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On the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the definitive biography of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst-political rebel, human rights champion, and radical feminist ahead of her time. Sylvia Pankhurst fought militantly for a woman's right to vote, inspiring movements around the globe. But the vote was just the beginning. A talented artist, a free-spirit, a visionary, Sylvi On the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the definitive biography of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst-political rebel, human rights champion, and radical feminist ahead of her time. Sylvia Pankhurst fought militantly for a woman's right to vote, inspiring movements around the globe. But the vote was just the beginning. A talented artist, a free-spirit, a visionary, Sylvia was seen as "wild," even by the standards of her activist mother and sister. She became a radical feminist, committing herself to the fight for reproductive rights, equal pay, access to welfare and education, and freedom of sexual expression. She converted her experiences of torture, imprisonment, and violence into a lifelong quest to champion human rights. Encompassing both World Wars and lasting through the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Pankhurst's political life was international in scope; it included Irish independence, pacifism, the rights of refugees, and the fight against racism in Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and colonial Africa. Her United States lecture tours made headlines and connected her with both American feminists and the NAACP. She spent her life in dialogue, dispute, and resolution with Winston Churchill, Vladimir Lenin, Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie, Harriot Stanton Blatch, and W.E.B. DuBois. And she wrote about it all, prolifically. In this enthralling biography, acclaimed author Rachel Holmes interweaves Pankhurst's rebellious political and private lives to show how her astonishing achievements continue to resonate today.


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On the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the definitive biography of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst-political rebel, human rights champion, and radical feminist ahead of her time. Sylvia Pankhurst fought militantly for a woman's right to vote, inspiring movements around the globe. But the vote was just the beginning. A talented artist, a free-spirit, a visionary, Sylvi On the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the definitive biography of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst-political rebel, human rights champion, and radical feminist ahead of her time. Sylvia Pankhurst fought militantly for a woman's right to vote, inspiring movements around the globe. But the vote was just the beginning. A talented artist, a free-spirit, a visionary, Sylvia was seen as "wild," even by the standards of her activist mother and sister. She became a radical feminist, committing herself to the fight for reproductive rights, equal pay, access to welfare and education, and freedom of sexual expression. She converted her experiences of torture, imprisonment, and violence into a lifelong quest to champion human rights. Encompassing both World Wars and lasting through the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Pankhurst's political life was international in scope; it included Irish independence, pacifism, the rights of refugees, and the fight against racism in Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and colonial Africa. Her United States lecture tours made headlines and connected her with both American feminists and the NAACP. She spent her life in dialogue, dispute, and resolution with Winston Churchill, Vladimir Lenin, Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie, Harriot Stanton Blatch, and W.E.B. DuBois. And she wrote about it all, prolifically. In this enthralling biography, acclaimed author Rachel Holmes interweaves Pankhurst's rebellious political and private lives to show how her astonishing achievements continue to resonate today.

49 review for Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel

  1. 5 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    What an inspirational and iconic woman Sylvia was, and how telling that she is generally known only within the context of the Pankhurst family and her work for the suffragette cause. This wonderfully readable biography is like three books in one: the first traces the lives of Sylvia Pankhurst's parents, especially her mother Emmeline; the second is a wonderfully-realised history of British left-wing progressive politics and activism including the birth of the Labour Party; and the third is the l What an inspirational and iconic woman Sylvia was, and how telling that she is generally known only within the context of the Pankhurst family and her work for the suffragette cause. This wonderfully readable biography is like three books in one: the first traces the lives of Sylvia Pankhurst's parents, especially her mother Emmeline; the second is a wonderfully-realised history of British left-wing progressive politics and activism including the birth of the Labour Party; and the third is the life of Sylvia herself. Of course, all three are intertwined and are written about in great detail that never becomes wearisome. Holmes keeps this engaging and limits her footnotes (notably, they are only 5% of the volume so this seems to be positioning itself as a general rather than scholarly text as not everything is referenced for follow-up). There is, though, a massive amount that I didn't know about Sylvia - firstly her long love affair with Keir Hardie, first leader of the Labour Party; and, secondly, her long-term interest with and in Ethiopia and Haile Selassie which begins with Mussolini's invasion but which ends with Sylvia emigrating to Ethiopia, which is also where she died in 1960. This section might be of especial interest to readers of Maaza Mengiste's 'The Shadow King', currently on the Booker Shortlist 2020. It's astonishing to think that Sylvia who was born in 1882 and grew up under Victoria's regime lived on into the twentieth century, dying in 1960, and so saw so much change in society: the growth of the labour, union, socialist and feminist movements; the Russian Revolution, fascism in Europe, the anti-racism and anti-colonial movements. Holmes is perhaps stronger on the local and national rather than the international but that may be due to where the sources are: certainly, there's far more detail about Sylvia's early life, not least her arrests and multiple imprisonments for militant suffragette activism and the horrific bouts of force-feeding during her hunger strikes and sleep strikes. This doesn't sidestep the splits in the suffrage movement and Sylvia's distressing falling out with her mother and sister Christabel who may have started out as radicals but became more reactionary over time, wanting to limit the female vote to propertied and married women while Sylvia became more radical, tying female suffrage to the wider issue of universal suffrage and the enfranchisement of working men. This is long but it never outstays its welcome, and it widens our attention to Sylvia beyond the proto-feminist suffragette activism to her work that formed the foundation of the NHS amongst other things - and I particularly liked her arguments with Lenin! Many thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC via NetGalley.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Steve Donoghue

