Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible is a critically acclaimed political documentary that tells the largely buried and often glossed over story of a remarkable and courageous woman who lived in an era very different from our own.
With politics in the 21st century being so unfashionable, and overly concerned with minding your ethical p’s and q’s and personal behaviour, it feels refreshing to encounter a world where there was so much more to it. This is not to glorify the past of course, as this was also a period in which the barbarity of the state knew no bounds. Sylvia, it seems, ruffled many feathers amongst the political elite in her day and still does, as despite the best efforts of a Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee who would like a statue erected to her on College Green in Westminster there are those who still find her politics too much to bear.
Outside the Palace of Westminster, there is a statue of her mother Emmeline Pankhurst and a plaque to her sister Christabel Pankhurst, but no sign of Sylvia. This film reveals why this is the case.
Unlike the contemporary fad for emotional, personality or personal relations driven film, this feature-length documentary is at pains to provide us with an understanding of historical context, the ideas of the time and associated political struggle. And it does so in a way which never fails to engage. We learn, for example, from the scrapbooks of prisoners that this was a time in which women’s role in the family and home as unpaid provider was considered central, and their participation in public life unacceptable. From historian Alan Hudson, we learn that there was, for the establishment, no interest in changing or interfering with this inherited formal inequality.
It was a time too when politics with a capital ‘P’ meant social change on a grand scale; and through this investigative visual essay, we see that this was exactly what Sylvia had in mind and why her approach was needed even to win female suffrage.
Much is made in the film of original source material and archives, punctuated by engaging interviews and witness testimony provided uniquely in film by Sylvia’s son, Richard Pankhurst. The film is compelling, in part, because of its extraordinarily thorough approach.
To follow Sylvia’s impact on history and the suffragette cause, the viewer is taken to contemporary locations to illuminate lesser known yet key historical moments.
In east London’s Victoria Park — established to improve the health of the poor and keep the riff raff out of the West End — we learn of the People’s Army that Sylvia established, along the lines of James Connolly’s Irish Citizens Army, where men and women were trained to deal with the police violence meted out to suffrage campaigners.
In a little known old pub in Bow (then called ‘The Mothers Arms’), we learn that she established the first nurseries to enable women to work. Outside Holloway prison — notorious for its treatment of women — we learn that Sylvia was arrested more than any other suffragette and, from her son, that she added the ‘sleep strike’ to hunger strike in Holloway, to win temporary release under the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.
From security files we learn of her resistance to the draconian force-feeding she endured for her political work, and how concerned the state was with controlling and limiting her activities. Her opposition to World War 1 (in stark contrast to her more famous and feted mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel) is explored, with an outline of the anti-imperialist and emergent communist movements of the time.
Alongside the Thames, we gain a fresh understanding of the oft-repeated Jolly George story of dockers refusing to load arms bound for the front to defeat the young Bolshevik revolution, and Sylvia’s joy and commendation of their action in her paper, Workers’ Dreadnought. In fact, this film sets the record straight on Sylvia’s internationalism — in contrast to prevailing myths that she was a pacifist.
Helen Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst’s granddaughter said of the film:
Brilliant film — I’ve read and seen a lot about Sylvia — this ranks way up there! Many thanks for bringing my grandmother to life in this way — focussing on what’s important, i.e. the issues and not on the trivia!
I thoroughly agree with Helen’s comments and found this resource-rich documentary compelling, illuminating and inspiring. Sylvia Pankhurst was an unstinting campaigner for the vote with a capital ‘V’. She campaigned not just for votes for women (for which she is best known) but for a universal franchise (to include women and the working class as a whole, without a property qualification) and much more besides. She was an anti-imperialist, an anti-racist, founder of the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1913, later the Workers Suffrage Federation, a founder of the first British Communist party (expelled in 1921), and also an artist and mother.
Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the most important revolutionary figures in the UK (and the world) in the early 20th century and the film shows us exactly why.
Women in the UK finally won the full franchise in 1928 and there can be no doubt of the role that Sylvia played in making this possible. Unlike Emmeline and Christabel, who dropped the fight for votes for women to support the war effort and supported a limited franchise for upper class women, Sylvia refused to sacrifice the fight for universal suffrage until it was won. Her opposition to the war and her internationalism remain exemplary, and her bravery in fighting for equality and opposing all misanthropic trends puts her, as Alan Hudson says, “up there with the angels”.
Toward the end of her life, Sylvia’s political campaigning focussed on support for anti-colonial struggles and liberation for Black Africa (she edited the respected newspaper, New Times and Ethiopia News, for decades).
She died in 1960, and was buried in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The tributes at her funeral, we learn in the film, came from everywhere, except of course Britain.
The booklet accompanying the film includes this quote from Sylvia:
Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance … We do not call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift, and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume.
While this film does not draw lessons for us, lecture or hector us, there is much we can learn from Sylvia’s politics and impact in the film that are salutary for today.
The website for the film, including reviews and some of the security files held on Sylvia, is available at www.worldwrite.org.uk/sylviapankhurst.
The film and accompanying booklet are available to order from the website and on Amazon.