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Lawrence, Emmeline Pethick-, Lady Pethick-Lawrencelocked

  • Brian Harrison

Emmeline Pethick- Lawrence, Lady Pethick-Lawrence (1867–1954)

by Bassano, 1910

Lawrence, Emmeline Pethick-, Lady Pethick-Lawrence (1867–1954), suffragette, was born on 21 October 1867 in Clifton, Bristol, the second and eldest surviving child in the family of thirteen children (five of whom died in infancy) of Henry Pethick, a nonconformist businessman of Cornish farming stock, and his wife, whose maiden name was Collen, and to whom he was happily married. Emmeline Pethick's early years in Clifton and at the boarding-school in Devizes which she briefly attended from the age of eight were not happy—beset as she was by fear of the unknown, ignorance about sexuality, remorse at committing unintended solecisms, and resentment at perceived injustice. In later life she had no children of her own, yet her lifelong instinctive sympathy with children was striking, and a misunderstood childhood was one experience she shared with her future husband. She portrayed herself later as a truthful and rational child, but to adults she must have seemed wilful and stubborn. Things improved with the family's move to Weston-super-Mare, where she attended a day school and at fifteen a nearby finishing school, and her relationship with her father burgeoned, the first of her three close father–daughter relationships with men. He was courageous but also good fun, and his staunch defence of liberty and justice was a lifelong influence. Many years later she recalled her pride when he defended the Salvation Army against local hooligans: 'in my dumb, childish fashion I simply worshipped him for it, and it forged our relationship for ever' (Votes for Women, 2 May 1913, 439). Her Pethick relations remained central to Emmeline Pethick's social life, but her mother, more conventional in her views, was also affectionately recalled.

Shy, immature, and not pretty, Emmeline Pethick now experienced the twin pressures of socialism and a yearning for independence, and diverged from what was then the young woman's conventional course of marriage and motherhood. Her father eventually shed his Methodism and drifted through other Christian allegiances into unbelief, but it was through going to the Methodist West London Mission in 1890 that Emmeline Pethick realized her potential. Walter Besant's The Children of Gibeon (1886) had inspired her to mix with other social classes in the big city, and here was her opportunity. While philanthropy for women was then often a substitute for a career, it could also sometimes offer an escape from convention—in her case from 'the petty life of a second-rate seaside resort' (Pethick-Lawrence, 95). She delivered her first public speech in a large hall at the mission's anniversary meeting on 21 October 1891. At the mission she met Mary Neal, and in jointly running its working girls' club they discovered their complementary qualities, from which stemmed a lifelong friendship. In 1895 she and Mary Neal planned to leave the mission to found the Espérance Working Girls' Club. Influenced by William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Walt Whitman, Emmeline Pethick's evangelical background was waning concurrently with the advance of her social concern. But her loss of faith, unlike her father's, was masked through the transfer of her religious emotions to other causes, and during the transition she needed help from her second father–daughter relationship, for 'the strongest influence upon the first half of my life' (ibid., 97) was the evangelical Christian socialist Mark Guy Pearse. Reluctant at first, he eventually gave full backing to her breakaway movement. The club was reinforced in 1897 by the Maison Espérance, a co-operative dressmaking business set up in Wigmore Street, and in 1900 by a hostel at Littlehampton for working girls' holidays.

Emmeline Pethick was active in the late 1890s at Percy Alden's Mansfield House settlement in Canning Town, and there she met Frederick Lawrence [see Lawrence, Frederick William Pethick- (1871-1961)]. The son of Alfred Lawrence, carpenter and later owner of a building firm, he was living at the settlement as a prospective Liberal Unionist MP. In a highly emotional courtship, replete with exchanges of flowery and high-toned letters, Emmeline Pethick edged him away from Unionism towards the more internationalist, ethical, and egalitarian outlook to be found among Liberals, and thereby built up the third among her father–daughter relationships. They married at the Town Hall, Canning Town, on 2 October 1901. It was the start of an unusual lifelong partnership in which each annexed the surname of the other, while each retained separate bank accounts and considerable autonomy within a marriage whose harmony was much advertised and celebrated. Commemorative social functions and exchanges of curiously mannered and formal correspondence henceforth annually recalled the key moments of their courtship.

