Why on earth is an English suffragette’s grave in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia?

Thinking in Public

Sylvia Pankhurst, Born Manchester 5 May 1882, Died Addis Ababa 27 September 1960

In front of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia lies the grave of Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the most famous English suffragettes. At 74, Pankhurst moved to Ethiopia at the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Why is Pankhurst’s final resting place approximately 6,700 miles from her birthplace? And why did she receive a state burial? To understand why a older woman would move so far from home late in her life, it’s useful to know a little more about Pankhurst’s lifelong commitment to human rights.

Pankhurst’s early years and family set her up for her life of advocacy. Her mother, Emmeline, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) in 1903, with Sylvia and her older sister, Christabel. Together, they fought for UK women’s voting rights, although they disagreed on how the movement should progress. In 1913, Sylvia Pankhurst left the WPSU to join the Labour Party, recognizing that equality, including women’s suffrage, was an issue concerning all people. Eventually, her passionate support of working-class men and women, and correspondence with Vladimir Lenin, encouraged her to found the Communist Party of Great Britain (1920). Following the 1928 passing of the Equal Franchise Act, she directed her attention toward international violations of political and social rights.

In the 1930s, Pankhurst directed her attention toward the emerging fascist empires. In 1935, she began a campaign against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, had decided to follow Hitler’s plan to “expand” the German empire by sending troops to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Her devotion to Ethiopia persisted until her final years. She wrote Ethiopia, a cultural history (1955), founded the Ethiopia Observer, and served as the paper’s editor. Her particular care for Ethiopia is symbolized by her final resting place. The Holy Trinity Cathedral commemorates Ethiopia’s liberation from Italian occupation. Its cemetery is reserved for those held in the highest esteem–members of the imperial family, prominent leaders, and Sylvia Pankhurst.

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