Adela Pankhurst in Queensland, 1916

‘Put your sword back in its place,” … “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’[1]

Adela and Vida (2)

A rotten egg flies through the air. Adela Pankhurst is the women of the moment, the ‘star’ of the peace movement, the darling of the socialist left, and feted journalist of a series of provocative anti-war articles. The egg misses its target but smashes at the base of the quickly erected platform on which Adela is standing. She is spunky and courageous; she is only twenty-nine years old. ‘Millions of young men are suffering and dying’, she tells the assembled crowds. The smell of the egg is awful. Women are suffering during the war ‘although they had no say in the making of the war, or how the country was to be governed’ she tells them. Adela invites the audience to draw closer so they might hear her. ‘Children are starving and dying of malnutrition’. But the crowd is becoming riotous. Adela Pankhurst is increasingly becoming the target of the angst and anger generated by the war; she is a formidable symbol of the ‘war-weariness’ and war’s meaninglessness. She is spoken about as ‘anti-recruiting’, ‘pro-Hun’ and a ‘traitor’ when she speaks for peace.

This Gympie lecture had not begun well. It followed on from the visit by Margaret Thorp. The town officials had refused Margaret permission to use the town hall for the meeting, so too Adela. But even worse on Adela’s visit, the street lights hadn’t been lit. Was the crowd emboldened in the darkness? Adela, WPA organiser, talks further of English constitutional history, the oppression of the landlords and the widening of the franchise. The local socialist Mr Eastcrabbe had introduced her; after a while the lights went on but the avalanche of eggs only increases, combined with paper bags of flour and bi-sulphide of carbon. Every-one has heard of the militant suffragette Pankhurst family, even as they were unaware of the differences between pacifist Adela and her pro-war mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, and the pacifist socialist Sylvia. The local press has stirred up a hornet’s nest; the newspapers are still ‘blood-thirsty and ‘war-loving’, Adela later reports. Much of the audience supposedly turned up ‘out of curiosity to see what the result would be’. They are restless, don’t want to hear about the history of women’s rights and interject that women had the same right to vote as men in Australia. Adela keeps her smile.


It was the second Queensland lecture tour that she and Cecilia John has undertaken for the Women’s Peace Army and the Australian Peace Alliance. They arrived in Brisbane from Sydney on August 5th, 1916, and were billed as part of the campaign for ‘No to Conscription’ to appear at Mount Morgan, Ipswich, Rockhampton and Bundaberg. Previously through June and July Adela had toured successfully through New Zealand speaking to overflowing venues working with the Women’s International League in conjunction with the Labor Representation Committee. This Queensland tour is in part to raise funds to ensure Australian women delegates attend the peace negotiations in Europe at the end of the war. The WPA also hoped that new branches would be formed in regional Queensland. In July after the Somme offensive, however, the Billy Hughes government wants more troops, and compulsory conscription. When Adela and Cecilia had arrived in Brisbane, it was the time of the annual show; Adela was shocked to see the celebrations with such little regard for ‘the time of crisis’.

adela in new zealand

Author/Contributors: Holt, Sheila Betty, 1909-1998
National Library of New Zealand Ref: 1/2-067533-F, Photograph of Adela Pankhurst with founding members of the New Zealand branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, during Adela’s visit to New Zealand in 1916. Location unidentified, probably Auckland. Photographer unidentified.

Adela is well experienced as an orator and campaigner, used to handling both adulation and rough crowds, unsympathetic audiences and those swept away by her passion, ever since the days she went out into provincial Britain advocating women’s right. Returned servicemen had jostled and heckled women peace-makers in Melbourne where, as biographer Verna Coleman describes, Adela was ‘unflinching’ even ‘rejoicing in the excitement, still slight and girlish in appearance’ in facing attacks.[2] On other occasions she was to glory in her ‘triumphant debate’ and be carried shoulder high to ‘thunderous cheers’.[3] In Gympie she smiles ‘rather wearily’ as the ‘patriotic songs’ drown her out. A recruiting sergeant in their midst announces he had a volunteer and ‘would anyone else accompany him’. A larrikan ‘returned Anzac hero’ mounts the platform and yells out how the women in England were ‘pleased to work while their husbands went to war’. Then the crowd began to ‘count out’ Adela. They boo and jeer at the ‘suffragette’.

Adela Pankhurst’s Put Up the Sword was published in July 1915 by the WPA. Cecilia John wrote the foreword: ‘War is murder’. The pamphlet advocates ‘joint management’, ‘universal justice’ even a ‘federation’ of hostile states to ensure ‘permanent peace’:

'I have written this book with the object of setting forth the causes and disastrous social effects of war, of internal warfare by the Government and monied interests of every country against the people of every country, and of international warfare promoted entirely in commercial interests. I wish to make it clear that I am assailing a vicious system, not the persons who are merely the tools of the system. They, as well as the masses of people, are apparently blind to the way in which the system lays the mines, and seeming circumstance acts as the fuse that sets uncontrollable human forces ablaze in social, industrial and international affairs.

