Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. First up is Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, one of the key members of the Women’s Social and Political Union until 1913.
Most of you probably know this already, but 2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which granted some British women the right to vote. There are a huge number of events, exhibitions and book publications happening this year to commemorate the event, but I wanted to play my own small part in marking the event on Turbulent London. As such, all Turbulent Londoners featured this year will have played some role in the campaign for women’s suffrage. First up is Emmeline Peckith-Lawrence, one of the key members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) between 1906 and 1913.
Emmeline Peckith was born in Bristol on the 21st of October 1867 to a wealthy Methodist family. One of 13 children, Emmeline was sent to boarding school at the age of 8. Reluctant to conform from an early age, she was often in trouble at school, and the teachers thought she was a bad influence on other children. In 1891 Emmeline moved to London to work with some of the city’s poorest inhabitants as a voluntary social worker. She worked at the Sisterhood of the West London Mission, where she helped to run the girl’s club. It was here that Emmeline became a socialist.
Growing frustrated with the constraints of the Mission, in 1895 Emmeline left to co-found the Esperance Club, a girl’s club which experimented with dance and drama. She also started the Maison Esperance, a dress-making co-operative with a minimum wage, an 8 hour day and a holiday scheme. She wanted to give the young women she worked with a practical example of socialism. In 1899 Emmeline met, and fell for, the wealthy lawyer Frederick Lawrence, but she refused to marry him unless he shared her socialist ideals. By 1901, he had come around to her way of thinking. The equality of their marriage was unheard of in polite society–they chose to double-barrel their surnames and kept separate bank accounts to retain their independence.
In 1906, Emmeline joined the WSPU. She must have thrown herself into the movement wholeheartedly; in October of that year she was arrested and imprisoned with other prominent suffragists such as Annie Kenney, Dora Montefiore, and Adela and Sylvia Pankhurst after a ‘riot’ in the House of Commons lobby. Emmeline would go to prison six times for her political beliefs. Frederick publicly declared that he would donate £10 to the suffrage movement for each day that his wife remained in prison. It was the start of a close relationship between the Pethick-Lawrence’s and the WSPU’s finances–Emmeline became the group’s Treasurer, and raised £134000 over 6 years. The couple also donated large amounts of their own money. Also in 1906, the Pankhursts moved the headquarters of the WSPU from Manchester to London. The Peckith-Lawrences offered their own home as the location for the new offices. They also opened their home to activists recovering from prison sentences. The couple masterminded, edited, and funded the journal Votes for Women from 1907.
As the years passed the WSPU turned to increasingly violent tactics. In 1912, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst endorsed a campaign of window smashing. Emmeline Peckith-Lawrence did not support these violent methods, but remained loyal to the WSPU. In March, she was arrested along with her husband and imprisoned for conspiracy, despite not participating in the window smashing. Christabel Pankhurst escaped to France, but the Peckith-Lawrences spent 9 months in prison, including being force-fed. They were also successfully sued for the costs of the window smashing campaign, which left them close to bankruptcy. After the Pethick-Lawrence’s release, the Pankhursts announced plans for the WSPU to begin a campaign of arson. For Emmeline and Frederick this was too far, and they spoke out against the increasingly violent actions and rhetoric of the WSPU. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst hated dissent within the WSPU, and despite all the Pethick-Lawrences had done for the group, they were expelled.
For Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the expulsion was a personal as well as a political betrayal. It did not halt or even slow her activism however. She joined the Women’s Freedom League, which had formed after another group of campaigners left the WSPU in 1907 (Charlotte Despard was the group’s first President). She also joined the United Suffragists, which was formed in 1914 by former WSPU members. Unlike the WSPU, they admitted men and non-violent suffragists, and continued to campaign throughout World War One. The United Suffragists adopted Votes for Women as their official paper.
During the war, Emmeline was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace. She saw the conflict as the ultimate demonstration of men’s unsuitability to being responsible for humanity. At the beginning of the war, Emmeline was invited to America to promote the cause of women’s suffrage. She went, hoping she could also persuade Americans to support peace negotiations. Because she was travelling from the US and not Britain, Emmeline was one of only 3 British women who were able to attend the Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague in 1915. At the end of the war, she argued that a fair peace settlement was the only way to prevent further conflict. She lived long enough to see herself proved right.
When women finally won the right to vote in 1918, Emmeline stood as the Labour candidate for Manchester-Rusholme, with policies such as nationalisation and equal pay. Pacifists were incredibly unpopular at the time however, and she came last, winning a sixth of the vote. During the 1920s and 30s she worked for the Women’s International League, which campaigned for World Peace. Between 1925 and 1935, she was President of the Women’s Freedom League. She was also involved in Marie Stopes’ campaign to provide information on birth control to working class women. Emmeline continued campaigning until she had a serious accident in 1950. Frederick looked after her until her death on the 11th of March 1954.
At the time, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was one of the most well-known campaigners for women’s suffrage. Nowadays, she is largely unknown, which I think is a real shame. Born into privilege, she used her advantages to help others, and to fight for what she believed in. Her political activism spanned six decades and huge social and political change. As I’m sure will become clear as 2018 progresses there were many brave and remarkable women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence is just one of many who deserves our admiration and respect.
Sources and Further Reading
Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March: Voices from the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to the Suffragettes. London: Andre Deutsch, 2013.
Simkin, John. “Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified September 2015, accessed 17 January 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpethick.htm
The Men Who Said No. “Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.” No date, accessed 17 January 2018. Available at http://menwhosaidno.org/context/women/pethicklawrence_e.html
Wikipedia. “Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Baroness Pethick-Lawrence.” Last modified 28 December 2017, accessed 17 January 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmeline_Pethick-Lawrence,_Baroness_Pethick-Lawrence