At first their life was taken up with several causes, including Chinese labour and working-class representation in parliament, but in 1906 James Keir Hardie introduced Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence to the Pankhursts. There followed what she recalled as 'a very extraordinary sequence of incidents' whereby a person 'not of a revolutionary temperament, was drawn into a revolutionary movement' (Pethick-Lawrence, 148). Annie Kenney's artless entreaties drew her into becoming treasurer to the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), and with her husband's support she became central to the women's suffrage movement's militant wing. She brought three major skills to it. Her vague but elevated and enthusiastic eloquence, enhanced in timing and attire by a sense of drama—even of melodrama—inspired many. Her shrewd eye for dramatic propaganda, allied with uncritical acceptance of Christabel Pankhurst's ruthlessly sectarian strategic sense, greatly boosted the union's funds, to which she and her husband alone contributed more than £6000. And, as she later recalled, 'it became my business to give their genius a solid foundation' (ibid., 152); the Pethick-Lawrences' organizational skills provided offices and staff, as well as the mass-circulation periodical Votes for Women, which they co-edited. They worked informally but closely with Christabel Pankhurst until 1912, the contrasting temperaments of the trio providing firm, imaginative, and efficient leadership. Nor did Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence shrink from personal sacrifice at more than one level. In 1906 when she was first imprisoned for militancy her claustrophobia produced breakdown and she capitulated. But by braving five further imprisonments she thereafter led by example, also enduring force-feeding at Holloway gaol on one occasion in June 1912. When suffragette violence escalated in 1912, the Pethick-Lawrences and Mrs Pankhurst were tried for conspiracy, and after their conviction the courts sequestered the contents of the Pethick-Lawrences' country home.

There had always been a latent divergence between the charismatic loner Emmeline Pankhurst and the Pethick-Lawrences as brilliant organizers. When Christabel Pankhurst changed horses and backed her mother, the divergence opened out. In a ruthless break with the past, the two Pankhursts in 1912 launched a more extreme form of militancy, and ousted the Pethick-Lawrences from the WSPU. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence later realized that her husband's wealth, hitherto an asset to the union, might at that point have become a liability, but she rightly questioned Pankhurstian tactics. Privately bitter and shocked at how they had been treated, the Pethick-Lawrences behaved during this crisis with some dignity, and were keen to avoid dividing the movement, but in later life they were more sympathetic to Sylvia Pankhurst than to her mother and elder sister. In 1913–14 they continued to edit Votes for Women, and gradually formed a group of moderate militants round it: the Votes for Women Fellowship. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence's moralistic and libertarian mentors, from Mazzini to her father, were at one with Olive Schreiner (another major influence upon her at this time) in envisaging freedom as a cause which could unite both sexes. The fellowship in 1914 evolved into a new structure, the United Suffragists, which she saw as a vehicle of 'militancy without violence' (Votes for Women, 7 Feb 1913, 273), a bridge between militants and non-militants, and between men and women.

The First World War introduced violence of quite another order, and for Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, as for many pre-war feminists, the promotion of international peace and of rights for women abroad seemed linked causes that flowed naturally out of British suffragism. Given her worldwide travels, her opposition to the South African War, and her Liberal nonconformist background, she naturally sought to bring about the worldwide family of men and women that had long been present within her mind, and from 1915 until 1922 was treasurer of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. For her the war was 'the final demonstration of the unfitness of men to have the whole control of the human family in their hands' (Votes for Women, 16 Oct 1914, 21). She participated in 1915 in the international women's peace conference at The Hague, and deplored the terms of the Versailles peace settlement. Here, in her view, lay the roots of the Second World War: on 14 October 1939 she told Sylvia Pankhurst that Britain's earlier injustice towards Germany made it impossible for her to support another war (Sylvia Pankhurst collection, Institute of Social History, Amsterdam).

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence never retreated from her feminist ideals, but her public career suffered almost immediately from the way political party cut across inter-war feminist loyalties. In 1918 she stood as Labour candidate for Rusholme, championing nationalization, a capital levy, equal pay, and an equal moral standard, but she came bottom of the poll with only a sixth of the votes cast. She publicly campaigned against black-and-tan British policy in Ireland, and from 1926 to 1935 was president of the Women's Freedom League. She backed the Open Door Council and the Six Point Group, fiercely feminist bodies, but within the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship she tried in the mid-1920s to straddle the divide between ‘old’ (libertarian) and ‘new’ (interventionist) feminists, and more than once publicly asserted the need for economic equality between the sexes.

