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Trafford Suffragist: Lady Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence* (1867 – 1954)

(*Lady Pethick-Lawrence was not a resident of Trafford but did campaign to represent Manchester in the 1918 election)

Lady Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was born in Bristol. Her feather was a businessman and owner of the Weston Gazette newspaper and his socialist views made a great impression on Emmeline Pethick. 

Between 1891 – 1895, Pethick worked as a ‘sister of the people’, a worker for the West London Mission running a girl’s club. She left, however, due to finding the methods of the club too constricting for young women e.g. a ban on dancing. She co-founded Espérance Club for young women where they could take part in dance and drama. She also started Maison Espérance, a dressmaking cooperative which provided better working conditions for young women than the usual dressmaking industry such as a minimum wage, an eight hour day and a holiday scheme.

In 1901 Pethick married Frederick Lawrence after he converted to socialism. The couple took the joint name Pethick-Lawrence and kept separate bank accounts. 

Pethick-Lawrence was a member of the Suffrage Society and was introduced to Emmeline Pankhurst in 1906. She became treasurer of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), which Pankurst had founded in 1903. She was a talented public speaker, writer, organizer and fundraiser raising £134,000 over six years. She designed the WSPU campaign colours purple, white and green. Her reasoning behind the colour system were, ‘purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope’. Her husband’s legal training became invaluable defending suffragettes in court and utilizing these court appearances to promote women’s emancipation. 

In 1907, alongside her husband, Pethick-Lawrence co-founded and edited the WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women. The aim of the publication was to promote women’s emancipation and recruit members. The copies were sold by members on the street, who were often subject to harassment and some were forced to stand in the gutter (not a pleasant place in the early 1900s) to prevent arrest for ‘obstruction of the pavement’.

Pethick-Lawrence’s activism in the WSPU led to her imprisonment six times. This was very traumatic for her as she suffered from claustrophobia. In 1912 members of the WSPU smashed windows on Oxford Street, London. Pethick-Lawrence and her husband were convicted and imprisoned of inciting violence despite not having anything to do with the action. Both attempted to hunger strike but were force fed in prison (Emmerline in Holloway and Frederick in Brixton Prison). To make matters worse Frederick Pethick-Lawrence was liable for court costs and for replacement windows, which led to bankruptcy. Furthermore, once the couple were released from prison they were unceremoniously ousted from the WSPU due to their objection for military action being increasingly used by the organization. They felt it was harming public support for the cause and would be counter productive.

Although there was now a rift between the Pethick-Lawrences and Emmeline Pankhurst, the former continued to build bridges. They continued to produce '''Votes For Women', and established the ‘Votes for Women Fellowship’ than evolved into the United Suffragists which was willing to work with militants as well as non-militants and have male membership.

She was a peace activist during the First World War and in 1918 stood for Parliament in Manchester but unfortunately lost. She never ceased in her campaigning and in the 1920s was a member of the executive committee of the Open Door Council and the Six Point Group, all advocating for the equal social and economic opportunities for women.

Her husband went on to become the Leader of the Opposition during the Second World War and given a peerage in 1945 becoming Baron Pethick Lawrence with Emmeline becoming Lady Pethick Lawrence.

Both Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband, Frederick’s names and pictures are featured on the plinth of the statue of suffragist founder, Milicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square.

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