    The great human rights agitator Sylvia Pankhurst gets a wonderful, incredibly involving new biography. Rachel Holmes perfectly balances the human elements of this fierce fighter with at-times-inhuman drives that kept her working, writing, and speaking constantly. Here's my review: An overreaching and under-realistic philosophy revamp for mankind. The great human rights agitator Sylvia Pankhurst gets a wonderful, incredibly involving new biography. Rachel Holmes perfectly balances the human elements of this fierce fighter with at-times-inhuman drives that kept her working, writing, and speaking constantly. Here's my review: An overreaching and under-realistic philosophy revamp for mankind.

  3. 4 out of 5

    J Earl

    Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes sweeps the reader along as we revisit much of 20th century history. This is so much more than just a biography of a remarkable woman, this is a history of some of the major struggles of last century. I tend to read several books at a time and when I approach a lengthy book I try to figure out how much I want to read each day while giving the time and thought to my other reads. This is so well written and the subject was such a dynamic person t Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes sweeps the reader along as we revisit much of 20th century history. This is so much more than just a biography of a remarkable woman, this is a history of some of the major struggles of last century. I tend to read several books at a time and when I approach a lengthy book I try to figure out how much I want to read each day while giving the time and thought to my other reads. This is so well written and the subject was such a dynamic person that I found myself reading this faster than I intended. Even at the end of those three days I would have happily spent more time wrapped up in Pankhurst's life and Holmes' prose. While many of the issues Pankhurst confronted are still with us today I think another valuable aspect of this work is showing the reader the types of decisions a person has to make if they decide to follow what they believe to be right. Taking a stand, broadly speaking, can be straightforward. But figuring out exactly how you're going to make that stand can put one at odds with people making the same general stand. It is in deciding specifically how one tries to make an impact that one really has to make tough decisions. Sometimes family and friends are sacrificed in the name of what is right. These more nuanced choices are highlighted in this volume because Pankhurst never shied away from the difficult decisions. I highly recommend this to any reader interested in the early suffrage movements, as well as 20th century activism as a whole. Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shahin Keusch

