British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Sylvia Pankhurst, Everything is Possible

Undoubtedly, in placing Pankhurst’s suffrage militancy so firmly within the wider context of her socialism, much has been gained. But conversely, one is left wondering about her domestic life. Some of the film’s most useful insights come from the reminiscences of Sylvia’s son, Richard, who notes that his father was an Italian anarchist refugee who took up with his mother in London and became her partner, but never her husband. These are, in fact, the only glimpses of Sylvia’s sexual politics and family life we get. Given that she was forty-five by the time she had Richard, and given the libertarian socialist company she had kept throughout her adult life, it would have been interesting to learn something of her domestic ideology and the personal relationships that helped to shape her character and identity.

Suffragettes march in London (George Grantham Bain Collection / Library of Congress)

There are some particularly fascinating final sections on Pankhurst’s commitment to Ethiopian liberation after that country’s invasion and occupation by fascist Italy. It sums up her internationalism perfectly and demonstrates how her immersion in the world of Italian political refugees in England developed naturally into an uncompromising concern with the struggle against Mussolini abroad. So much so, indeed, that she eventually left England to live in Ethiopia, where she took up editorship of an anti-fascist newspaper. Sylvia is buried in Ethiopia and Richard has lived there for nearly all his life. These final scenes, and the discussion of them, are all too brief for, unsurprisingly, the film’s budget did not permit filming abroad!

Such draw backs aside however, this is a rewarding, enjoyable and energetic film, approachable enough to detain non-specialist viewers but sufficiently weighty to spark debate amongst students and scholars of early twentieth century feminism and the international socialist movement. More usefully still, the accompanying webpages contain archival reproductions of Sylvia’s police surveillance files. Making available some of the primary evidence from which the narrative of any documentary film is drawn is excellent practice indeed, and an example it would very good to see repeated.

Dr Steve Poole

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