Welcome to SheBlogs. This website is an online resource for those interested in learning more about prominent women in the history of the UK Labour Party. The biographical pieces on SheBlogs were written by Kathryn Perera (formerly Kathryn White), a Labour Party activist and Community Organiser based in Brixton, south London.
This article originally appeared on the left-wing political blog Labourlist, under the title: “Get on and do it”.
It’s tricky to write a portrait of Mo Mowlam (1949-2005) in a few hundred words, when so many millions of people feel they knew her personally. Indeed, it is this quality which lingers after wordy tributes and lists of achievements have faded. Like Ellen Wilkinson, on whom Mo lavished praise in her own maiden speech, Mo Mowlam was simply one of us – ‘our Mo’.
Born to a Post Office worker and a telephonist (Frank and Tina), Mo would later describe the most marked aspects of her childhood as her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s stable love. Despite a sometimes difficult home life, Mo excelled academically and graduated from Durham University as an outstanding student. Photos of the young Mo show her to have been spectacularly beautiful, with long blonde waves and mischievous blue eyes. University friends would later recall her string of male friends, one of whom led her to move to the United States where she undertook postgraduate studies. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1979 that Mo returned to the UK, now Dr Mowlam, and apparently set on pursuing a political career. read more…Mo Mowlam
In her wonderful biography of Jennie Lee, Patricia Hollis recounts an anecdote that neatly captures the character of Dr Edith Summerskill (1901-1980), one of Labour’s longest-serving female MPs. The young journalist Melanie Phillips went to Edith’s home to try and secure an interview for a book she had been asked to write. She was invited in because Edith thought she was someone else, which she was not: read more…Edith Summerskill
This article was originally published on the website Labourlist under the title: “For what we have done and for what we have failed to do”.
Barbara Ayrton Gould (1886-1950) may seem an unusual choice of Labour woman to profile. I’ve chosen her for two reasons. First, her early life was full of drama and spanned the most important political movements of her day. Second, Barbara’s repeated attempts to secure a parliamentary seat neatly demonstrate the barriers women faced for generations within the early Labour movement.
Barbara came from an unusual family. Both her parents (William and Phoebe, who was known as Hertha) were physicists and Hertha was a committed advocate for women’s rights. Barbara excelled academically and won a place at University College, London. Initially she studied hard, but by her second year her growing commitment to the women’s suffrage movement was occupying most of her time. read more…Barbara Ayrton Gould
This article was originally published on the left-wing blog Labourlist, under the title: “The monocled maverick”.
In the Poplar area of London, a school now sits on land which was scarred by several large bombs during the Second World War. It was the first building to be reconstructed as part of the ‘Live Architecture’ exhibition of the Festival of Britain shortly after the war ended. Its elegant design was much admired in its time – ‘something new for the East End’ – and its listed walls and beautifully crafted tiles seem as fresh today as when they were first laid. It is a fitting tribute to the woman whose name it bears, a ‘zealot in the cause of education’ and one of the leading lights of the early Labour movement, Susan Lawrence.
Susan Lawrence was an extraordinary woman. Exceptionally tall, thin, aristocratic in bearing, with close-cropped hair and a large monocle, her striking appearance was matched by a cut-glass accent. This persona reflected the privileges of her upbringing in a wealthy, deeply Conservative household. Yet by 1913 she had undergone a seismic political shift, being converted to the Labour cause by the great Mary MacArthur and serving as one of the Labour Party’s first female councillors. read more…Susan Lawrence
This article originally appeared on the left-wing political blog Labourlist under the title: “The unstoppable power of organisation”.
In the history of the Labour movement, there are shining stars and hard grafters. Mary MacArthur (1880-1921) was both. By the time of her premature death, she had organised more than 300,000 women into the trade union movement; stood as a Labour candidate for parliament; produced groundbreaking reports that forced the government to implement welfare measures; and inspired the most important generation of female politicians in the Labour movement’s history. The scope of her achievements supports Margaret Bondfield’s impression, on meeting Mary for the first time, that she was a person of genius. read more…Mary MacArthur
This article originally appeared on the left-wing political blog Labourlist under the title: “First among equals”.