The forces which have built up the British Empire, as we know it, are at work in Germany as well as in our own country… A permanent civilisation can only be built upon a foundation of justice. The present system is a denial of justice. It gives way to the strong and tramples upon the weak, it stifles the cry of the oppressed, it gives unlimited advantage to the ruthless. It weakens the race by taking the strongest, healthiest and bravest of the young men, and stamping their lives out of them, leaving young women forlorn, and children fatherless. Today we watch 10 million men smashing what generations have built up. While they march and slay and burn they are fed and clothed by the labour of women and little children; they consume the bread of growing children, and they even drink the mothers' milk, robbing the suckling babes, whose mothers must needs wean them to work in the factories and fields, filling the places of absent men… learn that by our weapons we slay, not others only, but ourselves as well.'

Violence against women was increasingly widespread as the war continued. The Ipswich mayor had refused the WPA access to the town hall for their meeting forcing them to hold these challenging open-air meetings in the streets. At Rockhampton, the demonstration of returned soldiers were ‘put down’ by the audience, it was reported, but as yet we have no further information about this. Back in Brisbane, a special WPA meeting discussed the forthcoming legislation on Venereal Disease ‘Social Evil and Its Relation to War’. Cecilia chaired the gathering, Adela was chief speaker and the audience asked questions. The meeting called for free, adequate and voluntary treatment of venereal disease: any system of state control was ‘futile’. It was ‘indefensible’: ‘it makes vice appear safe for men at the expense of women’. Another meeting was billed on ‘Women and War’ on the ‘true meaning’ of the women’s movement; a ‘very pleasant evening’ ‘social’ for Adela and Cecilia held at Trades Hall; and the ‘informative and entertaining’ lecture ‘War and the Workers’, with which she had toured New Zealand, was packed out. For an hour and a half, Adela held her audience spellbound.

Just as Adela was the target of masculinist anger and despair, just as she was booed off the stage as a ‘suffragette’ in Gympie, she also became the figurehead of the peace movement in Australia. Her biographers come close to capturing her extraordinary abilities to bring truth to power, but underestimate her commitment to pacifism as a core human value, and the empowerment that understanding brings. Coleman writes of her ‘vehemence in this cause’ and tries to relate it to Adela’s sympathy for the ‘underdog’;[4] Kay Saunders found her life ‘perplexing’ in its ‘irrational devotion to various causes’[5] motivated by a ‘love of the spotlight, the roar of crowds’ but confirms her empathy for the hardships of working-class women’s lives. Both Coleman and Saunders warn of her rhetoric; her obsessions about race and sex, her exaggerations and sentimentalities. We could point to the arrogance engendered by the British imperial connections, or the celebratory statue of the Pankhurst name, the belief that ends justify means, or a long standing preoccupation with the domestic sphere. When Adela was asked by the reporter Freda Sternberg ‘Why do you bite policemen’ she replied that if the militant suffragettes had been men, they would have killed them long ago, and they knew it. Both Coleman and Saunders highlights the tensions and rivalries, the painful exclusions within the Pankhurst family itself to understand Adela’s drive, and argue the importance of the support and moderating mentorship of Vida Goldstein, employer and friend.[6] Indeed, the WPA was critical, as Adela was spokesperson for a movement, not the movement itself however powerful her personal connections, and she knew Annie Kenney the suffragette friend of Billy Hughes, or however at odds her ideas may now be with the feminists that followed.

What was the legacy of Adela and John’s 1916 visit to Queensland for Queenslanders and the women’s peace movement? Verity Burgmann in a different context, argues the radical flank of the socialist movement, and the Industrial Workers of the World were extremely important in marking out the perimeters of the debates about the war and allowing the space for more moderate anti-war voices. Certainly, Adela’s speeches and articles were provocative interventions and functioned as outspoken cornerstone; her words were yeast to leaven the anti-war movement. Yet Adela’s success also rested on her ability to draw together strands of what was in the heads of many people at that time of crisis in Western civilisation, to argue a case that engaged with their concerns and resonated with their passions.

[1] Matthew 26: 52.
[2] Coleman, Verna, Adela Pankhurst : the Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961, Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1996, 70.
[3] Coleman, Verna, Adela Pankhurst : the Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961, Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1996, 74.
[4] Coleman, Verna, Adela Pankhurst : the Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961, Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1996, 63.
[5] Saunders, Kay, Notorious Australian Women Sydney ABC Books HarperCollins, 2013, 106.
[6] Coleman, Verna, Adela Pankhurst : the Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961, Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1996, 60.



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