On 14 December 1918, a century ago today, women in Britain and Ireland cast their votes in government elections for the first time. But for Sylvia Pankhurst, who for years had fought for women’s suffrage, parliamentary democracy as embodied in Westminster already seemed outmoded by the time Lloyd George had called this general election.
Inspired by the Russian Revolution in 1917, Pankhurst began advocating a Soviet-style system and won several converts from among her comrades in the suffrage struggle. Among them was Nora Smyth, an Anglo-Irish member of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, who was dispatched by Pankhurst to attend the second congress of the Communist Women’s International in Moscow. Pankhurst’s revolutionary agitation created a brief window of time when it seemed that she would become a major figure on the world communist scene.
One indicator of this is a document that I found in the Moscow archives in September titled “Greetings to Comrade Sylvia Pankhurst from the Women Workers of Moscow”. It appears to be from 1921, possibly during Sylvia’s imprisonment for printing seditious material in her paper the Workers’ Dreadnought – and certainly before her expulsion from the Communist Party of Great Britain in that same year. I translated it while working with the file (and took a few translator’s liberties with certain phrasing). Here it is in full:
Women workers and workers of the city of Moscow, in memory of the Russian proletariat’s anniversary of Bloody Sunday, 9 January, brand with shame the English Capitalist state, which fights against our comrades in arms and the self-professed fighter for Communism, Comrade Sylvia Pankhurst.
We, full-fledged citizen-women workers of the workers republic, the first in the world, send fiery greetings to the chief enemies of the capitalists, the landlords, the rich: Comrade Sylvia Pankhurst and the English women workers and workers, who we exhort to insurrection. Take power into your hands!
Only with united efforts in the general fight of the proletariat across the world, will be possible the great task of communism and putting an end to violence, injustice (несправедливости) and exploitation of the weak.
Us women workers and workers of Moscow promise to strengthen our fight with our general enemies, and reinforce Soviet Russia in preparing an end to the bourgeois world.
There are no words left to condemn the executioners
There are no words left to give our indignation, or all our admiration and sympathy to our revolutionary men.
Down with the world executioner parasites!
Long live Communism and its daring, courageous and selfless fighters.
Documents like these remind us that enfranchisement in 1918 was just a beginning. This seems obvious from an Irish perspective, given that the Sinn Fein triumph in these elections formed an important part in a series of events that would ultimately result in the creation of the Irish Free State. But beyond the British and Irish polling booths of 1918 was a world undergoing a process of rapid transformation. In my PhD, I am particularly interested in how Irish and British women looked eastwards to Soviet Russia in search of a model society which, rightly or wrongly, appeared to outline a revolutionary form of citizenship. This brief salute from the women workers of Moscow demonstrates that, occasionally, the new Soviet woman was looking back at them.