It’s a tough gig to summarise the contribution of Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) to the Labour movement in a few words. A list of her accomplishments – some achieved alone, most achieved in partnership with her husband, Sidney – are formidable: the foundation of the London School of Economics, the intellectual relaunching of the Labour Party, the shaping of the Fabian Society, the creation of the New Statesman and the composition of a ‘blueprint’ for the National Health Service. At most, a short summary captures only the spirit of an extraordinary woman who was given the space and encouragement to flourish despite her Victorian birth. read more…Beatrice Webb
This article was originally published on the left-wing blog Labourlist under the title: “The Labour Party or nothing”.
In the mythology of the Labour Party, Nye Bevan is often quoted as having exhorted those at risk of losing the faith: ‘I tell you, it is the Labour Party or nothing.’ But those words were not a general battle cry from Nye, at least not initially. Rather, they were an impassioned personal plea to his most uncompromising Labour Party colleague – and the woman who became the love of his life – Jennie Lee.
Born into an upper working-class Fife mining family with deep roots in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), Jennie was a natural dissenter. At one step removed from the Labour Party hierarchy for much of her career, she gained fame early as a vibrant figure on the far-left long before Nye had a national profile. The secret to her early success lay in her family background: the Labour Party in Fife was the ILP, and it had been founded locally by her grandfather. read more…Jennie Lee
This article originally appeared on the left-wing blog Labourlist, under the title ”Forging a new path”.
ELLEN WILKINSON: FORGING A NEW PATH
So began Ellen Wilkinson’s great polemic The Town That Was Murdered (1939), a scorching attack on the coalition government’s desertion of the industrial North to poverty and unemployment during the depths of the depression. Writing as the MP for Jarrow, one of the worst affected areas, Ellen’s account was pierced through with bristling anger and witty asides. Yet the message at the heart of the book was a serious one. Jarrow’s plight was not a local problem: to Ellen, it was the symptom of a national evil. Ellen viewed the demise of shipbuilding at Jarrow, the mass unemployment that followed and the lack of government action as shameful examples of the wastefulness of capitalism. She made it her life’s work never to look away from the poverty it caused; never to flinch; never to pretend that it didn’t exist. She was, in the words of one admiring journalist:
“a politician… a very clever woman politician indeed, but she had feelings and Jarrow…Jarrow really hurt her.” read more…Ellen Wilkinson
London Councils, the organisation which runs a range of pan-London services, has been urged to put equality at the heart of its agenda as budgetary cuts bring numerous services under scrutiny. The following extract from Eaves’ Women’s Weekly News Bulletin sets out their position:
If London Councils wants to show that it’s committed to promoting equality, it has to ensure its decisions around the proposed funding cuts do not disproportionately affect women and children. It should carefully consider any effects the proposed 80% cuts and the so-called ‘repatriation’ will have on vulnerable groups such as women and children victims of violence. read more…
Socialist politician and leading figure in the early Labour movement.
Katharine was born on 25 September 1867 in Stoke Newington, London, the second of seven children. Her parents, who held radical and progressive political views, ensured that she received an education equal in quality to that of her brothers. When Katharine was young, the family moved to Walthamstow, East London, where she attended Hackney High School for Girls following years of home tuition.
In 1886, she attended Cambridge University with the help of a clothworkers’ scholarship in classics. She did well but, in common with all women of the time, she was not awarded an official degree. After university, Katharine went to Bristol to teach at Redland high school. While senior classics mistress there, she became a socialist after witnessing a demonstration staged by striking female cottonworkers. Shortly after that, she joined her local branch of the Fabian Society and became active in left-wing politics. Her strong oratory skills led her to be placed on speaker platforms on the Society’s behalf, and Katharine was soon accepting national speaker engagements.
In the early 1890s, Katharine was one of six appointed to an arrangements committee to organize a conference to found a national Independent Labour Party (ILP). This was to be a seminal moment in the history of the Labour movement. Thereafter, she continued making lengthy speaking tours even after her marriage on 21 June 1893 to John Bruce Glasier, and launched campaigns on issues as diverse as nursery schools, pithead baths and poor-law reform. All these campaigns were linked by her strong socialist values.
Katharine continued her active involvement in the Labour movement throughout her life. She grew into a strong proponent of a united movement, and viewed the Labour Party as the best means of achieving this politically. When the Independent Labour Party (‘ILP’) disaffiliated from the Labour Party, she left that organisation despite her long and close association with it.
During her life, Katharine had three children, the younger of whom died during her lifetime. Like her husband, she aspired to be a poet and published novels and short stories as well as her own political works. Katharine died in 1950, and her home in West Riding was preserved in memory of the unique contribution she had made to the development of the Labour movement (the home now operates as a youth hostel).Katharine Bruce Glasier
She was born Barbara Betts in 1910, the youngest of the three children of Frank (a tax inspector) and Annie (a milliner). The family moved continuously during her childhood as required by her father’s job, and it wasn’t until 1931 that the family settled down, in Hyde (nr. Greater Manchester).
