Sylvia as a young woman

Many, many years ago when I was a pupil at Mill Lane Junior School, I learned all about Emmeline Pankhurst, her family and the part they played in the suffrage movement.  I was so taken by their efforts and the sacrifices they made and couldn’t wait to reach the age of eighteen so that I could exercise the right to vote that all those women had fought so hard for me to have.  I particularly admired and empathised with Emmeline’s second daughter, Sylvia. Born in Manchester in 1882, she was the driving force behind her mother setting up the Women’s Social and Political Union.  She was repeatedly imprisoned for her protests – more than any other Suffragette – but she later distanced herself from the organisation as she disagreed with the violence and pro-war message it advocated. Sylvia was a pacifist and a vocal promoter of women’s rights, not just for us to have the vote, but also to have access to decent healthcare and childcare.

So, I knew all about Sylvia and her role in the women’s movement, but the first inkling I had that she had any connection with Ethiopia was when I read two lines in my guidebook before our trip saying that she was buried in the grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.  Further reading revealed Sylvia’s long association with the country we were about to visit.

Sylvia with Haile Selassie

In the 1930s Sylvia Pankhurst was involved in several anti-Fascist movements and when Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, she responded by writing a series of critical articles and campaigning for an Italian withdrawal.  She became a supporter of Haile Selassie and, at his invitation, visited Ethiopia many times. She developed a keen interest in the country’s art and culture, and actively raised funds for Ethiopia’s first teaching hospital.  By this time, Sylvia was a friend and adviser to the Ethiopian emperor and followed a consistently anti-British stance.  Later, she turned her attention to improving conditions for mothers and babies and fought to open a specialist women’s hospital.

After Sylvia’s life partner, Silvio Corio (she refused to marry him in the thirty years they were together as she didn’t want to take his name), died in 1954, she moved to Ethiopia permanently.  She took her son, Richard, with her. Again, this was at the request of Haile Selassie, who provided her with a comfortable home.  She founded a monthly journal, ‘New Times and Ethiopia News’, which reported on many aspects of Ethiopian life and development.

When Sylvia herself died in 1960, she was given an Ethiopian state funeral and buried in a place reserved for Ethiopian heroes.

On our second day with Yuhn of Liyu Tours, we visited Sylvia’s grave.  It is a very simple, but striking tomb, fashioned in the shape of a book with benches at the sides where people can sit.  The grave was completely unadorned and I regretted not taking flowers with me as a sign of respect for this woman who had done so much for all women.  Unlike me, Yuhn knew all about Sylvia’s contribution to Ethiopia’s story.  He was proud to tell me how well thought of she was and how there were streets in Addis which still carried her name.  He also told me about how the Pankhurst legacy lives on in Ethiopia through Sylvia’s son Richard, his Romanian-born wife, Rita, and their son, Alula, who is married to an Ethiopian.  I, in turn, was able to tell Yuhn about Sylvia Pankhurst, the Suffragette, about which he had no idea!

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