Ever been told that you need to be less concerned for your own issues, more patient and gentle or that your call for justice or freedom needs to be subsumed beneath ‘unity’ and ‘peace’? Join the long line of others in history…
Until October 1912, when she was excluded over tactics, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) was the third element in the ‘Triumvirate’ leadership of the WSPU, alongside Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. With the support of her husband Fred, she indeed personally contributed a great fortune to the WSPU coffers, was a very effective Treasurer, and an able editor of Votes for Women, as well as being imprisoned several times. She was also one of the most eloquent speakers in the entire women’s movement. Her history and words thus illuminate the suffragette spirit.
For Emmeline’s story reflects the path of many women of her day, moving from one form of evangelical mission to another. Like many others, she started her public career in Christian social work, as a ‘Sister of the People’ at the West London Mission and then establishing her own Esperance Girls Club. Her change of attitude, which she saw as a ‘conversion’, was related in her article ‘Why I am in Prison’ (in Votes for Women, 12 March 1909). As a child at school, she said, she had been moved by George Eliot’s story of poor Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede. She had thus been:
moved by that instinct for chivalry which belongs essentially to the childhood of the individual and the race. I made a passionate resolve that when I grew up I would put myself between the helpless and the wronged and the wicked and the cruel world.
Her experience had left her increasingly overwhelmed however, until Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney’s first militancy. Then:
Gone for ever was the last vestige of the child’s idea. To stand between ‘Hetty Sorrel’ and the cruel world… was inadequate now… For you cannot save women one by one from an evil fate. You must put into the hand of woman the power to break the bonds that hold her down.
This ‘conversion’ she saw guided by a greater hand:
I went to prison because the power that has shaped my whole life has led me there step by step… I went to prison because… for every new emancipation of the human race, for every possession of truth, a great price has to be paid.
Women therefore, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence asserted, were, through the women’s movement, overcoming the ‘sin of self-sacrifice’ to which they were so prone. As she reflected in her pamphlet The Sin of Self-Sacrifice, efforts were always being made to break up the movement by appealing to women’s spirit of self-sacrifice. There was always something which, it was urged, had to come first, such as the unity or welfare of this or that group to which many women belonged. Such self-sacrifice could then become a ‘suicidal vice’. Instead, in the somewhat high-flown language to which she was sometimes prone, the women’s movement:
means the release into the world of a new Soul – the Soul of women hitherto held in subjection and captivity… The Woman’s Movement means a new religion, or rather a return to its source – to the sacred Altar of the hearth; to the fount of birth and being. It means the beginning of a new morality, especially of that morality between women and men hitherto determined by the immediate convenience and interest of one sex only. (‘What the Vote mean to those who are fighting the battle’ Votes for Women Jan 1908)
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence’s insight into ‘self-sacrifice’ has been one which women and supportive men have had to learn again and again, not least when feminism has been out aside for ‘higher causes’. During the first world war, she herself refused to put this aside. She also worked with others on peace-making, notably being present at the Women’s Peace Congress in the Hague in 1915, and later helping to found the Women’s Peace Party and the long-lasting Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) which is still active today.
Source of true unity and compassion,
We give thanks for Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence
and for all who have sought to cultivate a proper sense of self-sacrifice.
Help us distinguish between what is self-regarding
and what is a refusal to act and give of our true self.
Enable us to seek genuine unity, based on mutual love and respect,
and lead us towards a realisation of your Spirit in us.
In the name of Jesus who gave himself as a true sacrifice for our redemption, Amen.