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date: 30 September 2023

Courtney, Dame Kathleen D'Olierfree


Courtney, Dame Kathleen D'Olierfree

  • Janet E. Grenier

Dame Kathleen D'Olier Courtney (1878–1974)

by Godfrey Argent, 1970

Courtney, Dame Kathleen D'Olier (1878–1974), suffragist and peace campaigner, was born on 11 March 1878 at 1 York Terrace, Gillingham, Kent, the youngest of five daughters and fifth of seven children of Lieutenant (later Major) David Charles Courtney (1845–1909) of the Royal Engineers, and his wife, Alice Margaret Mann. Her parents were Anglo-Irish gentry with military connections on both sides. She attended the Anglo-French College in Kensington and the Manse boarding-school in Malvern before spending seven months in Dresden studying German. She went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in January 1897 to read modern languages (French and German). She was awarded second-class honours in the university examination for women in 1900. While at Oxford, she formed a lifelong friendship with Maude Royden, suffragist and campaigner for the ordination of women.

Independent means gave Kathleen Courtney the opportunity to devote her life to social causes and world peace. After a short period working with the Lambeth Constitutional Girls' Club (a Lady Margaret Hall settlement), she became involved in the non-militant suffrage movement. A constitutionalist, she believed in education, argument, and reason. After a spell in Manchester (1908–11) as secretary of the North of England Society for Women's Suffrage, she moved to London and was honorary secretary (1911–15) of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett.

Suffrage agitation was suspended with the outbreak of the First World War. The executive of the NUWSS split with half, led by Mrs Fawcett, supporting the government's war effort, and the other half, including Kathleen Courtney, resigning in the belief that the most vital task was to promote permanent international peace. In 1915 Kathleen Courtney was one of only three British delegates to attend the international peace conference at The Hague, which she had helped to organize. She was active in the British Women's Peace Crusade, launched in 1916, and was honorary secretary in the 1920s and chairman in the 1930s. She was one of the founders of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and for ten years was chairman of the British section. She resigned in 1933 partly because she believed that the league's pacifism, calling for complete disarmament, was unrealistic.

During and after the First World War, Kathleen Courtney became associated with the Friends' War Victims Relief Committee, although not a Quaker herself. She worked for the Serbian Relief Fund in Salonika, took charge of a temporary Serbian refugee colony in Bastia, Corsica, and was decorated by the Serbian government. Those who knew her during this period described her as full of life and fun and an exceptional administrator. She went on to work for the Friends' committee in France, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Greece. She was in Vienna for three years where she was horrified by the post-war scenes of starvation, particularly among refugees.

Kathleen Courtney had not forgotten the importance of extending the vote, however, and was an active officer of the National Council for Adult Suffrage in 1917, lobbying MPs for extension of the franchise until the act was passed in 1918. She was vice-president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (as the NUWSS was renamed in 1919) and became involved in the work of the family endowment committee introducing, with Eleanor Rathbone, the idea of family allowances.

Kathleen Courtney attended the fourth women's international congress, held in Zürich in 1919 at the same time as the Paris peace conference. Active involvement in the League of Nations Union followed and she became a member of its executive in 1928 and vice-chairman in 1939. She was adamant that women must know more about international affairs. An excellent speaker, she spoke at conferences on its behalf all over the UK, and wrote regularly for the press on international affairs as well as travelling extensively in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia during the 1930s to lecture. She spent much time in Geneva, working as first vice-president of the Peace and Disarmament Committee of Women's International Organizations which was preparing a petition for disarmament (8 million signatures were collected) prior to the Geneva disarmament conference of 1932. She was an observer on behalf of women's organizations for the duration of that conference. When Abyssinia was invaded by Italy, she mobilized British and European women's organizations in the vain hope of preventing civilian bombing.

Kathleen Courtney's knowledge of the USA was of great service to the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. She made two hazardous voyages to the USA to plead for a permanent international organization for collective security, disarmament, and positive relief measures. She was an observer at the San Francisco conference in 1945 and her speeches were influential in persuading Americans of the value of the United Nations.

In 1945 Kathleen Courtney became deputy chairman of the United Nations Association, a voluntary non-governmental organization formed to support and publicize the UN charter ideals by educating and campaigning. In 1949 she became chairman of its executive committee and joint president (with Gilbert Murray). She retired from the chairmanship in 1951 but remained active in the association into her nineties. She was appointed CBE in 1946 and DBE in 1952. In 1968 she made a speech in Westminster at the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the granting of votes to women.

Dame Kathleen Courtney was a forceful personality who did not suffer fools gladly, but her sternness was accompanied by grace and Victorian courtesy. She made an admirable chairman, able to cut through confusion and muddle. Her unemotional manner could make her seem cold but she believed that the head must rule the heart. She was determined to do the best for her causes and was a tireless, thorough organizer. Strikingly beautiful in her youth, she remained handsome and well dressed in her old age. In 1972 she was awarded the UN peace medal. She died at her home, 3 Elm Tree Court, Elm Tree Road, London, on 7 December 1974. A memorial service was held on 11 April 1975 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.


  • E. M. Chilver, ‘Kathleen D'Olier Courtney’, Brown Book (1975), 27–30
  • A. Wiltsher, Most dangerous women: feminist peace campaigners of the First World War (1985)
  • M. Quass, ‘UNA's first lady’, New World (March 1968), 5 [Journal of United Nations Association]
  • M. Stott, ‘Happy at 90’, The Guardian (11 March 1968)
  • The Times (10 Dec 1974)
  • G. Bussey and M. Tims, Pioneers for peace: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915–1965 [2nd edn] (1980)
  • S. S. Holton, Feminism and democracy: women's suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900–1918 (1986), 67–8
  • W. A. Foster, UN News (Sept–Oct 1951)
  • S. Fletcher, Maude Royden: a life (1989)
  • BLPES, WILPF MSS [Women's International League for Peace and Freedom]
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Cumbria AS, Carlisle, papers relating to female suffrage
  • People's History Museum, Manchester, corresp.
  • Women's Library, London, corresp. and papers
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51141
  • BLPES, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom archives
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray
  • IWM, letters and diaries, Friends' Relief Service, Salonika and eastern Europe
  • TCD, letters to Mary Childers


  • Women's Library, London, Brian Harrison tape 56, interviewing the Rt. Hon. Philip Noel-Baker, 26 April 1977
  • Women's Library, London, recording of UNA function, speech (U Thant) and vote of thanks, K. Courtney


  • G. Argent, photograph, 1970, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Pannett, chalk drawing, Women's Library, London
  • photographs, Women's Library, London
  • portrait, repro. in Record of the Women's International Congress (June 1915), 13

Wealth at Death

£17,786: probate, 7 March 1975, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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