Since its formation, the Labour Party has been a platform for radical female MPs that have smashed the political consensus. On the centenary of the introduction of suffrage for some women, its time to look back and celebrate their triumphs and struggles
The origins of the Labour Party go back to 1900, when the TUC passed a resolution to establish the Labour Representation Committee. The resolution was seconded by Margaret Bondfield, the only woman delegate at the meeting.
Margaret Bondfield was born in 1873 to a working-class family in Somerset and was radicalised whilst working in a draper’s shop, aged just 14. By 1929 she made history as the Minister for Labour thus becoming the first ever British Cabinet minister.
Bondfield had been schooled in the Labour movement of the late 19th century and In 1898 joined the newly formed National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks, at a time when staff were often sacked for joining a union.
At the turn of the century, Bondfield went on to co-found the first trade union for women, the National Federation of Women Workers, as the Labour Party committed to women’s suffrage as a priority. She then worked as an advisor to the Liberal government, working on the Health Insurance Bill, which gave maternity rights to mothers. After many years championing women’s organisations, she was elected Labour MP for Northampton in 1923.
History was made in 1924, when she was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Labour – the first woman ever to become a government minister. This was to be short-lived, as Margaret lost her seat in the following year’s election – before returning in the Wallsend by-election of 1926.
When she became the Minister for Labour in 1929, she made herself unpopular with Labour voters after supporting a cut in unemployment benefit for married women. Losing her seat in the 1931 election ended her parliamentary career and she died in 1953.
Also on the rise throughout that period was Ellen Wilkinson, who as Minister for Education in the Atlee Government led on the implementation of the 1944 Education Act, as well as the introduction of free school milk.
Ellen Wilkinson was a key figure in British socialism and feminism in the early 20th century, becoming only the second woman to hold ministerial office. Wilkinson was born in 1891 in Manchester. Wilkinson came from a working class background, and embraced socialism from an early age. She managed to study at Manchester University before becoming an influential trade union officer.
Known as ‘Red Ellen’, she adopted a radical and militant left wing position, having previously been a member of the Communist party before joining Labour. She was elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924, and supported the 1926 General Strike. In the 1929–31 Labour government she served as PPS to a junior health minister but would lose her seat in catastrophic 1931 election defeat.
After taking time out to become an influential political journalist and writer, she became the MP for Jarrow in 1935. It was in the poor mining town of Jarrow that she would flourish as a radical campaigning MP.
Jarrow had one of the worst unemployment records in Britain. By 1935 80% of the population was out of work. In 1936 Wilkinson organised the famous ‘Jarrow March’ of 200 unemployed workers. The workers walked from Jarrow to London where she presented a petition to parliament calling for government action, only to be ignored by the PM.
In the coalition government formed in 1940, Wilkinson was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Pensions. Later she would join Herbert Morrison at the Home Office and was made responsible for the air raid shelters. She was instrumental in the introduction of the Morrison Shelters in 1941. She sadly died on the 6th February 1947, exactly 31 years to the day, since the advent of the Representation of the People Act.
During the period, women were playing a much greater role within their local communities, and building their local Labour parties as councillors, party officers and election agents. During the Wilson government, Jennie Lee was appointed Arts Minister and was responsible for what Harold Wilson later called the greatest achievement of his Labour Government, in setting up the Open University. It took a while, but by 1970 Labour oversaw the historic introduction of an Equal Pay Act – largely due to the work of the fourth ever woman Cabinet Minister Barbara Castle.
Barbara Castle, Labour’s ‘Red Queen’, rose from humble origins to become a key figure in the party history, a champion of women’s rights and the architect of the 1974 Equal Pay Act. Barbara Betts was born in Bradford in 1910 to a family involved within the politics of the Independent Labour Party. As a result, she became involved with the party at an early age. She went on to become the head girl of her school, and gained a place at Oxford University.
By 1943 she had made her first speech at party conference in which she attacked the leadership of the party, for not campaigning hard enough to force Churchill to implement the findings of the Beveridge Report. During this time, Castle worked as a housing journalist for the Daily Mirror where she would meet Michael Foot – another young and ambitious left wing writer.
In 1945 she was elected to the commons as one of 24 female MPs, and was shocked when she discovered the size of her income. The salary for an MP was £600 – (Equivalent of £18,000 today) and immediately experienced the sexism she would forever battle in the commons. On her first day as an MP, she walked to the entrance gates with her new colleague Michael Foot, were they were stopped by security, and Foot was told he could not bring in any guests. Foot then introduced her as the new member for Blackburn, to the astonishment of the security guard.
Soon afterwards Stafford Cripps, the Minister of Trade, appointed Castle as one of his key aides. Over the next few years she was associated with the left-wing of the party, a key Bevanite and after the death of Bevan in 1960, Castle and Wilson became the leaders of the left movement within the party.
