Sylvia Pankhurst by Dr Jacqui Turner #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs

As it is Sylvia Pankhurst’s birthday this week, we thought that we would ask Jacqui Turner @Jacqui1918 to suggest some Desert Island Discs.  Here it is with Jacqui’s apologies to all academics researching suffrage out there…

Sylvia 1


Cast away on the desert island today (though it may be a stark reminder of her time in isolation while on hunger strike in prison) is Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960). Sylvia was a suffragette, socialist feminist, pacifist and social campaigner and all around top bird.


Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves (1985), Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin

‘Now this is a song to celebrate /The conscious liberation of the female state!’

An obvious choice so let’s get it out of the way upfront. It was clear that women were not going to be handed the vote so they came ‘outta the kitchen…doin’ it for themselves’ and adopting tactics that had been used by men in pursuit of the franchise. Even though we think of the suffrage campaign as a great cohesive movement of women, it was fractious with groups disagreeing on tactics and how the vote might be won.

Mancunian Way (2006) Take That

‘I’m gonna bring this town alive’

As a Lancashire lass born and bred myself, sometimes this drives me nuts – it is easy to forget that the Pankhursts were northern gels and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had its roots in Manchester’s radical and socialist politics. Sylvia was a founder member of the WSPU with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel. In 1903, they spilt from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society in pursuit of new measures independent of political parties and to progress their cause through increasingly militant tactics, breathing new life into the stalling campaign for votes for women.

London Calling (1979) The Clash

‘London calling to the faraway towns/ Now war is declared and battle come down’

While Manchester may have been a centre for commerce and industry the national centre of government was undoubtedly London. As the WSPU had no political affiliation they were determined to oppose whichever party was in government. In an effort to intensify political pressure, in 1906 the WSPU moved their headquarters and took the battle for the vote to London.

Hunger Strike, Temple of The Dog (1990)

‘Blood is on the table and the mouths are all chokin’ But I’m goin’ hungry, Yeah’

Sylvia went on hunger strike and was force-fed many times in protest against suffragette’s status as common criminals rather than political prisoners. Between February 1913 and July 1914 she was arrested and repeatedly force fed 8 times. Here is one account (with thanks to Vote100):  ‘I was struggling wildly, trying to tighten the muscles and to keep my throat closed up. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but a mad revolt of struggling, for at last I heard them say, “That’s all”; and I vomited as the tube came up.’ McClure’s Magazine, Vol. XLI, Issue no. 4, Aug. 1913 (pp.87-93)

We are Family (1978) Sister Sledge

‘We are family/ I got all my sisters with me’

This is a tricky one, did you know that there was a third Pankhurst sister, Adela? I am turning to Professor June Purvis here to explain the complex relationships within the Pankhurst family: ‘The three Pankhurst women were all members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) but Emmeline and Christabel became disillusioned with the way the ILP never gave priority to the women’s issue, despite its claim to support gender equality. When they resigned from the ILP in 1907, Sylvia was deeply upset. She wanted to link the WSPU to the socialist movement. Sylvia subsequently portrayed her sister in The Suffragette Movement as an evil Svengali who led their easily swayed mother away from the true path of socialism. She labelled separatist feminist Christabel a Tory.’ Read more from Professor Purvis’ on the Pankhurst sisters here here 

War (1970) Edwin Starr

‘Oh, war I despise, ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives’

Unlike her mother and sister, who were patriotic supporters of World War One, Sylvia was a pacifist and internationalist. She considered the War as a means by which the Establishment or the ruling elite would preserve social and political inequalities and imperialism. She probably wasn’t wrong either.

‘9 to 5’ (1980) by Dolly Parton

‘Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’/ Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’/ They just use your mind and they never give you credit…’

It might be a surprise to see Dolly here alongside Sylvia but this song celebrating working women and calling out the capitalistic patriarchy may have appealed to Sylvia. She merged her feminism and socialism to establish the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) in 1912/13. They were predominantly a working-class organisation initially linked to the WSPU (until Sylvia was expelled in 1914) but with an independent mandate campaigning for social change alongside the vote between 1912 and 1920.

Radio Ethiopia (1976), Patti Smith Group

‘There will be no famine in my existence, I merge with the people of the hills’

Sylvia supported Ethiopia during the Fascist Italian invasion (1936–1941). She founded a newspaper New Times and Ethiopia News and moved to the country with her son. She died, was given a state funeral and was buried there in 1960. Emperor Haile Selassie I named her an “honorary Ethiopian”.


Sylvia has been given The Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible though I am not altogether convinced that she would have voraciously read either other than with a critical feminist eye. Her choice of book: Helen Pankhurst, Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights – Then and Now (2018). How could she not choose her feminist granddaughter’s book published 100 years on?

Luxury item: A box of paints to express to her talent for art and painting.

My sincere thanks to David Turner and Chris Heighes, without whom there would have been very little music here at all!


You can find out more about Jacqui and her work and research at the University of Reading here and on Twitter @Jacqui1918.


Jacqui has curated and led the Astor100 Project, a national commemoration of 100 years in women in parliament throughout 2019 and 2020, you can visit the Astor100 web pages here Astor100  The web site includes a curated blog series written by internationally renowned academics, researchers and past and present female politicians.

The blog series accompanies a digital exhibition ‘An Unconventional MP’: The political career of Nancy Astor in 50 documents’, which showcases documents from the Astor Papers held at the University of Reading Special Collections to illustrate Nancy Astor’s political career and her legacy. You can find the exhibition on Twitter @LadyAstor100 (you may have to scroll down a little).


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