As her husband's inter-war political career advanced, however, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence's public career went into decline. She accompanied him on overseas tours, backed him in his election campaigns, and ran the Surrey homes and gardens that they both loved so much. Nobody reading the letters they exchanged when parted during his cabinet mission to India in 1946 will doubt the intensity of their affection. But this was no Webb or even Cole partnership: politics were not central to Emmeline's life, she had her own circle of friends, and she put more effort into gardening than into public commitments, paradoxically displaying many of the traits associated with the unemancipated woman. Though four years older than her husband, she elicited from him the same paternal and chivalrous response that she had evoked in her father and Pearse. Moody, impulsive, self-indulgent, and frequently taking to her bed, she was in later life careless with money, untidy, and absent-minded. Yet she could deploy her charm, in alliance with her wealth and classless outlook, to win devotion from a semi-commune of servants and secretaries: substitute children who benefited socially and educationally thereby. Her public life contracted further after the 1930s because of growing deafness, her unconcealed deaf-aid constituting more of a distraction for her audiences than a help. Prolonged disability and ultimately demoralizing illness preceded her death at home at Fourways, Gomshall, Surrey, on 11 March 1954.

It is for her central role in the militant suffrage movement that Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence is remembered. Her autobiographical My Part in a Changing World (1938), which she enjoyed writing, is dedicated to her husband, 'my unchanging comrade and my best friend'. It is reticent about her married life, but valuably documents in its first eight chapters the influences moulding her life as child and young woman. Appropriately it devotes its largest section, eleven chapters, to the WSPU—and only two jejune chapters to the years after 1914. Though impressively fair-minded and at times perceptive, her account of the suffragettes is essentially an uncritical and largely impersonal chronology. Nowhere did she convincingly justify the contradiction between her humanitarian and democratic instincts on the one hand, and her promotion of violent tactics and authoritarian suffrage structures on the other. Her prose and oratory could be embarrassingly sentimental and stagey; as she once told a young admirer, 'my dear, it doesn't matter a bit as long as you feel what you're saying' (Lutyens). Virginia Woolf cast a cold eye over the performance at a suffrage rally in 1918: 'I watched Mrs Pethick Lawrence [sic] rising & falling on her toes, as if half her legs were made of rubber, throwing out her arms, opening her hands, & thought very badly of this form of art' (Diary, 125).

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence's personal contribution to winning the vote for women, if she had focused on describing it, would have been difficult to disentangle from that of her husband. The Pethick-Lawrences' wealth, their courage, their vague and highly emotional idealism, and the example they set as a married couple who combined liberty with harmony—all helped to ward off any British feminist tendency towards sex war, and made a national movement out of what might otherwise have remained a Labour Party sect. In later life her career was eclipsed and in some ways cramped by that of her husband, as well as by disability, and the Dictionary of National Biography felt no need to commemorate her in its volume for the 1950s. The joint Pethick-Lawrence archive was once very large, but wartime salvage and deliberate destruction after her death impoverished it. None the less, ample materials exist for the full-blown biography that would be fully justified, but remains as yet unwritten.


  • E. Pethick-Lawrence, My part in a changing world (1938)
  • B. Harrison, ‘The politics of a marriage: Emmeline and Fred Pethick-Lawrence’, Prudent revolutionaries: portraits of British feminists between the wars (1987), 242–72
  • Votes for Women (7 Feb 1913)
  • Votes for Women (2 May 1913)
  • Votes for Women (16 Oct 1914)
  • The diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. A. O. Bell and A. McNeillie, 1 (1977)
  • Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, Sylvia Pankhurst collection
  • N. Lutyens, interview with B. Harrison, 28 March 1975, Women's Library, London


  • Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, letters to Sylvia Pankhurst
  • Trinity Cam., corresp. with her husband


  • BFINA, news footage


  • Bassano, photograph, 1910, NPG [see illus.]
  • Mrs A. Broom, group photograph, 1910, NPG; see illus. in Davison, Emily Wilding (1872–1913)
  • J. Baker, double portrait, oils (posthumous; with Lord Pethick-Lawrence), Peaslake Village Hall, Surrey
  • photographs, Women's Library, London

Wealth at Death

£4208 4s. 6d.: probate, 1954, CGPLA Eng. & Wales