Emmeline Pethick, the daughter of Henry Pethick, a businessman in Bristol, was born in Clifton on 21st October 1867. She later recalled: "My mother bore thirteen children, of whom five died in infancy. My youngest brother was born seventeen years after me. Those were the days of large families. I never heard my mother make any complaint about this excessive childbearing. She accepted it with complete surrender and even with satisfaction."
Henry Pethick was a devout Methodist. "As children we were all taken to Church as soon as we could walk and we had to sit very still indeed, because if not, we would be slapped afterwards. When we were older we had to remember and repeat the text at dinner-time, and if we failed to do this we were set to learn pieces of Scripture by heart."
Emmeline was sent away to boarding school in Devizes at the age of eight. A rebellious child, she was constantly in trouble with her teachers. After being transferred to a Quaker school she was accused of being "a corrupting influence on other children". Her biographer, Brian Harrison has argued: "Her lifelong instinctive sympathy with children was striking... She portrayed herself later as a truthful and rational child, but to adults she must have seemed wilful and stubborn."
In 1891 Emmeline became a voluntary social worker at the West London Methodist Mission. Emmeline helped organise a club for young working-class girls. Emmeline was shocked by the poverty she encountered and it was during this time she was converted to socialism. Emmeline believed it was important to give these girls a practical example of socialism in action. In 1895 Emmeline joined with Mary Neal to form the Esperance Club that was influenced by the ideas of William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Walt Whitman. This involved helping a group of young women establish a co-operative dressmaking business.
In 1899 Emmeline met the wealthy lawyer, Frederick Lawrence. The couple fell in love but Emmeline refused to marry Frederick because he did not share her socialist beliefs. In 1900 she developed a hostel at Littlehampton for working girls' holidays. It was not until 1901, when Frederick had been converted to socialism, that Emmeline agreed to marry him. Frederick agreed to adopt Pethick-Lawrence as their joint name. Brian Harrison has pointed out: "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."
Soon after her marriage Emmeline thought she was pregnant. Frederick wrote that the birth "will make us both extra happy". He added: "Isn't it splendid dear. My heart just singing and singing and won't keep quiet." However, Emmeline suffered a miscarriage and received news that she could not have children. Frederick wrote to her: "I am to you a splendid husband and you to me a splendid wife and it is enough!"
In 1901 Frederick Pethick-Lawrence became the owner of The Echo, a left-wing evening newspaper. He recruited friends from the socialist movement such as Ramsay MacDonald and H. N. Brailsford to write for the newspaper. Frederick also published and edited the monthly, Labour Record and Review (1905-07). Emmeline later argued: "His outstanding qualities of intellect, balanced judgment and practical administration in business and finance became the rock upon which I have built, since then, the structure of my life."
For the next four years Emmeline spent her time helping the Independent Labour Party and developing her ideas with the Esperance Club. However, when Emmeline read about the arrest and imprisonment of Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney in October 1905, she decided to take an interest in the suffrage movement. The following year she met Kenney and after a long discussion with her she decided to join the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).
A few months after joining the WSPU Emmeline was arrested while trying to make a speech in the lobby of the House of Commons. Emmeline was sent to prison, the first of six terms of imprisonment that she served for her political activities. She later recalled in her autobiography, My Part in a Changing World (1938): "When the morning newspaper brought the unexpected news of my first arrest in the Suffrage Movement, my father reacted to it in precisely the same way as I should have reacted had our positions been reversed. He was proud that a child of his hand not hesitated to make a stand for the extension of democratic liberty."
Frederick Pethick-Lawrence also became involved in the struggle for the franchise. In 1907 Frederick and Emmeline started the journal Votes for Women. The Pethick-Lawrence's large home in London also became the office of the WSPU. It was also used as a kind of hospital where women made ill by their prison experiences could recover their strength before embarking on further militant acts. The couple also contributed more than £6000 to the funds of WSPU.
In 1912 the WSPU organised a new campaign that involved the large-scale smashing of shop-windows. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence had disagreed with this strategy but Christabel Pankhurst ignored her objections. As soon as this wholesale smashing of shop windows began, the government ordered the arrest of the leaders of the WSPU. Christabel escaped to France but Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were arrested, tried and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. They were also successfully sued for the cost of the damage caused by the WSPU.
Both Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence went on hunger strike and had to face the full rigours of forcible feeding twice a day for several days. He later recalled the experience in his memoirs, Fate Has Been Kind (1943): "The head doctor, a most sensitive man, was visibly distressed by what he had to do. It certainly was an unpleasant and painful process and a sufficient number of warders had to be called in to prevent my moving while a rubber tube was pushed up my nostril and down into my throat and liquid was poured through it into my stomach. Twice a day thereafter one of the doctors fed me in this way. I was not allowed to leave my cell in the hospital and for the most part I had to stay in bed. There was nothing to do but to read; and the days were very long and went very slowly."
Christabel Pankhurst later recorded: "Mother and Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence went on hunger-strike. The Government retaliated by forcible feeding. This was actually carried out in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence. The doctors and wardresses came to Mother's cell armed with forcible-feeding apparatus. Forewarned by the cries of Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence Mother received them with all her majestic indignation. They fell back and left her. Neither then nor at any time in her log and dreadful conflict with the government was she forcibly fed."
After Emmeline and Frederick were released from prison they began to speak openly about the possibility that this window-smashing campaign would lose support for the WSPU. At a meeting in France, in October 1912, Christabel Pankhurst told Emmeline and Frederick about the proposed arson campaign. When Emmeline and Frederick objected, Christabel arranged for them to be expelled from the the organisation. Emmeline later recalled in her autobiography, My Part in a Changing World (1938): "My husband and I were not prepared to accept this decision as final. We felt that Christabel, who had lived for so many years with us in closest intimacy, could not be party to it. But when we met again to go further into the question Christabel made it quite clear that she had no further use for us."
Fran Abrams the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003) wrote: "Even the split with the WSPU did not end of this agony - the Pethick-Lawrences were still facing bankruptcy proceedings. An auction of their belongings was held at The Mascot, but raised only £300 towards their £1,100 court costs even though many friends arrived to buy personal possessions and give them back to the couple. Even the auctioneer returned to them a trinket he had bought as a keepsake. The rest of the costs were later taken from Fred's estate, plus a further £5,000 for repairs to shop windows damaged in the raids. Fortunately he had deep pockets and did not have to sell his home."
Pethick-Lawrence continued to work for the suffrage cause and spent most of her energies after 1912 writing for her journal, Votes for Women. She also joined the Women's Freedom League (WFL). Other members included Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Margaret Nevinson and Charlotte Despard.
During the First World War Emmeline was a prominent member of the Women's International League for Peace. After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act in 1918 Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence stood as Labour candidate for Rusholme. As Brian Harrison pointed out: "she 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."
In the 1920s and 1930s Emmeline worked for the Women's International League, an organisation committed to world peace. Emmeline also became involved in the campaign led by Marie Stopes to provide birth-control information to working class women. From 1926 to 1935 was president of the Women's Freedom League.
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence published her autobiography, My Part in a Changing World, in 1938. The book is dedicated to her husband, "my unchanging comrade and my best friend". One critic argued: "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."
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence remained active in politics until 1950 when she had a serious accident that left her immobilized. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence looked after Emmeline until she died of a heart attack at her home at Gomshall, Surrey, on 11th March 1954. He wrote to a friend: "I feel a bit dazed. It is as though I was at a violin concerto with the violinist absent."