowed by that of the other members of her family, and her contribution to the formation of an authentic communist political movement in Britain, one that had women on an equal footing with men, has gone largely unnoticed, unacknowledged, or ignored. This legacy, or lack thereof, may however have something to do with the modesty and dedication which the radical suffragette applied to the movement. In the words of her son:

"One problem about talking about my mother is that she didn't reminisce very much: her struggle was her life, it was not something to write about later."

The documentary in hand, Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible corrects this imbalance through rare interview footage with her son, archivists, academics -- Mary Davis, author of Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics, is excellent -- and the odd beer-and-sandwiches left-wing hack. The filming is nuts and bolts but adequate and functional, the editing judicious, the content comprehensive. Sylvia Pankhurst emerges as a complex figure but not a complicated one, a strong-minded woman of principles as well as a sensitive, caring individual. We learn of her early adult life as an artist, her radicalisation through the Suffragette cause, and the split with her more conservative sister and mother and her differences with their patriotic abandonment of the feminist cause during the First World War. Sylvia Pankhurst agitated against and exposed the fundamental contradictions of the struggle for political freedoms under capitalism, for her the struggle over the vote was part of a wider struggle for socialism, whereas for others it was limited to correcting the embarrassing inconsistency of a so-called democratic state and defender of others' rights abroad that lacked universal suffrage at home.

The Suffragette movement is an inspiring place to begin to look for successful struggles that changed the political landscape. That the eventual reforms were gradually introduced as part of wider concessions to worker agitation does not belie the extent that these selfless women forced Britain to enter the era of the modern parliamentary state. Yet Sylvia Pankhurst helped extend this agitation into other areas of society, organising working class women into collectives that broadened the scope of the struggle for equality, setting up co-operative factories, eateries, nurseries and collectives. In 1913 she went so far as to organise a women's army that trained itself in the use of weapons in defence against the brutality they suffered from the police and the law. As Davis points out, this was not charity work, not jam-making do-goodery but a political struggle on the ground, steeped in self-empowerment. The documentary brings this to life well by exploring Sylvia's stomping ground in today's East London.

Pankhurst's artworks, shown throughout the documentary, offer a visual testimony to the changing form of women's struggle and her engagement with it. Her early paintings portray women's crucial yet invisible position in the economy: women at work, their muscles strained, their bodies toughened by hard labour, their eyes often directly staring into the viewer's: 'What are you looking at? This is me. Didn't you know I work too?'

As Davis shows with a citation from a member of the Social Democratic Federation, at the time the idea was that: "Men have sex, women are sex." The realism of these early paintings was a powerful rebuttal, perhaps too powerful for men to stomach across the political spectrum. In the struggle for equal recognition for women's work, Syliva Pankhurst was often fighting the Left as much as the establishment.

Postcards of anti-suffrage propaganda and their visual metaphors give a glimpse of what Pankhurst and her comrades were fighting against: to combat the image of the female political fighter as unwomanly, childless, homeless and celibate freak, all these notions needed to be reversed. Though never separating the struggle for political enfranchisement from that for economic equality, in her time in prison Pankhurst changes her artistic tactic: her paintings begin to depict the ethereal images of angelic and feminine, spiritual, 'trumpeting angels' that are more memorably associated with the suffragettes movement's iconography. This was done to create better press for the media, combat the notion of suffragettes as unreliable and untrustworthy, stupid and childlike, unattractive to society as a whole; troublemakers to be dismissed, ticked off -- or brutally force fed like feral children.

The documentary is produced by a Charity organisation that engages volunteers, many of whom are youngsters from East London, in making films, documentaries, interviews and spoofs about the world they live in. At times this means that the interviewers are a little wooden, they suffer from a ligneous gauche, they are at times a little out of their depth. Saying that, there is a certain charm to watching the engagement between the learned and the initiate, and it seems to elicit a healthy kind of ...ahem...patrimony, lessons that need to be passed on clearly and passionately to a new generation at a time when the horizons of what might constitute progressive political action have lowered and narrowed.

*Available as a DVD from www.worldwrite.org.uk.
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