Castle was Chairperson of the Labour Party (1958-59) and would do much to encourage other women into work and into politics. She wanted to prove to the male-dominated Labour Party that women could hold the big offices of state. She became only the fourth woman to become a Cabinet Minister, in October 1964 as Minister for Overseas Development. She later became Minister for Transport (1965–68); Secretary of State for Employment & First Secretary of State (1968–70); and Secretary of State for Social Services (1974–76).
In 1968 Castle became Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity and attempted to introduce the government’s controversial prices and incomes policy. This would prove to be a costly move for her career. The publication of the white paper, In Place of Strife, alienated her from the trade union movement and the left-wing of the party, which resulted in a deep split. Pundits believe Wilson gave her this unenviable task in order to hamper her growing leadership credentials.
By 1974, at the end of the Wilson government, she threatened to bring it down unless an ‘Equal Pay Act’ was passed. I’ve written about this episode in further detail here ‘Of course I am opposed to equal pay’ – How Barbara Castle bounced the Labour Party into Equal Pay. Castle looked to other women within the party to support her quest. In the 1960s Jennie Lee refused to support her in the Equal Pay battle. When Castle wrote to her asking why she wouldn’t support equal pay for teachers, Jennie replied, ‘How can we afford money for women teachers when miners are so badly paid?’
She remained a popular figure within the party until her death, and at the 1999 conference she criticised the party over the measly 75p rise in pensions – to much applause. During the 1970s, Castle was followed into Cabinet by other leading Labour women Judith Hart, and then Shirley Williams.
The daughter of the socialist writer Vera Brittain, Shirley Williams inherited her parent’s political views from an early age. By the time she reached Oxford in 1951, her tutors had touted her to be Britain’s first female Prime Minister.
According to fellow student, and veteran political interviewer Robin Day she was the most “celebrated female undergraduate of her time”. Following on from Oxford, she worked a journalist with the Daily Mirror and Financial Times before becoming General Secretary of the Fabian Society. She was elected as Labour MP for Hitchin in 1964, but before that she had already stood three times unsuccessfully in Harwich and Southampton.
After Williams entered parliament, she quickly rose through the ministerial ranks with junior ministerial appointments in the first Wilson government at the Ministries of Labour, Education, Science and the Home Office. When Labour returned to power in 1974, she joined the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Consumer Protection. Despite praise from the papers as “the shoppers’ champion”, inflation in Britain reached astronomical levels.
When she became Education Secretary in 1976 she continued the extension of the comprehensive school system and abolished many of the grammar schools . She became a media “darling” and many pundits expected her to become Britain’s first female prime minister. In 1967, The Sunday Times said, “There are shrewd judges who believe that she has a prime minister’s baton in her briefcase”. Williams was The Sun Woman of the Year in 1974 and they claimed she was “most likely” person to become the UK’s first female PM.
However, she lost her seat in 1979 following a redrawing of her constituency boundary. Williams remained a member of the Labour NEC and created many enemies in a fight with the militant left tendency. To the dismay of the moderates, she looked at other potential careers and within months of her seat loss, she began teaching politics at Harvard and hosted her own TV show.
As the split within the party grew, she defected with Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers to form the SDP in 1981. Europe had been the biggest issue, and Labour’s commitment to withdraw from the EEC had been the final straw. Winning a spectacular by-election in Crosby later that year, she then lost it in the 1983 general election, as the SDP failed in their historic breakthrough.
She became a leading figure in the Liberal Democrats, and can now be classed as a national treasure. In her final speech to the Lords, she urged for politicians to protect and preserve the “special genius” of the “great public sector imagination” and to defend the BBC, the NHS and the Open University.
By the 1980s, special interest women’s groups and women led campaigns were taking on the established order, with campaigns to tackle domestic violence and sexual harassment becoming prominent within the party. At the forefront of it all was a young Harriet Harman, who whilst pregnant, won a by-election in Peckham. She would go on to become a historic labour figure and in 2016 she overtook Gwyneth Dunwoody as the female MP with longest continuous service in the commons.
As a campaigner to increase the number of women in parliament, Harman made herself a target for the right wing tabloid press. Dragging the Labour Party with her on feminist issues, she introduced a National Childcare Strategy, the Equality Act and changed the law on domestic violence.
When Harman won the 1982 Peckham by-election, she became only the 10th female Labour MP. The Commons was 97% male, and she faced many battles with both the Tory and Labour establishment to change the sexist culture within Westminster. Unlike her female predecessors, the sight of a young, pregnant, feminist MP caused great controversy.
