The Outlaw Pankhurst


Georgiana Wilkes | 13 August 2018


By turns a suffragette, communist revolutionary and radical right-wing nationalist, Adela, the Pankhurst sister estranged in Australia, represents a true figure of early twentieth century radicalism.

Adela in 1910. The badge indicates that she has been to prison for the cause. Cred: Wikimedia Commons

On the plinth of Millicent Fawcett’s statue in London, one will find immortalised the names of Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia Pankhurst. But among the 58 others is found yet another sister, one who’s radical biography has been largely forgotten. Adela Pankhurst, born in 1885, has a murky and complex past, reflective of the complicated political times through which she lived.


Adela begat her first historical footnote in 1909, when she was arrested for slapping a policeman who was trying to arrest her for disrupting a talk held by Winston Churchill. And her feisty nature caused several ructions with Christabel, Emmeline's favourite daughter, who once declared “one of Adela is too many”. Adela shared her sister Sylvia’s socialist views, and both Sylvia and Adela fell out with their mother and Christabel when the Woman’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) made the decision to campaign for middle-class women’s suffrage, choosing to forgo the rights of working class women. At a time when working-class men did not have the right to vote either, Sylvia and Adela were perceived as being too stubborn in their principles. Sylvia was ejected from the party, going on to form a splinter group in London. Adela, on the other hand, was given £20 and a one-way ticket to Australia.


While Sylvia forged a new life for herself in Ethiopia with her partner, Silvio Corio, the estranged Pankhurst sister landed in Australia in 1914, at the outset of the First World War. Joining forces with Vida Goldstein, a prominent Australian suffragette and a federal election candidate in 1907, Adela was recruited to work for the Women’s Peace Army in Melbourne, a role she held for the duration of the First World War. Becoming committed to the anti-war cause, she produced many anti-war pamphlets and wrote  a book entitled Put Up the Sword. In 1917, while engaging in a march to protest rising food prices, Adela got herself arrested once more. As in England, so in Australia.


The same year, Adela  married Tom Walsh, a sailor and a member of a maritime union and the two began a family, eventually having six children together. Marriage and motherhood being no check on her radicalism however, she dutifully responded to the tumultuous events in Europe, answering Lenin’s call for world revolution by forming the Communist Party of Australia in 1920.


Such radicalism, however, can famously turn on a dime. Only seven years later, Adela's biography takes an unexpected turn, and we find her trotting that surprisingly short distance from the far left to the far right.  Growing vocally disillusioned with Communism, she was expelled from the Communist party that she had helped found, and went on to co-found the “Australia First” movement. Right-wing, nationalistic, and fiercely anti-Communist, the movement opposed the very principles that she had once fought so hard to uphold. As the political climate of the globe shifted on the approach to the Second World War, it would appear that Adela Pankhurst experienced a similar realignment. While the other errant sister, Sylvia,  remained staunchly devoted to socialism and women’s rights her whole life, Adela, who had visited Japan in 1939, was arrested and interned in 1942 for advocating peace with that nation. 


Adela Pankhurst’s dramatic shift in alignment raises almost as many questions as eyebrows. What happened during the seven years to cause Adela to move from communism to fascism? Did she change her principles or simply the way she applied them? Some have suggested that having her five children changed Adela’s feelings towards socialism; she saw the turmoil caused by the Great Depression and, like many others worldwide, was drawn to the apparently successful fascist regimes taking hold of Europe in order to provide a stable future for her offspring. But whatever the precise reasons (and they are, for sure, murky at best), her story, more than most, underlines the fact that radical nationalism and socialism are two sides of the same coin (a fact too seldom dwelt upon). Whatever her position was, Adela was always radical, and always outspoken. Her obscurity, compared to her sisters and mother, perhaps goes some way to show our reluctance to associate complex individuals with good causes - history often edits out the nasty characteristics of figures we deem to be “good” (take JFK’s treatment of Jackie Kennedy, or Einstein’s attitude towards women as examples), and in Adela’s case, it seems it was easier for historians to distance her in their writing, just as much as it was easier her mother to send her to Australia. The perception might well be different in Australia, but it is easy to understand why “outspoken, interned nationalist and fascist sympathiser” are not words we wish to associate with something as crucial as women’s rights. 


While it is certainly proper that Adela Pankhurst’s contribution to the British Women’s Suffrage movement were immortalised in 2018, her complex life, so wildly characterised by the oscillating, febrile radicalism of her time, has seen her forgotten in lieu of her mother and two sisters. Perhaps she represents a casualty of the cosy image of early twentieth century progressivism that we have constructed for ourselves with the terrible hindsight of the post-war world. It does to remember that in the era of young ideologies - and without the terrible lessons of Auschwitz and the gulag - radical spirits like Adela Pankhurst were often buffeted to and fro by their intense dissatisfaction with the world as it then was. A radical to the end, she, as well as any historical figure, represents the tumultuous nature of the world in her time.


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