Most of Barbara’s secondary level education took place in Bradford, at the girls’ grammar school. Bradford was important to Barbara’s political development, as a major hot-bed of Labour activity within a large industrial setting. Important, too, was the influence of her father, who held overtly socialist views although his public sector job prevented him from becoming politically active.
Barbara did well at school and subsequently took up a place at Oxford University. In her own memoirs, Barbara records these as years of frustration. She lost any will to focus on her academic studies and was depressed by the limitations on women’s political activity within the university. She left with a third-class degree, returning home with little clue of what to do next. It was at this time that Barbara through herself into local Labour Party activities, even taking on speaking engagements on behalf of the local party. This got her noticed and helped to develop her contacts within the Labour Party. It led to her meeting William Mellor, a prominent newspaper editor, who was to become perhaps the strongest influence in her life for years to come. He nurtured her politically, giving Barbara her first break in political journalism. He was crucial to her early political development, assisting in her campaign to secure a council seat, which she did in 1937 at St Pancras, London. The two also became lovers, and it is thought that Barbara entreated Mellor to leave his wife and family on a number of occasions. Such plans ended with his unexpected death, in 1942.
At about that time, Barbara met the assistant editor of the Daily Mirror, Ted Castle. Their relationship developed swiftly and they married in 1944. The coverage that Barbara received in the Daily Mirror has been credited with giving her political career the extra prominence it needed in time for her to secure the selection as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Blackburn. She took the seat in the Labour landslide of 1945, one of only 21 Labour women to win at that election.
At 34 years old, Barbara Castle became the youngest female MP in the House of Commons. She held the seat of Blackburn for the next 34 years.
Barbara’s early years are best remembered for her growing support of Nye Bevan, the fiery left-wing Welsh politician and husband of Jennie Lee. Bevan and Harold Wilson spectacularly resigned from the Labour cabinet in April 1951, in protest against what they saw as the crippling burden of the rearmament programme. Castle was an early and vociferous supporter of Bevan’s stance. This allegiance cost her dearly in the 1950s and 1960s, when Hugh Gaitskell emerged as the Labour Party’s leader among political infighting and overlooked Bevanites such as Barbara in selecting his front-bench team. She was therefore forced to forge her own political path, taking up a range of causes outside Parliament.
Barbara also took on internal roles within the Party. In 1959, she sat as the party chairman, presiding over Labour’s inquest into another successive election defeat. Due to her constant campaigning and the keen publicity she attracted, by the 1960s Barbara had become a national figure in her own right. She was to play an ongoing and important role in the battle for Labour’s leadership between Harold Wilson and Hugh Gaitskell that flared up in the wake of Nye Bevan’s death. Barbara’s erstwhile appointment by Bevan to Labour’s front bench was short-lived as, being a key supporter of Wilson, she felt compelled to resign her position. Subsequent attempts to seek election to the shadow Cabinet failed, underlining Barbara’s declining standing among her colleagues.
Yet her fortunes turned. Wilson succeeded Gaitskell and with him came a glimmer of hope for Barbara. Once Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964, her position was assured. Barbara found herself in the Cabinet proper, in the newly-created post of minister for overseas development. She was to prove an able minister, yet her frustration grew in due course when she missed out on the appointment she craved (as Foreign Secretary), settling for secretary of state for employment and productivity instead.
In that post, Barbara was to develop the most controversial policies of her career, which she published in the document In Place of Strife. A radical proposal for trade union reform, the document caused widespread unrest among the Labour movement on its publication. When the Cabinet refused to back it (under pressure from the TUC as well as backbenchers), Barbara was humiliated. Labour’s General Election defeat of 1970 followed soon after. While Barbara kept her seat (until 1979), the humiliation of her forced climb-down on trade union reform effectively ended her political career. Although she later took the post of secretary of state for health and social security in the last Wilson cabinet, when Callaghan sacked her in April 1976 there was little outcry. Her standing within the Labour movement had been fatally undermined.
