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NAW AGM Sisterhood, solidarity and Sylvia

PHILIPPA CLARK explains why a statue to Sylvia Pankhurst is so important to keeping her legacy in the public eye and continuing to inspire a struggle that is far from won

IN THE words of the Fab Four, “It was twenty years ago today…” Or rather it was 20 years on April 10 1998 that the story of A Statue for Sylvia Pankhurst started. 

I was showing some young friends around the sights of Westminster and we stopped in front of the memorial, adjacent to the House of Lords, to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and the women who were imprisoned and force-fed because of their determination to fight for the right of women to vote. 

Sylvia, the socialist Pankhurst is notably absent. 

At the Trades Union Congress later that year, I was grumbling about this lack of recognition of such a significant woman to Mary Davis who told me about the book she was writing, called Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics. 

It was fascinating to learn much more about Sylvia from Davis, especially her anti-racist and anti-fascist activity. 

We were both enthused by her — no doubt helped by the wine which always makes such conversations especially pleasant — that we decided there needed to be a statue raised to Sylvia.

Of course, we had no experience of such an undertaking but we knew a sculptor and we knew the sisters to call upon to help in this endeavour.

We spoke to seasoned campaigners Barbara Switzer, deputy general secretary of the trade union Tass, and print union activist Megan Dobney and so the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee was formed, a gang of four, all members of the National Assembly of Women.

Our sculptor was the renowned labour movement artist Ian Walters — especially famed for the head of Mandela on London’s South Bank.

One of our earliest sponsors was the National Assembly of Women (NAW). Unlike many of the suffragettes and suffragists, Sylvia was aware of the link between feminism and other forms of oppression. In this respect, she was well ahead of her time.

She addressed the practical constraints facing women — employment, education, creches, low cost food — and the whole role and rights of women in society. Sylvia’s internationalism and her tireless campaigning against racism and fascism all accord with the aims of the NAW.

Ours has been no easy path. We had permission from Westminster Council to erect the statue on College Green opposite the Palace of Westminster. We also needed permission from the Commons and the Lords.

At first the Commons refused but, with the help of supportive MPs, they relented. Not so with the Lords. After 10 years of hard lobbying and the somewhat brief — actually curt — responses refusing their consent and signed by Brabazon of Tara, we decided to seek a site where Sylvia would be welcome.

Thanks to the swift and positive advice from Lord Chris Smith, Islington council said it would love to see the statue in the soon to be refurbished area of Clerkenwell Green. Dubbed the “headquarters of republicanism, revolution and ultra non-conformity” this an excellent home for the statue.

At the annual general meeting of the NAW this weekend we will be updating sisters on our progress over the past year — and it is positive.

Support from London’s Old Vic Theatre raised £1,400 and we look forward to their production about Sylvia in September.

Fundraising is going well and we try to step up to the challenge of effective use of social media to “spread the word.” 

Sylvia’s statue will indeed be a people’s statue. We have had great support from the Corporation of the City of London, but most of our funds have come from individuals and trade union branches. We still have a way to go and this will be the message from the NAW. 

Tell your friends and workmates to follow us on Twitter @sylviastatue.  We are also crowdfunding donations for Sylvia’s statue. You can donate here: justgiving.com/crowdfunding/sylviastatue

Philippa Clark is a member of the National Assembly of Women. For more on The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee visit: gn.apc.org/sylviapankhurst. 

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