Edith Lanchester: A socialist pioneer against patriarchy

Submitted by Matthew on 5 September, 2012 - 12:07

Edith Lanchester (1871-1966) was a British socialist and feminist.

She was born to a prosperous architect and grew up in Battersea, south London; she became a prominent activist in the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

By her mid-20s she was a schoolteacher, then worked as a secretary to Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and a prominent activist in her own right.

In 1895 Lanchester caused a storm when she announced that, in protest against Britain's patriarchal marriage laws, she was going to cohabit with her lover, an Irish factory worker, James Sullivan. Her socialist feminist convictions had led Lanchester to conclude that the wife's vow to obey her husband was oppressive and she was politically opposed to the institution of marriage.

Incensed, Lanchester's father and brothers barged into her house and forcibly subjected their daughter to an examination by Dr George Fielding-Blandford, a leading psychiatrist and author of Insanity and Its Treatment. After signing emergency commitment papers under the 1890 Lunacy Act, Fielding-Blandford had Lanchester imprisoned; her own father and brothers bound her wrists and dragged her to a carriage destined for the Priory Hospital in Roehampton.

The psychiatrist explained his reasoning in a contemporary news report. Lanchester "had always been eccentric, and had lately taken up with Socialists of the most advanced order. She seemed quite unable to see that the step she was about to take meant utter ruin. If she had said that she had contemplated suicide a certificate might have been signed without question. I considered I was equally justified in signing one when she expressed her determination to commit this social suicide. She is a monomaniac on the subject of marriage, and I believe her brain had been turned by Socialist meetings and writings, and that she was quite unfit to take care of herself."

Almost immediately a meeting was called by Lanchester's comrades under the auspices of the Legitimation League, a body set up to campaign to secure equal rights for children born outside of marriage. At the meeting, a resolution was passed against Fielding-Blandford, and Lanchester's landlady, the SDF activist Mary Gray, was urged to take legal action against her tenant's brother for assaulting her during the raid on her home.

After four days of lobbying by the SDF, with the help of Lanchester's local MP, the Commissioners of Lunacy proclaimed her sane though "foolish" and released her.

Independent Labour Party leader Keir Hardie accused Lanchester of discrediting socialism; but her stand was a brave and radical challenge by a committed socialist feminist to the institution of marriage and to late Victorian society's highly constrained and patriarchal conception of femininity.

Lanchester and Sullivan's daughter Elsa Lanchester became a famous actress.

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