In later life, Barbara would serve as one of the first ever directly elected MEPs, though the post does not seem to have given her much pleasure. But after the death of her husband, the regular trips to Europe gave her useful work to occupy her mind. In her last years, she began to assume iconic status among the more nostalgic wings of the Party. She continued to campaign of issues close to her heart, in particular on pension reform. She died at home in 2002.SheBlogs Barbara Castle early Labour women
Militant sufragette and campaigner who fought for decades to secure a parliamentary seat.
Barbara Gould (Barbara Ayrton) was born into a prominent science family in 1886. Her father was a prominent engineer and physicist. Most unusually her mother, Hertha Marks Ayrton, was a professional physicist in her own right and an extraordinary woman. Hertha was strongly committed to women’s rights and raised her daughter in the same tradition.
Barbara was well educated and attended University College, London. However, her academic career was ended on the death of her father in 1908, and Barbara’s path in life changed. Having joined the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1906, Barbara became a WSPU organiser working under the Pankhursts. She was a leading activist in the window-breaking campaigns which caused such controversy and brought the WSPU national prominence. Unrepentant about her activities, Barbara spent time in Holloway Prison before eventually fleeing abroad in disguise to avoid a further prison sentence. Barbara was supported in her suffrage activities by her husband, Gerald, who was himself a committed supporter of the women’s vote.
As is well-known, the Pankhursts were an explosive political force and divided opinion both within and beyond the suffrage movement. During the 1910s Barbara became increasingly disillusioned with the WSPU and started to search for alternative outlets for her political activism. From about 1918 she became actively involved in the Labour Party and an early supporter of attempts to develop women’s bodies and committees within the Party.
Barbara’s rise within the Labour Party was steady rather than swift. Her first prominent national role came in 1936, when she was appointed to work with Hugh Dalton to produce a report on the ‘Distressed Areas’, those parts of Britain worst affected by endemic unemployment and the widespread poverty of the Depression Years. Once the report was published, Barbara rose to become vice-chair and then chair of the Labour Party from 1938-40.
Like many long-serving female activists, Barbara was first elected to Parliament in the 1945 Labour landslide, as MP for Hendon North. She was then nearly 60 years old. Barbara had stood as a parliamentary candidate for Labour in numerous seats previously, but the tendency to select women in marginal/‘unwinnable’ seats and the low ebb of Labour in the 1930s had kept her out of office. She served in Parliament only until 1950, when she was hampered in her campaigning by ill health. She was narrowly defeated at that election, and decided that she would not stand again.
In 1950 she was appointed to the Arts Council and she served as vice-chair of the British Council before her retirement from public life.SheBlogs Barbara Gould early Labour women
Trade union activist who shone during the General Strike.
Jennie Adamson (Jennie Johnston) was born in 1882 into the family of a railway porter, Thomas Johnston, who died when Jennie was six. Jennie was one of six children in the family. As a result Jennie’s mother, Elizabeth, became a dress-maker in order to support her family and Jennie was raised on a very modest income.
Later in her life, Jennie was to talk about how formative her upbringing had been. She never forgot the difficulties her mother went through to raise a young family of six alone, with little or no state assistance. Because of her family situation, Jennie’s education was cut short and she took up dress-making like her mother to help support the family. At the age of twenty she married William Adamson, a trade union activist and pattern-maker, and went on to have four children.
Jennie’s political activism appears to have been heavily influenced by her husband’s trade union activities. She joined the Labour Party in 1908 when it was still in its infancy, and subsequently became an active trade union member. William’s own trade union activities grew increasingly demanding, requiring the family to move around the country. In the 1910s they moved in quick succession from Scotland to Manchester to Belfast, and then eventually to Lincoln. Jennie was politically active at each step of the way.
Jennie’s political activism and development were closely linked to the career of her husband. In 1923 William was elected as the MP for Cannock Chase (a seat later held by the great Jennie Lee), and the family moved once again, this time to London.
In London, Jennie’s political career really took off. The General Strike of 1926 gave her the chance to flex her campaigning muscles, and her dedicated work on behalf of the strikers led to her election onto the Labour Party’s executive committee the following year. In this capacity, Jennie joined numerous committees within the Party and took a particular interest in women’s involvement in industry. She served for three years (1928 to 1931) on the London County Council (LCC), making important political contacts which gave her the prominence to try for a Parliamentary career. However, like many women activists of the time she had a long wait before being selected for a winnable seat. In 1938 Jennie finally made it to Parliament, by means of a by-election at Dartford. This victory was won off the back of her strong opposition to the policy of appeasement being propounded by Neville Chamberlain at that time.