    The Pankhurst name was familiar to me. The name occasionally came up on quiz shows. I knew that the name came up in connection with the struggle to get women the vote in the UK. This is as far as my knowledge took me. So when I saw this book on goodreads, it jumped out to me. I had to read it right away. So I bought it through Amazon and started reading and I was not able to put it down. This book proved to be much more than I expected.  Sylvia Pankhurst was the second daughter of the Richard and The Pankhurst name was familiar to me. The name occasionally came up on quiz shows. I knew that the name came up in connection with the struggle to get women the vote in the UK. This is as far as my knowledge took me. So when I saw this book on goodreads, it jumped out to me. I had to read it right away. So I bought it through Amazon and started reading and I was not able to put it down. This book proved to be much more than I expected.  Sylvia Pankhurst was the second daughter of the Richard and Emmaline. The whole family from the start was involved in the women's movement. But it was Sylvia who would eventually branch out into other areas as well. She expanded her fight from women's suffrage to universal suffrage. Not just for the middle class, she was dedicated to making the lives of the working class poor better as well. She became a socialist/communist and even met and had a falling out with Lenin after which she was thrown out of the Communist party. Sylvia was never to theoretical but sought out practical solutions.  She saw the poverty and inequality around her and just wanted to improve the lives of those who were suffering. She would create programs like organizing cheap meals, organized maternity programs to improve the lives of women. She set up Care centers, nurseries, and even established her own cooperative factories where the workers were paid fair wages. Everything she did was dedicated to improving the lives of the poor and many of her programs would be studied by future governments when they were designing their socialist policies like the NHS.  During WW1 Sylvia was a pacifist. But when fascism rose between the wars, she quickly understood that only war would be able to bring down those facist countries like Italy and Germany. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, she dedicated herself to helping Ethiopia in any way she could. It was during this time she met and befriended Hailie Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor. Sylvia was deeply anti colonial and would meet many of the future African leaders when she moved to Ethiopia. It was in Ethiopia where she would spend her final years of her life.  Sylvia was always fully dedicated in making the world a better place. She never backed down from her beliefs and even went to jail on numerous occasions where they would subject her the various form of torture. While she made many enemies, she was also respected by many. The number of influential historical characters she met during her life was impressive. Churchill, Lenin and Hailie Selassie to name just a few. And they either loved or hated her.  This book was very well written, it never got boring and was very educational. It is highly recommend for anyone to read.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    ‘If you don’t work for other people you will not have been worth the upbringing’ (Sylvia’s father Richard Pankhurst). Sylvia Pankhurst. Ever since I heard this name in Ethiopia I have wanted to find out about this quasi-mythical figure described by many a Habesha tourist guide as a hero of their lands. I couldn’t quite connect how someone who was born in Manchester could be so loved in Eastern Africa. And yet this work by Rachel Holmes published in 2020 opened my eyes into a world of incredible f ‘If you don’t work for other people you will not have been worth the upbringing’ (Sylvia’s father Richard Pankhurst). Sylvia Pankhurst. Ever since I heard this name in Ethiopia I have wanted to find out about this quasi-mythical figure described by many a Habesha tourist guide as a hero of their lands. I couldn’t quite connect how someone who was born in Manchester could be so loved in Eastern Africa. And yet this work by Rachel Holmes published in 2020 opened my eyes into a world of incredible feats. All accomplished in one life. Born into a Mancunian progressive family, Sylvia met some of the most broadminded socialists in her household as a child, her father being a radical socialist who instilled in his daughters egalitarian values. Her parents were both politically engaged, and although she herself was a member of the Labour party, whose founder and parliamentary leader Keir Hardie she was romantically tied to in her early life, she eventually became more radicalised and supported communism for a while before being completely disappointed by Lenin’s policies. She fought for women’s rights, was imprisoned several times and went on several hunger strikes, the effects of which would remain with her throughout her life. She was an indefatigable fighter for the betterment of women’s lot, but also for the poor, the ill, the sick, the uneducated. Particularly in the East End of London. Some of her peers and many politicians found her ‘Joan of Arc style of unyielding battle for her causes tiresome’. However, she also was extremely sensitive and was an artist, having obtained a degree at the Royal College of Arts. Instead of pursuing an artistic career, however, she put her art at the service of her incredibly resilient civic spirit, leaving a legacy of drawings, paintings and political pamphlets. A prolific writer, she launched, edited and curated quite a few newspapers and books, and is remembered not only for being a radical suffragette, but also for her protection of refugees, her fight against fascism, and for her relentless support of all things Ethiopian. Although she closed her mind to the failings of Haile Selassie’s empire, she participated in many a projects in Ethiopia in the last decade of her life, after the death of her husband Silvio Corio. She settled in Addis and was buried there, where Ethiopians welcomed her as one of her own. An incredible piece of writing and research. It merits a full five stars.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Viola

