Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Five trailblazing Labour women

These five women paved the way for today’s generation, and you should know about them – Paula Bartley explains

In 1997, Tony Blair appointed the same number of women to cabinet positions as there had been in the rest of the century. Between 1918 and 1997, only five Labour women held this high office of state: Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Judith Hart and Shirley Williams.

The five who did manage to get to these dizzy heights were remarkable, working in a male-dominated world in all too often sexist and misogynistic environments. They were often the only women in the cabinet.

Margaret Bondfield

Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) was a shop assistant from Chard, Somerset. Appalled by her working conditions, she joined a trade union to fight for workers’ rights; in 1918 she became the first woman to be elected to the general council of the Trades Union Congress and later became the first woman chair. Her union sponsored her as a member of parliament and in 1923 she became one of the first three Labour women to take her seat in parliament. In 1929, when Labour formed its second minority government, the new prime minister Ramsay MacDonald appointed Margaret Bondfield as minister of labour ­– in charge of unemployment benefits – making her the first ever female cabinet minister. Unfortunately for Bondfield, she had to cope with the aftermath of the Wall street crash which precipitated a world depression. The British economy collapsed and there were demands for cuts in unemployment pay and in the pay of government employees. The labour cabinet, knowing that cuts would affect the poorest in Britain, refused to implement them.

Margaret Bondfield, along with the majority of the Cabinet, resigned.

Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) was born in Manchester to working class parents. She became a trade union organiser and in 1924, sponsored by her union, was elected MP for Middlesbrough. Throughout her life she campaigned against injustice: she led the Jarrow March, fought against fascism and imperialism and worked for women’s and working-class equality.  At only four feet and 11 inches she was called the ‘Mighty Atom’, the ‘Fiery Particle’ and the ‘Pocket Passionara’.  In 1945, when Labour returned to office, the new prime minister Clement Attlee appointed Ellen Wilkinson as minister of education, the first woman to hold this post.  Ellen’s main task as minister was to implement the controversial 1944 Education Act, which divided pupils into two by an 11 plus test: those who passed went to grammar schools; those who failed went to the less well-funded secondary moderns. She also raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15, provided free milk to school children and helped set up UNESCO, an organisation set up by the United Nations to combat racial and other prejudices through education .

Barbara Castle

Barbara Castle (1910-2002) was born in Chesterfield to middle-class parents who were strong Labour supporters and who encouraged their young daughter to become politically active.  After studying PPE at Oxford, Castle moved to London where she wrote for the Tribune magazine. In 1945 she was elected MP for Blackburn. Almost twenty years later, in October 1964, when Labour returned to government, Harold Wilson appointed Castle to be the first-ever minister for overseas development.

She held three other posts: minister of transport, where she brought in the breathalyser, the 70 hour speed limit and introduced seat belts; as secretary of state for employment where she launched the Equal Pay Act and ill-advisedly tried to curb the power of the trade unions; and as secretary of state for social services where she brought in child benefit payable to mothers.

Judith Hart

Judith Hart (1924-1991) was born in Burnley, the daughter of Harry, a lino-type printer and Lily, a school-teacher and Baptist lay preacher. She was exceptionally clever, won a university scholarship to the London School of Economics where she was awarded a first class degree. In 1959 she entered Parliament as MP for Lanark. She was a committed anti-imperialist and anti-racist, active in anti-apartheid campaigns and liberation movements.

In 1968 Harold Wilson promoted Judith Hart to the cabinet as paymaster-general. It was a double first: the first time in history that two women simultaneously served in the same cabinet; and the first time that a woman held the post of paymaster-general. She was also the first married woman with children to be appointed to a cabinet position.

However, Hart was only in the job for just over a year before Wilson sacked her, mainly because of her forceful criticism of Castle’s attempts to curb the power of the trade unions.

Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams (1939-) came from a very privileged background. The daughter of the novelist Vera Brittain and the political scientist George Catlin, she was introduced to many of the key leftwing figures of the time such as Herbert Morrison and Edith Summerskill.  Williams knew from an early age that she wanted to be an MP and took what became a conventional route for politicians, studying PPE at Oxford University. In 1964 she was elected MP for Hitchin, one of six Labour women in the House of Commons.

In 1974 Harold Wilson appointed Williams secretary of state for prices and consumer protection. Once more, there were two women in the cabinet.

In 1976 Jim Callaghan replaced Wilson, Castle was sacked, and Williams was appointed secretary of state for education and paymaster general. Ellen Wilkinson had backed grammar schools; Shirley Williams favoured comprehensives – and by 1978, 80 per cent of secondary schools were comprehensive.

A legacy

These five women cabinet ministers made a mark out of all proportion to their numbers. They were strong, determined and effective women – socialist women – who stand proud in the Labour tradition of trying to create a more fair and equal society. Collectively they helped make Britain and other parts of the world a better place for all, not just for the privileged.

Three of these women – Castle, Hart and Williams – were all considered by the press to be future leaders of the Labour party, and then first female prime minister.

As we take this chance to reflect on International Women’s Day, the question one has to ask is: why has no Labour woman achieved this distinction?

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Dr Paula Bartley is a feminist historian and member of the Labour party. Her latest book is Labour Women in Power: Cabinet Ministers in the 20th Century

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