Over the years, Jennie had taken an active interest in feminist campaigns without ever establishing herself as a ‘feminist / suffragist’ to the extent of contemporaries such as Ellen Wilkinson. She did support a number of feminist initiatives during her time in Parliament, for example the campaign for family allowances to be paid to the mother. But she did so quietly, without putting herself in the line of vicious criticism faced by so many women who spoke up for women’s rights.
Jennie stood and won in the 1945 Labour landslide, but her heart was no longer in her parliamentary career. The war-years had been extremely difficult for her. Her youngest son had died on active service with the RAF; her beloved husband died shortly after the war’s end. In 1946, Jennie applied for the “Chiltern Hundreds”, an official office which allows a Member of Parliament to resign her seat with minimal fuss. The “Chiltern Hundreds” procedure still exists today and can be used as a procedural device to effect resignation from the House of Commons. It was devised originally to allow MPs to stand down quietly when they had been elected to serve against their will. In Jennie’s case, the procedure was used as a means of giving her the space for bereavement that she needed after her personal losses.
Having left Parliament, Jennie lived a far less active political life. She became deputy chairman of the National Assistance Board for a short time, before retiring from public life. She died in 1962.SheBlogs Jennie Adamson labour women in history
Susan Lawrence was born in London in 1871, into a prosperous legal family. Her father was a prominent solicitor and her mother the daughter of a judge. Having been educated at home, Susan entered Newnham College, Cambridge in 1895, one of the very few women to receive an undergraduate education. Susan excelled in her studies but left Cambridge early, on the death of her father.
As an undergraduate Susan was a committed Conservative and was active in many Conservative-related associations. She followed Conservative politics during much of her youth, leading to her election to the London county council (LCC) as a Municipal Reform (Conservative) councillor for the affluent area of West Marylebone.
Her political conversion, when it came, was swift and dramatic. In 1912 she announced her resignation from the LCC. Amongst other matters, it is thought that Susan had grown disillusioned with the lack of poor-law reform, and she felt that Conservative politics did not reflect her positions on important issues of the day. It seems that this change was largely unexpected by her colleagues and was controversial. Susan joined the Fabian Society, the relatively new ‘gradualist’ centre-left organisation, which was in the process of publishing pioneering work on welfare reform and the role of the state. During her time with the Fabians, Susan became close friends with Beatrice Webb.
Susan had not lost interest in the LCC, and returned as a Labour councillor in 1913. This time she represented Poplar, a very different area where poverty was rife and the nascent Labour movement was working hard to establish a strong presence. At this time, Sarah also became involved in trade unionism, focusing on the working conditions of women from poor backgrounds. She focused her Council work in this direction, building up an impressive portfolio of work relating to women’s employment.
As one of the most prominent female politicians of the early decades of the Labour Party, Susan rose quickly through the ranks. In 1918 she was elected to the new women’s section of Labour’s National Executive Committee, cementing her position as a leading politician of the left.
Perhaps the defining moment of her political career came between 1919-1921, when she was jailed along with a number of other Labour politicians for withholding payments Poplar was required to make to the LCC and other official bodies. She took this stance as a protest at Poplar (a massively deprived borough) being required to fund its own unemployment support despite having a disproportionately high unemployment rate. She spent a month in Holloway Prison for her troubles.
Having established herself as a presence in local government, Susan focused on gaining a Parliamentary seat. She stood unsuccessfully before being elected as the Member for East Ham North, in 1923, becoming one of the first ever female Labour MPs. Her time in Parliament was brief, however. The period saw a number of General Elections called in quick succession, and Susan lost the seat again in 1924, before regaining it in a by-election in 1926. Like many women of the time, her seat was a marginal and required constant campaigning to retain it. Her strength as a campaigner was formidable and she was viewed as a role model by other young female politicians of the time, such as Ellen Wilkinson (the Rt. Hon. Ellen Wilkinson MP as she became).
Having secure her position in the late 1920s, Susan rose to ministerial posts and in 1930 she became the first woman to chair the Labour Party Conference. This was a time of great uncertainty for the Labour Government, and Susan was unequivocal in her contempt for Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government. Despite continuing to voice a strong position for the left, she lost her seat in the October 1931 General Election. Labour’s parliamentary presence was decimated at that election and, like many others, for Susan it was the end of her parliamentary career. Although she attempted to re-entering Parliament over the next few years, she was unsuccessful and slowly declined in influence within the Labour Movement over the next ten years.
