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Adela: suffragette, communist, fascist?

Adela Pankhurst
Adela helped found both communist and nationalist parties in Australia

The name Pankhurst is easily associated with suffrage and political protest, but thanks to one family member, it's also attached to communism and fascism.

Alongside her pioneering mother Emmeline and sisters Sylvia and Christabel, youngest daughter Adela initially also fought for women's suffrage.

But after a falling out in the family, she emigrated to Australia where she became a Communist campaigner, advocating demonstrations to disrupt society.

Yet by the end of her political career, she was frequently speaking out against strikes and backing industrial co-operation.

As political journeys go, it's about as extreme as can be made - but it is one that Adela took in her stride with the confidence and poise of her siblings and mother.

The suffragette

The youngest of the Pankhurst siblings, Adela spent her teenage years helping with the militant Women's Social and Political Union, which Emmeline and Christabel had founded at the family's Manchester home in 1903.

She distributed literature for the Independent Labour Party and spent time across the Pennines in Yorkshire, campaigning for the better treatment and rights of working-class women, as well as their suffrage.

However, she suffered from bronchitis and, after being imprisoned as a militant suffragette, found she had to withdraw from campaigning, exhausted.

Her withdrawal was not taken well within her family and she gradually became estranged from the rest of the Pankhursts.

The communist

Feeling that there was nothing left for her in Britain and hoping that the better climate would improve her health, Adela set sail for Australia in 1914.

The Pankhurst family home in Chorlton on Medlock
Adela was born in Chorlton on Medlock in 1885

She was soon living up to her family name on the other side of the globe. She joined the anti-war and anti-conscriptionist Women's Political Association and Women's Peace Army, speaking regularly at rallies.

Such was the consistency and ferocity of her involvement, that in 1917, she was jailed for her demonstration organising and was at risk of deportation back to Britain.

At this point, she married Tom Walsh, a prominent trade unionist and political activist. Whether it was to avoid the risk of deportation, as some suggested, is unclear, but the two became devoted to each other.

Indeed, their political lives interweaved to the point that they helped found the Communist Party of Australia in 1920; Adela hoped that it would bring a new way of living, where communal kitchens, architect-designed worker housing and free books would mean no-one would live in poverty again.

The pro-industrialist

As the post-war depression hit the world, Adela and Tom became disillusioned with the Communist ideals, holding the opinion that the industrial action that Tom's union advocated actually damaged the wealth and standards of the workers it fought to support.

By 1928, the pair had been expelled from the party and Adela founded the anti-communist Australian Women's Guild of Empire in 1928.

She toured industrial areas, speaking on the need for industrial co-operation; as she saw it, the way through the problems of the time was to increase efficiency and raise productivity.

The Pankhurst family in 1904
The Pankhurst family were all involved in the fight for women's suffrage

Such was her conviction to that ideal that she even braved strikes and crossed picket lines to speak to hostile audiences about her beliefs.

Her commitment to industrialism didn't end at the shores of Australia. Against popular opinion, she spoke out against forming a trade alliance with America at the beginning of the Second World War, believing that Japan would be a better trade partner.

Indeed, in December 1939, Adela and Tom visited Japan as guests of the government; it was the only holiday they ever took.

The nationalist

The support of Japan meant Adela's following in the Guild fell away and she turned her attentions to the right wing and nationalistic Australia First Movement, which she had helped found in the early 1930s.

Anti-British and allegedly anti-Semitic, the Movement was in favour of alliance with Germany, as well as Japan.

As a result, after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, Adela was one of many members who were imprisoned for their support of the signing of a peace treaty with the Japanese.

Going back to the tactics that had served her and her family well in the fight for suffrage, Adela went on hunger strike - an action which helped lead to her release two days after she began.

She desperately wanted her freedom, not to fight for her cause, but to be by her dying husband.

Tom passed away in April 1943 and Adela's grief led to her retirement from public life.

She remained optimistic that an equality for humanity could be found until her own death in 1961 and she is remembered as a complex political figure, as fiery in her conviction and able in her speaking as any other member of her famously active family.

Photo call for Pankhurst portrait
17 Nov 09 |  Manchester



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