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/202... The sorrows and passions of the visionary suffragette and socialist who ‘roused’ London Sally Alexander. Fri 13 Nov 2020 The memorial mural of Sylvia Pankhurst and the east London suffragettes on the site of the original Women’s Hall in Bow. We remember Sylvia Pankhurst today as the suffragette and socialist who took militant feminism to London’s East End. But, as Rachel Holmes argues in this compelling biography, she was a major political figure of the 20t https://www.theguardian.com/books/202... The sorrows and passions of the visionary suffragette and socialist who ‘roused’ London Sally Alexander. Fri 13 Nov 2020 The memorial mural of Sylvia Pankhurst and the east London suffragettes on the site of the original Women’s Hall in Bow. We remember Sylvia Pankhurst today as the suffragette and socialist who took militant feminism to London’s East End. But, as Rachel Holmes argues in this compelling biography, she was a major political figure of the 20th century who deserves to be better known. Born into a radical liberal family in Manchester in 1882, Pankhurst was one of the political generation who, seeing poverty and injustice everywhere, felt themselves at the end of one era and on the brink of another. She was one of historian Sheila Rowbotham’s “dreamers of a new day”. A pacifist and internationalist, she supported the Russian Revolution, and was an advocate of soviets over parliamentary democracy. A leading founder of the British Communist party in 1920, she quarrelled with Lenin over the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921. When Lenin wrote “Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder”, Pankhurst was one of his targets. From 1921, having witnessed the brutalities of Italian fascism on one of her political lecture tours, she campaigned ceaselessly against fascism and for colonial liberation. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, she became an ardent supporter of Ethiopian liberation – “the soul of anti-fascism”. Haile Selassie became a close friend, one of many refugees from fascist Europe and political exiles of the African diaspora who found their way to the “red tea shop” in east London, run by Pankhurst with Silvio Corio, her lover and companion of 30 years and father of their son, Richard, born in 1927. Corio, an anarcho-syndicalist, was a refugee from fascist Italy, bound to Sylvia by a love of books as well as politics. Their east London home in the 1930s became known as “the village” to many pan-Africanists, communists and freedom fighters who wrote for the Workers’ Dreadnought newspaper, and from 1934 the New Times and Ethiopian News, both edited by Pankhurst and Corio. She lived the last five years of her life in Addis Ababa, inexhaustible in her work and love for Ethiopia and its ancient civilisation. When she died in 1960, aged 78, her desk was covered with detailed plans for the health and education of Ethiopia’s people, especially its children. An idealist with an eye for practical reform, she always, Holmes writes, sought to “make the future a place we want to visit”. This book digs deep into the sorrows and passions of this complex and creative woman. In memoirs, Pankhurst always began with her family. She loved and revered her father, Richard, a radical lawyer who lived in Manchester and worked closely with Lydia Becker, the formidable constitutionalist suffragist, on campaigns for married women’s property, education and suffrage. Sylvia made his ethical socialism her moral measure: “If you do not work for others, you will not have been worth the upbringing,” he exhorted her. From left: Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst in 1911. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images She was in thrall to her parents’ relationship – Emmeline her mother was more than 20 years younger than her husband; beautiful, clever, devoted to his causes – and envious of her elder sister, Christabel, who took precedence in her mother’s heart. Sylvia craved tenderness from Emmeline, but found her absent and withholding. Holmes compounds childhood rage with Sylvia’s anger at her mother and Christabel’s increasingly authoritarian rule over the Women’s Social and Political Union, their support for the first world war and their embrace of Conservatism and evangelical Christianity during the 1920s. “Thinking back through” her mother, to quote Virginia Woolf (Sylvia’s exact contemporary), always roused anguish. Pankhurst’s suffragette art was full of angels, pipes and woodlands; the dreams and nightmares of her inner world were darker, and poured out of her in words – not least the bleak, writhing images of desolation in the many love letters she wrote to Keir Hardie, friend of her parents and “father” of the Labour party, with whom she had a long affair. In her writings, first-hand descriptions of breast twisting, beatings, hunger striking, force feeding (often through the nose, sometimes anally and vaginally) are distilled and precise. Prison made her a reformer, Holmes points out: “state torture” revealed the limits of liberalism. Carved into her psyche, Pankhurst’s imagery strengthened her resolve, her “rage of militancy”. Escaping from prison and police, Pankhurst disguised herself in nurse’s uniform, or as a pregnant mother with infant The women’s suffrage movement was brilliant at drama and spectacle. Uncorseted, hair undressed, face scrubbed, Pankhurst appeared slender and intense on public platforms – curved like the letter “S”, Silvio wrote to her after a quarrel – as she spoke for between one and three hours. Sent to “rouse” London in 1906 by her mother and sister, she moved east at Hardie’s suggestion, to live among London’s working classes, where dress became masquerade. Norah Smyth, funder of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, always wore a man’s suit; “General” Flora Drummond carried a trumpet. Escaping from prison and police, Pankhurst disguised herself in nurse’s uniform, or as a pregnant mother, newspapers stuffed down her dress. In 1908 Pankhurst filled the front two rows of a Women’s Liberal Federation meeting, addressed by Lloyd George, with women wearing buttoned up overcoats. As stewards and police descended on them for heckling and protesting, the women unbuttoned their coats to reveal prison uniforms beneath. Pankhurst’s militancy drove her almost to martyrdom. She was imprisoned nine times between January and June 1914 alone, and the effects on her of solitary confinement, hunger- and sleep-strikes (she forced herself to walk her cell until she collapsed) make painful reading. But hers was a reasoning, listening activism. Well-fed, propertied, childless women might be encouraged to endure imprisonment; mothers in poor domestic circumstances could not. Serving on Bow District’s Distress Committee in 1916, she maddened local government officers (including George Lansbury, Labour leader during the 1930s) who used food tickets to encourage good behaviour: a woman should not be refused help, Pankhurst said, because she’d been seen singing while drunk. Work filled Pankhurst’s thoughts throughout her life, work that needed to be done in the world. “Deeds not words”, was the original WSPU motto, though for her, words were as essential as breathing. To be deprived of writing materials, she wrote after imprisonment for sedition in 1921, was to be deprived of a precious human right. Eleanor Marx and Rosa Luxemburg were Pankhurst’s heroines, and she was steadfastly socialist and anti-fascist. But feminism was at the heart of her politics. Like other feminists of her time, she campaigned on questions of maternity, sexual violence and domestic labour – which brought in their wake low pay, sweated work and appalling housing and education. Many feminists in the 1920s and 30s made the move to anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, and believed in a “regenerative state”, even as they were forced to rely, as the ELFS was, on private wealth to fund mothers’ clinics or co-operative workshops (enterprises later funded by local authorities or central government). Most feminisms had roots in utopian socialism with its emphasis on all human relations and the transformation of the inner life. Pankhurst’s 1931 book, The Suffragette Movement, was whisked from my hands as I was wheeled into the labour ward in the 1970s; her Save the Mothers (1930) I could not be without. I share Holmes’s wish for the publication of the collected works. This is a moving, powerful biography of a woman whose desire to connect “with all the world” is an inspiration for our uncertain times. • Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel is published by Bloomsbury