From a historical perspective, Susan exemplifies the upper-middle class recruit which formed a significant aspect of Labour’s leadership in the 1920s and 1930s. She provided a strong role model for younger female MPs, such as Ellen and Jennie Lee, and was remembered by them as someone keen to promote women colleagues and help develop their careers.SheBlogs Susan Lawrence and the early Labour movement
Caroline Selina Ganley was born in Plymouth in 1879 into a working-class family. She became active in politics at a young age, her enthusiasm having been sparked by her opposition to the Boer War. Caroline did not join the nascent Labour movement (the Labour Party, or ‘Labour Representation Committee’, was only formed in 1900) but instead became active in pacifist and suffrage campaigns, campaigning against the endemic poverty she saw in her hometown and arguing in favour of women’s right to take an active part in public life. She also developed an interest in Marxist thought and, in 1906, joined the Social Democratic Federation, a Marxist political group with recruited widely, including from the trade union movement.
Caroline rarely took the easy route. When war was declared in 1914, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (the UK’s main suffrage body) announced that campaigns for suffrage would be suspended whilst women supported the war effort. Caroline, a committed pacifist, rejected this stance and became involved with the British Committee of the International Congress for Peace and Freedom, a group of anti-war suffragists. This position was extremely controversial as pacifism was viewed as anti-patriotic. Caroline and other anti-war suggragists were savagely criticised for their stance.
Following the War, Caroline’s political position moved towards reform, and she joined both the Labour Party and Co-operative Party shortly after. Her rise within both was swift. By November 1919, Caroline had won a seat on Battersea Borough Council where she served until 1925. As a councillor, her key interests were housing and maternal care, and she extended her feminist work into her policy agenda.
Having worked successfully as a councillor for a number of years, Caroline set her sight on a seat in the House of Commons. The 1930s were difficult years for the Labour Party, and it wasn’t until the 1945 Labour landslide that Caroline succeeded in securing a seat. She was elected to Battersea South and served there until her defeat in 1951 (when many marginal Labour seats fell to the Conservatives). During her time in Parliament, Caroline was one of the strongest supporters of creating a national healthcare system, and fought to see through the reforms through that led to the creation of the NHS.
Ganley was appointed CBE in 1953, and in the same year was re-elected to Battersea Borough Council where she continued to serve until 1965.Caroline Ganley
Bessie Braddock (Bessie Bamber) was born in Liverpool in 1899. Her mother, Mary Bamber, was a left-wing political activist committed to social reform and Bessie followed in her mother’s footsteps. After becoming disillusioned with the Communist Party, she joined the Labour Party in 1926. Her husband John ‘Jack’ Braddock was also a member and later became leader of Liverpool City Council. Bessie herself became a councillor for the St Anne’s Ward in 1930, once famously taking a two foot megaphone into the council chamber to force action over Liverpool’s slums.
In 1956, whilst serving as an MP for Liverpool Exchange, Bessie was concerned about the use of air-rifles amongst youths in her constituency. This prompted her, on 3 July 1956, to take three air-rifles, which she had seized from juveniles in Liverpool, into the House of Commons. After firing the unloaded rifles into the air, she crossed the floor of the House and handed them to the Home Secretary. The deputy Chairman expressed his displeasure at her behaviour, to which she replied:
“but you see I have to startle this House before anyone does anything about anything. No one takes any notice about anything unless someone does something out of order or unusual.”
It was this idea of startling the establishment, and raising the profile of unpopular issues that shaped Bessie’s political tactics. She was willing to support sensitive and overlooked campaigns, and did not care what people thought. Repeatedly throughout her career, she showed this by highlighting the over-crowding and sub-standard care of mental health patients.
Yet despite her flamboyant tactics, at heart Bessie was modest and very down-to-earth, traits which endeared her to her working-class constituents. She holidayed in Scarborough every year, dressed unostentatiously, never wore make-up and never drank nor smoked. Bessie also developed a deep respect for the democratic process and the House of Commons. When her critics insinuated that she behaved disrespectfully in the House, and even made ambiguous suggestions about her morality, she was deeply offended.
The Irish jig case of 1948 was an example of how her eccentricities and refusal to conform were used as weapons by her critics. In 1947, during a debate on the Transport Bill, Tory MPs walked out of the House of Commons in protest. Bessie was among several Labour MPs who crossed the floor and sat on the Opposition side in order to prevent the Labour Minister of Transport addressing empty benches. An article in the Bolton Evening News accused Bessie Braddock of “dancing a jig” as she crossed the floor. The ‘Revelry at Night’ article said: “The whole performance was nauseating, a sorry degradation of democratic government by discussion, the nadir, let us fervently hope, of this parliament.”
