In the mid 1970s I was the first person in my family and the first on my council estate to get a place at University. Our elderly neighbour Mrs Hall said to me. “Ooh you’ll be another Barbara Castle” My father groaned inwardly because as a trade unionist and reluctant Labour voter he had railed at Castle’s White Paper “In Place of Strife” which had sought to curtail trade union power. That was never going to happen.
In this new and well researched history of five Labour women who were the only ones to get posts in Cabinet in the period from the Labour Party’s birth in 1900 to the Blair Government in 1997, Paula uncovers the very male world that these women worked in and documents their own individual paths to power. “These women were not a homogenous group: they came from diverse family backgrounds, entered politics in their own discrete way and held divergent political beliefs. They rose to power at different times: the early years of the twentieth century were quite different from those of the early years of the twenty first and it is important not to oversimplify women’s lives by imagining a seamless continuity.”
Of the five women Margaret Bondfield came from the poorest background with the least education but she was the first woman to chair the TUC, the first woman to hold a ministerial post in 1924 and the first woman to be a Cabinet Minister in 1929. She inspired other working class women. When she was joint Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League she spoke in Manchester in February 1908 at the AGM of the Manchester and Salford and District Women’s TUC and inspired another working class woman Mary Quaile to begin a lifelong career in trade union organising. For Margaret (and many other women) joining a trade union changed their lives as workers and allowed them an entry into a larger political world of trade unions, the Labour Party and power in government.
Ellen Wilkinson, like Margaret, came from a poor background in working class Ardwick, Manchester. And also like Margaret her politics were driven by her Methodism while she was encouraged by her father to read widely and continue her education. In 1910 she won a scholarship to attend the University of Manchester. In 1915, aged 23, she became a national organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees. Her role was to organise women shop and factory workers, an important job. “It would further her political education, help her form alliances within the labour movement, consolidate her skills in organising, finance her politics and make it possible for her to become an MP.”
Ellen was lucky to be part of the first majority Labour government in 1945, one of 21 female Labour MPs in a government that would transform the UK; one that is now looked back on as a golden era for Labour and the country. Ellen was central to that reforming government as the first ever female Minister of Education. “Her persistence and tenacity led to the transformation of the British educational system giving working class children opportunities they had rarely enjoyed before.”
Barbara Betts came from a political background: both her parents were activists in the Independant Labour Party and she was encouraged to believe in her own equality with men and to follow in her parents political beliefs and activity. She went to University and then became involved with Labour party politics working her way through the political machinery. In July 1945 she was elected as an MP for Blackburn and the youngest female MP. Unlike Margaret and Ellen she got married, to the journalist Ted Castle
For twenty years Barbara was a formidable political figure nationally, taking on several Ministerial posts. As Minister of Transport she brought in speed limits on motorways, the breathalyser, seat belts and the tachograph. But for many people in the Labour movement she was tainted by her bid as Secretary of state for Employment in 1969 to “reform” the trade unions while the Equal Pay Act she introduced after the 1968 strike by sewing machinists at Ford gave employers five years to evade pay regulation leading many working class women to feel betrayed.
The other two women who achieved Cabinet rank were Judith Hart and Shirley Williams. They represented a more privileged strata of the Labour Party. Judith Hart who began her career in Parliament in 1959 (as did Margaret Thatcher) as MP for Lanark was the first of the five women Cabinet Ministers to be a mother as well as a politician. Lucky for her she had a supportive husband who was happy to move the family down to London so that she could maintain her career.
Shirley Williams was the most privileged of the five. Her father was a political scientist while her mother was the famous journalist and novelist Vera Brittain. In October 1964 she was elected as a Labour MP but entering Parliament did not faze her because many of her fellow MPs were people she had known from her time at Oxford University. Marriage and one child did not stop her parliamentary career and she held several powerful political posts in government. But as the Labour Party questioned its direction after the defeat in 1979, she left the Labour Party in 1981 to set up the Social Democratic Party and this begin another chapter in her political career.
For me, who is not a member of the Labour Party, but a socialist feminist, I can respect these women for their courage and commitment to taking on national politics through the parliamentary system. But I would question the underlying political message of this book which I think is too deferential to mainstream Labour politics and uncritical of some of the policies that these women promoted. Today, while there are more women than ever in Parliament the political system has delivered an austerity that has affected detrimentally the lives of working class women. I despair when I see campaigns calling for more women to get into parliament without discussing the policies that they should pursue if elected.
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