  7. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    An incredible, in depth account of one of the most remarkable women in British history. Packed with anecdotes both fascinating and amusing, every page is filled with quotes from Sylvia and the people who loved and hated her, spliced with a blunt narrative voice that doesn't impose on the biography she is recounting. Sylvia's acts are presented without idolisation and evaluated in both positive and critical lights. The language used is largely political and heavy with jargon, but with breaks betw An incredible, in depth account of one of the most remarkable women in British history. Packed with anecdotes both fascinating and amusing, every page is filled with quotes from Sylvia and the people who loved and hated her, spliced with a blunt narrative voice that doesn't impose on the biography she is recounting. Sylvia's acts are presented without idolisation and evaluated in both positive and critical lights. The language used is largely political and heavy with jargon, but with breaks between sections the text is clear and straight forward. My only gripe is that the text need proof reading one more time before printing. There were several repeated words and phrases, as well as some sentences that appeared to have words missing. Overall, this was an enjoyable and enlightening read.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Bywell

    If you need to build up your arm muscles, then this is the book for you with a hefty page count of 976. It will intellectually challenge you too with the detail and breadth of subject matter. Sadly, there was some sloppy editing which made me want to throw the book across the room but I couldn’t because it was SO heavy. I think all too often people lump the Pankhursts together as suffragettes but, as this book expertly shows, Sylvia was very different to Emmeline and Christabel. I’m firmly on Te If you need to build up your arm muscles, then this is the book for you with a hefty page count of 976. It will intellectually challenge you too with the detail and breadth of subject matter. Sadly, there was some sloppy editing which made me want to throw the book across the room but I couldn’t because it was SO heavy. I think all too often people lump the Pankhursts together as suffragettes but, as this book expertly shows, Sylvia was very different to Emmeline and Christabel. I’m firmly on Team Sylvia now; she dedicated her life to fighting for human rights and equality.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    As seen in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20... As seen in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...

  10. 4 out of 5

    John P. Davidson

    An excellent, thorough biography of Pankhurst, who is a fascinating woman in history, particularly in the suffragette and anti-fascism movements. I can highly recommend it.

  11. 5 out of 5

    John Morris

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mark Barry

  13. 4 out of 5

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  14. 4 out of 5

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  15. 4 out of 5

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  16. 4 out of 5

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  17. 4 out of 5

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  18. 5 out of 5

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  19. 4 out of 5

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  20. 5 out of 5

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  21. 4 out of 5

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  22. 4 out of 5

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  23. 5 out of 5

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  24. 4 out of 5

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