The article also referred to the incident as an ‘unlovely burlesque’, a word which carried associations of strippers and strip-joints. Bessie denied the accusation and brought a libel case against the newspaper’s publishers. During the trial, Bessie’s eccentric behaviour on Liverpool City Council was used against her. However, she did not deny that she had called one councillor ‘a blasted rat’, or had said ‘I’d like to take a machine gun to the lot of you’ (in reference to Tory councillors). Despite continuing to deny the paper’s allegation, Bessie lost the case and subsequently made an apology to the House of Commons as required.
Though unconventional, Bessie never used radical tactics simply for their own sake. Rather, her actions were aimed at achieving publicity for an issue she felt was ignored. Frequently she fought for causes which were not vote-winners and, therefore, did not easily attract support amongst MPs. Through her campaigns to improve conditions in mental health institutions and prisons, she associated herself with marginal members of the community. However, she did not flinch from campaigning on unpopular issues. Instead, she took the fight head-on.
While Bessie’s radical methods were often discouraged by fellow politicians, many admired and valued her passion and abilities. In 1954, Winston Churchill asked Bessie to sit on the Royal Commission on Mental Heath. This Commission led to the 1959 Mental Health Act. Seven months before her death in 1970, Bessie was made a freeman of the city of Liverpool, a lasting recognition of the work she had done for her home city.
Jan Wilson was born in Sheffield in 1944 and she lived in the city all her life. Jan left school at 16 and worked in the local steel industry from 1960 until 1972. In 1975. She then became a volunteer with the Citizens Advice Bureau, joining in a full time capacity in 1988, and remaining there for the next 14 years.
It was during her time at the CAB that Jan decided to enter public life. She was elected to Sheffield City Council, which had long been held by the Labour Party, in 1992, representing the Manor Castle Ward. Jan soon got ‘stuck in’ to local politics and became a pivotal figure within various council committees. Throughout her time on the council, Jan had special interests in planning and economic regeneration, as well as education. Through hard work and dedication, Jan was chosen by her peers in 1998 to become leader of the Labour group on Sheffield City Council. She was to lead the Labour Party here for years to come.
Whilst leader of the Labour group, Jan became leader of Sheffield City Council from 1998 to 1999 and again from 2002 to 2008. During this time she was a driving force behind the regeneration and transformation of Sheffield city centre, pushing through the Heart of the City programme, which led to the creation of the Peace Gardens, Winter Garden, Millennium Galleries, and a revamped station square.
Jan also helped to rebuild a decaying wider Sheffield, carrying through Labour’s commitment to improve all communities. 40,000 council flats were renovated through the Decent Homes scheme, £674m worth of PFI money was found to repair the roads, local transport infrastructure was modernised and the Building Schools for the Future programme helped to update all secondary Sheffield schools. In seeing through this work, Jan often worked closely with national political figures, always making the case for Sheffield and patiently moving reform forward.
Jan is remembered in Sheffield today for her vision and determination. She was recognised nationally for her achievements in 2006, when she was awarded a CBE, which she accepted in typical understated fashion on behalf of her beloved City.
Edith’s father had also been a doctor, and as a child she had accompanied him on home visits during which he had told her about the connections between poverty and ill-health. These experiences seem to have inspired Edith to combine medicine and politics in her life’s work, campaigning on health issues throughout her career. She trained as a doctor at Charing Cross Hospital, and in later life was one of the founders of the Socialist Health Association which spearheaded the National Health Service at its launch in 1948. The Socialist Health Association had been founded to give medical professionals an official voice within the Labour movement, and to give socialism wider publicity within the medical profession. Edith also ran a medical practice jointly with her husband from 1928 to 1943, keeping hands-on experience of the profession even while committing long hours to the Labour movement.
Some of Edith’s most effective campaigning work was done during the 1930s. As John Stewart summarised in her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry: “As a feminist, Summerskill paid particular attention to women’s social and political issues. In the 1930s she was outspoken in her attacks on the prevailing high rate of maternal mortality and urged that the interests of the expectant mother must always be prioritized by the maternity services. She was especially critical of negligent doctors and inadequate provision, pointing out that a significant proportion of deaths in childbirth resulted from preventable, and hence unnecessary, infections. Unsurprisingly, this was related to broader claims for a publicly funded and administered health care service.”