Her book A Woman’s Work is essential reading to understand the sexist culture that still shapes Westminster. Political memoirs can often be score settling, one sided affairs, with little true insight into the day to day experience of life as an MP. A Woman’s Work is very different. It’s reads as a social history of Labour feminism since the 1970s and how change has occurred gradually, told through the eyes of a working mother. She writes about the time her university tutor took asked her to sleep with him to get a 2:1.
Once elected, Harman didn’t find any refuge within the party. In A Woman’s Work, she recounts how Robin Cook let her off a sacking after she missed a key health debate. After telling him “I was not available.” Cook let her off with “conspiratorial glee”, assuming she was having an affair – just as he was. Outside, Harman was subject to sexist abuse from the media, the Tories and even her fellow Labour MPs. In 1996 she was called a Stupid Cow by a Tory MP when she spoke in the Commons.
In 1997, when Tony Blair appointed her to her first Cabinet job, as Secretary of State for Social Security, he quickly replaced her with her deputy Frank Field. Ten years later, despite being elected as deputy leader, Brown had refused to make Harman Deputy Prime Minister. It would only be after her retirement from frontline politics that she finally gained the respect of some on the right as the Daily Telegraph ran a leader with the headline: “Hats off to Harriet Harman – like or loathe her – she’s tough as old boots.”
It was during the 1980s that Harman and others on the left stuck out their neck to fight for equality. The 1987 election marked a decisive moment for the party, when to the dismay of many, just 21 women were elected. Barbara Follett and others established the Labour Women’s Network as an organisation dedicated to improving women’s representation. Amongst the 21 elected that year was Diane Abbott, who became one of just four ethnic-minority MPs in the House.
Diane Abbott made history by becoming the first black woman ever elected to the British parliament and could eventually break new ground as the first black holder of a ‘Great Office of State’ in Britain.
Elected to Westminster City Council in 1982 as one of the first black female councillors, she quickly made a name for herself on the London left. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng, Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott. Her maiden speech spoke of the inequities with Britain’s immigration policy.
Abbott faced abuse straight from the off. On the day she became the first black woman to be selected for a safe Labour seat, The Times attacked her loony “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness’. Abbott had rose to prominence on the ‘loony left’ after working to institute racially segregated groups i.e. black sections – within the party as they did for women. After the 1987 election, The Times described her as ‘one of the new black extremists, far to the left…and a danger to democracy,’
Establishing her reputation as left-winger, she became troublesome to the New Labour leadership on the backbenches with Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn. Abbott was said to be ‘unwhipable’ – voting against Tony Blair repeatedly on issues such as tuition fees, civil liberties and the Iraq war. This has given her great popular appeal with the rank and file of the current membership.
As a black female liberal, Abbott has been open to more abuse than any MP in history. Yet in 2010 she made more history, becoming the first black person to contest the Labour leadership – exceeding the expectations placed on her in the press. Nevertheless, Abbott remains the most vulnerable politician to media attacks, and during the 2017 election, half the abuse directed at women MPs on Twitter, according to Amnesty International, went to her. Just last month, Star Sports Bookmakers, was accused of racism for posting a picture of a man ‘blacked up’ mocking Abbott on their social media page.
Like Harman, Abbott was schooled in the London Labour politics of the 1980s, with Corbyn and McDonnell. After the heavy lifting was done on gender equality, they were joined by a record number of female MPs after the 1997 election. The real progress began in 1993, with the introduction of all women shortlists by John Smith, much to the dismay of many within the trade union movement.
New ground had already been broken in 1992 when Betty Boothroyd became the first female leader of the Commons and in 1997 101 women were elected to parliament. Mo Mowlam played a key role in the historic NI peace talks and quickly became a national treasure. In 2006, Margaret Beckett became the first female Foreign Secretary and is the longest serving female MP in the history of the House of Commons. She was an MP for Lincoln from 10 October 1974 until 7 April 1979, and has served as MP for Derby South since 9 June 1983 and was re-elected on 8 June 2017.
Yet the first permanent female leader remains elusive. Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman both led the party in the wake of leadership elections with differing measures of success. For many, Harman’s decision to instruct the shadow cabinet to abstain on the welfare bill in 2015 gave huge credence to the Corbyn campaign for leadership. It ensured that any ‘soft’ left votes would move form Burnham to Corbyn, and marked a decisive moment in the party’s history.
In 2015, Burnham was accused of sexism after saying that Labour should have a woman leader “when the time is right.” The prominence of female MPs within the party means the time is now right. The bookmakers have Emily Thornberry, Angela Rayner, Lisa Nandy, Yvette Cooper, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Laura Piddock amongst the front runners to replace Corbyn eventually. One hundred years on from allowing women to participate in the voting process, Labour could be on the verge of electing a female leader. If they do, the winner will take heart from the battles their foresisters fought and take inspiration for the fierce battles that will lie ahead.