Pethick-Lawrence, Emmeline (1867–1954)

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Pethick-Lawrence, Emmeline (1867–1954)

English suffragist and social worker. Name variations: Emmeline Pethick; Emmeline Pethick Lawrence. Born in 1867 in Bristol, England; died in 1954; educated at private schools in England, France, and Germany; married Frederick Lawrence (a newspaper editor, politician and suffragist) who took the name Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (later Baron Pethick-Lawrence of Peaslake), in 1901; no children.

Worked for improvement of conditions for women (early 1900s); served as co-leader and treasurer of the Women's Social and Political Union (1906–12); created and edited periodical Votes for Women with her husband (1907–14); participated in the Women's Peace Congress at The Hague (1915); served as treasurer of the Women's International League for Peace (1915–22); became president of the Women's Freedom League (1918); named president of honor of the Women's Freedom League (1953).

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was born into a middle-class family in Bristol, England, in 1867. During an unhappy childhood, she attended private schools in England, France, and Germany. Her independent-minded father greatly influenced her own passion for justice and her willingness to go to great lengths to fight for it. (She would make him proud with her first arrest while demonstrating for suffrage.) After reading Walter Besant's Children of Gibeon, about the economic struggles of single working women, Emmeline took up social work. From 1890 to 1895, she was employed at the West London Mission. She also organized a dress-making company that featured an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, and annual holidays, all of which were rare in industry in general and in the clothing industry in particular.

In 1901, Emmeline Pethick married Frederick Lawrence, a newspaper editor and Labour politician, and they merged their last names as well as their efforts toward social reform. Although the Pethick-Lawrences both believed in taking extreme measures to see that justice was done in the women's movement, they rejected violence as a means of achieving that end. Emmeline staged many demonstrations for suffrage, and was arrested several times.

In 1906, she accepted the position of treasurer of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and, over the next six years, raised a significant amount of money for the organization. She and her husband, along with Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst , were the key members of the organization. According to some, the Pethick-Lawrences were the driving force behind the rise of the WSPU. The couple also created and edited the union's periodical, Votes for Women, beginning in 1907. According to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, "The task before us, as we saw it, was to organise a great campaign of popular demonstrations which should outdo anything achieved before."

In 1912, after a major window-breaking demonstration, the Pethick-Lawrences were jailed on conspiracy charges. Going on hunger strikes while jailed was a common tactic among suffragists, and, after refusing to eat to the point that doctors believed their lives were in danger, both Emmeline and Frederick were released. They returned home and were shocked to find that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst had produced a new militant policy for the organization that went against the ideas on which the

Pethick-Lawrences had based their activities of the last six years. ("Short of taking human life," espoused Emmeline Pankhurst, "we shall stop at no step we consider necessary to take.") As the Pankhursts had planned, the Pethick-Lawrences therefore left the organization, with all four maintaining a public front of mutual respect so that, according to Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, "the damage to the women's movement might be reduced to a minimum." She told the Daily Graphic on October 18, 1912, "We are as militant at heart as anyone. It was on the question of the expediency of a certain militant policy … that we disagreed." More specifically, Pethick-Lawrence had stated earlier that year that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst had come up with a new campaign in which both public and private property secretly would be attacked by suffragists who would then try to escape, rather than giving themselves up for arrest. This was a policy the Pethick-Lawrences could not support.

The Pethick-Lawrences continued to edit Votes for Women as an independent publication after their split from the WSPU (Christabel Pankhurst introduced a new journal for the union, The Suffragette), and joined the United Suffragists, which encouraged collaboration between men and women. Despite the fact that Emmeline and Frederick effectively had been turned out of an organization that they themselves had helped to create and finance, they never spoke out against the Pankhursts. They simply went their separate ways and continued their work without the WSPU.

Pethick-Lawrence's career as a suffragist had slowed considerably by 1914, the year she and Frederick ceased editing Votes for Women. However, she participated in a women's peace conference at The Hague in 1915, and until 1922 served as treasurer of the organization that was created at that conference, the Women's International League for Peace. She was also the longtime president of the Women's Freedom League. Women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote in Britain in 1918, and that year Pethick-Lawrence ran (and lost) as a Labour candidate in the first election open to women. In later life she lived without any apparent hankering for public recognition of the part she had played in securing women's suffrage, and grew increasingly deaf. She did admit to some disappointment that women, having secured the vote, had not used it to institute significant positive change. She and her husband, who served as a Labour politician and as secretary of state for India and Burma (now Myanmar) from 1945 to 1947, remained devoted to one another throughout the years. After suffering a heart attack in 1951, Pethick-Lawrence was essentially bedridden until her death in 1954.


Harrison, Brian. Prudent Revolutionaries: Portraits of British Feminists between the Wars. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Mackenzie, Midge. Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Uglow, Jennifer S., ed. and comp. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.

suggested reading:

Pethick-Lawrence, Emmeline. My Part in a Changing World, 1938.

Brittain, Vera . Pethick-Lawrence: A Portrait. Allen & Unwin, 1963 (biography of Frederick Pethick-Lawrence).

Kari Bethel , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri