Hidden history of Labour’s women
Mary Riddell admires two books about the female politicians who have been airbrushed out of the story
The Labour Party was born on a damp Tuesday in February 1900, when a group of like-minded socialists gathered in a London hall to set up a body capable of getting working-class men elected to Parliament. No women officiated at the birth, but a handful watched silently from the public gallery. Six years later, 29 Labour candidates were elected to the House of Commons, and a new political force was primed for power. From its inception, the party reeked of masculinity. Its foundations were dominated by names such as Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, and its history was forged in smoke-filled rooms in which women were absent or voiceless.
On inclusivity, no major political party has ever passed the oestrogen test. In 2015, for example, the Conservative Party had 17 MPs called David among its 331 successful candidates, of whom only 48 were women. But even by such standards, Labour traditionally led the field in institutional misogyny.
Nonetheless, as Nan Sloane shows in
her history of the party’s early years, women had a vital part in shaping Labour and, by extension, modern Britain. As organisers, campaigners and leaders, an unsung female task force shaped the modern welfare state. And yet male dominance and, perhaps, female diffidence ensured that women pioneers were airbrushed from the record by the very Labour movement they helped to found.
Between 1868 to 1918 – the span of Sloane’s book – the issues campaigned on by these women were anything but soft. Children routinely died in infancy, and while the poor suffered disproportionately from disease, malnutrition and pollution, relative affluence offered no guarantees either. Hardie, Labour’s founding father, and his wife, Lillie, lost a two-year-old daughter to scarlet fever. Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette leader, saw one of her sons die at the age of four and the other at 20. Of the campaigners whose record Sloane seeks to excavate, many died before the age of 40.
Ephemeral and largely unchronicled lives are hard to resurrect – an endeavour not helped by the Women’s Labour League’s inexplicable destruction of many of its own records in
1918 when it merged into the Labour Party after some women gained the right to vote. Where the male firebrands of the day remain vibrant characters, Sloane sometimes struggles to flesh out her shadowy supporting cast. As she notes, even Margaret Bondfield, Britain’s first woman cabinet minister, barely gets a footnote in Labour history. Others appear as hardly more than ciphers whose campaigns sometimes seem more worthy than inspiring.
Yet when Sloane can muster sufficient detail to weld the personal to the political, her story is fascinating. Margaret MacDonald, for instance, the wife of Labour’s first prime minister, emerges as a luminous force in the party’s life. A well-heeled statistician, she proposed to her socially uncertain future husband – the illegitimate son of a servant and a farmhand – on the steps of the British Museum and bankrolled the fledgling Labour Party. Chaotic in appearance, she spurned luxury and servants to combine bringing up four children with her own political career.
Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline’s daughter, recalled arriving at a meeting at the MacDonalds’ flat. “We heard a slight cry from the bed and found that the guests had been piling their coats on top of two little Macdonalds (sic) asleep.” Though Margaret died at 41, of sepsis from a cut finger, her legacy was a baby and toddler clinic whose success prompted campaigners to demand that the model be rolled out elsewhere.
Heartening as such stories may be, Sloane is also an unsparing chronicler who never glorifies her campaigners as a seamless sisterhood. Labour was born bickering, and its women antagonists were no exception. The main fault line lay between middle-class evangelists for suffrage and those who thought that votes would not help working-class women unless they first got economic power.
Protests by suffragettes such as Mary Richardson, who entered the National Gallery and slashed the Velásquez painting known as the Rokeby Venus with a meat axe, meant little to an impoverished female workforce labouring in conditions far worse than those endured by male workers.
One visitor to a small chainmaking factory reported babies screaming in wooden boxes as they were showered with sparks from the anvils.
As Sloane notes, men might graduate to big, unionised workshops. Women toiling at sweated labour would work at domestic anvils for life. Nor did getting the vote (a partial franchise was granted in 1918 and equal franchise brought in a decade later) prove the panacea some had hoped for. No woman took her seat in the Commons until Nancy Astor’s election in 1919, and the number of female MPs did not reach double figures for another 10 years. After Margaret MacDonald died, a friend recalled her commitment to putting women in power. “Are we strong enough to justify her faith?” Sloane leaves the question hanging in the air.
By way of answer, Iain Dale and Britain’s first female home secretary, Jacqui Smith, have compiled an anthology of pen portraits of every woman MP elected between 1918 and 1996,
This huge volume, with a foreword by the Prime Minister, offers a sequel to the work of Sloane’s crusaders and a tribute to their legacy.
Among essays on the famous – Barbara Castle, Bessie Braddock and so on – and the many more who have been forgotten, there are ample reminders of the debt owed to Labour’s first women activists by those who followed. The late Dame Tessa Jowell introduced SureStart, a modern successor to Margaret MacDonald’s child clinics, and fought for the NHS. The vision of Jowell haunting A&E departments, counting the number of patients on trolleys, offered an echo of the early activists.
And yet this volume also illustrates how much is left undone. Not until 1987 did the proportion of women MPs rise to above 5 per cent. Although Labour’s subsequent quota policy of all-women shortlists sharply increased that proportion, with 45 per cent of Labour MPs being women in 2017, the UK Parliament ranks 40th in the world for female representation.
Outside Parliament, the #MeToo campaign and wage inequality show that the battle begun by the forgotten women of all parties has not yet been won. At Westminster, Labour has had two acting leaders in Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman, but has so far failed to elect a woman to the post. Isabella Ford, one of the few women who watched from the gallery on the day Labour came into being, wrote that “women have greater cause to cry for vengeance than men have”. More than a century on, with the NHS in crisis and the poison of poverty still present, injustice still prevails.
The Women in the Room (IB Tauris, £20), Labour was born bickering, and its women antagonists were no exception The Honourable Ladies (Biteback, £30). To order either of these books at a discount, call 0844 871 1514
TRAIL BLAZERBarbara Castle at the 1963 Labour Party conference in Scarborough