As MP for Fulham West from 1945, Edith campaigned hard for the Labour Government to introduce an NHS without delay, and she was instrumental in seeing this landmark project through. She served in both Government and shadow Government in the ’40s and ’50s.
In 1961, Edith became one of the first Labour female life peers. She worked hard as an active member of the House of Lords and continued to campaign on equality issues. One of her campaigns was realised when her private member’s bill became the 1964 Married Women’s Property Act. She also supported the reform of the law relating to homosexuality and for the legalisation of abortion and campaigned against nuclear weapons and the American intervention in Vietnam.
In 1967 Edith published her autobiography, A Woman’s World.
Dorothy had a comfortable upbringing, as her father was a coal merchant. She was well-educated and studied at Girton College, Cambridge before becoming a teacher. She is most famous for the study which she wrote, with her brother, into the endemic poverty in Norwich, The Destitute of Norwich.
After leaving Cambridge in 1908, Dorothy in Surrey and then in Norwich. She became very interested in the women’s suffrage movement, which was reaching its peak in the early twentieth century as women campaigned ever more forcefully for the vote. Dorothy joined the WSPU, the militant suffragette group led by the Pankhursts, in 1911. She threw herself into their (sometimes violent) campaigns, arguing that women’s suffrage was a precursor to socialism, rather than the other way round. This belief was in marked contrast to most female Labour activists of the time, many of whom (including Jennie Lee) believed that socialism would bring about the circumstances from which equality between the sexes would arise. Dorothy’s name occurs frequently in reports of activities in Norwich in support of women’s suffrage, and she spoke regularly on suffrage platforms, facing public criticism and abuse.
At the 1923 general election, Dorothy was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Norwich, one of only four women to be elected as Labour MPs at that election. Dorothy’s election was remarkable in a number of respects, not least because of the staunch pacifist stance she had taken during the First World War (a stance that had alienated her from the Pankhursts and which contrasted with the stance of most successful politicians at that time). The break with the Pankhursts may have been a blessing rather than a curse, however, as it led Dorothy to move to London and becoming more involved with Labour Party activities. It brought her into close contact with leading Labour women of the time, including Susan Lawrence and Margaret Bondfield, both of whom were among the first female Labour MPs.
During her time in Parliament Dorothy was a very active MP, speaking mainly on women’s and family matters. However, like many women at that time she had been elected in an ultra-marginal seat and had a real fight to hold onto it. She lost the seat at the 1924 general election, and never returned to Parliament. Instead, Dorothy committed to the Labour movement through local politics. She was a member of Norwich City Council from 1927 to 1936, and although she stood for Parliament several more times in Norwich, she had no success. Dorothy’s chances of re-entering Parliament in another seat were ruined by events in the 1930s. When the Independent Labour Party (‘ILP’) split from the Labour Party in the 1930s, Dorothy sided with the ILP and was sidelined from the Labour movement during the ILP’s long and painful decline.Dorothy Jewson
Dr Dianne Hayter is a long-time Labour Party activist who has worked ‘behind the scenes’ for much of her professional life and has never sought Parliamentary office. Dianne has served as a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee (‘NEC’) since 1998. She was Chair of the Labour Party from 2007 to 2008. Before that Dianne was the general secretary of the Fabian Society and chief executive of the European Parliamentary Labour Party from 1990-1996..
Aside from her work in the NEC and as Chair of the Labour Party, Dianne is a distinguished historian and the author of several important works examining diverse aspects of the Labour Movement. Her most famous work, Fightback!, has been described as “a key document in understanding what happened in the Labour Party between 1980 and the advent of Tony Blair” [The Review, 2005]. Her other prominent work concentrates on the early Labour Party and the Labour Representation Committee (‘LRC’), of which Men Who Made Labour (co-authored with Alan Howarth) is an example.
Dianne’s career began in the trade union movement, firstly with the GMB, then helping set up the European Trade Union Confederation (‘ETUC’) in Brussels, before working to establish the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, known as ‘TUAC’. Her experiences in public life through the years have been unusually diverse, including time as the Chair of the Property Standards Board, of the Actuarial Stakeholder Group of the FRC and of the Consumer Panel of the Bar Council. Dianne also worked as Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern, and the Pelican Cancer Centre, as well as Director of Corporate Affairs at the Wellcome Trust. She was a JP for over a decade.
In May 2010, Dianne was made a party-political life peer. She became Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town.