Women at Westminster - When Labour Led the Way

Women at Westminster - When Labour Led the Way

So Jeremy Corbyn has announced his shadow cabinet and the report card reads, 'tries hard, has to do better'. Better where women are concerned, anyway.

Yes, it boasts 16 women to 15 men; the first shadow cabinet where women outnumber men, as the party press release proudly declares. Yes, it's doubtless true that, as Diane Abbott declared on tv, no group of which she is a member is ever going to let the boys have it all their own way.

But none of that, somehow, wipes away the nasty fact that all of the top jobs have gone to men - leader, deputy leader, the shadows for the great offices of state. Even the London mayoral candidate is a man. Making use of women lower down the ranks doesn't quite get you off the hook, for a leader - and a Labour party - supposedly committed to gender equality.

Especially when it didn't always used to be this way.

It's a well known fact that the first woman to take her seat in the Parliament was a Conservative - the American millionaire's wife Nancy Astor. (It's a universally known one that the first female Prime Minister was a Conservative - the ultimate Conservative, you might say.) But after Nancy Astor's initial victory, the early history of women in the House of Commons saw Labour leading in some important ways.

Lady Astor had inherited her seat from her husband, as too did the second lady member, the Liberal Mrs Wintringham, and the third - Mrs Mabel Hilton Philipson, another Conservative and a former star of musical comedy. It was left to the Labour party to provide the first women who entered the House another way.

Margaret Bondfield - 'our Maggie' to her Northampton constituents - was a lacemaker's daughter who had started work at 14, and first come to London with just five pounds in her pocket. She read about the Shop Assistants' Union in her fish and chip wrapping and in 1923 - the year in which she was elected to Parliament - became Chairman [sic] of the General Council of the T.U.C.

Bondfield and the two other Labour members elected alongside her were the first of the female influx to have worked professionally in the political sphere - and also the first single women. Even more importantly, she became the first woman minister and then Cabinet minister - Under-Secretary of State for Labour in 1924, and five years later Minister of Labour with a Cabinet seat.

Bondfield is hardly a household name, and indeed her tenure in Parliament lasted less than a decade, but there were at least two Labour women who blazed a flamboyant trail across the sky. Jennie Lee, the miner's daughter elected to the House at 24 (an age which wouldn't then have allowed her to vote), became arguably the best arts minister we have ever had - though that's tended to be overshadowed by her legend as Nye Bevan's 'dark angel'. As famous in her days was Ellen Wilkinson, the 'Fiery Atom' - as MP for Jarrow an instigator of the famous march; and as 'Red Nellie', a hugely popular public personality. A dramatic parliamentary performer, she was Parliamentary secretary in Churchill's wartime coalition and Minister of Education under Attlee.

The last decades have seen some talismanic Labour, or one-time Labour, women - Shirley Williams, Betty Boothroyd, Mo Mowlam. And that's long after Barbara Castle, who as Patricia Hewitt said 'should have been Labour's - and Britain's - first female prime minister': an inspirational figure whose influence extended even beyond her ministerial posts, her attempts to reform Britain's industrial relations, her welfare reforms and her work for equal pay.

Yet Harriet Harman has now followed in Margaret Beckett's footsteps as another senior Labour woman doomed to be always the bridesmaid, never the bride. As candidates in the recent leadership election neither Yvette Cooper nor Liz Kendall - questions of their policy apart - captured the imagination in any way. Coincidence that they are all four women? Maybe. Or maybe it's true that the iconography of the Labour movement does not at the moment offer any strong female image - any equivalent to Mrs Thatcher's ready role as the nation's strong-minded nanny.

We need to think about finding one, maybe. Need to find some female pattern for the crusading energy that carried aloft the Ellens and the Jennies, even if an age of spin doctors and soundbites doesn't make it easy. Ellen Wilkinson was known as the 'Pocket Pasionaria'. Today - thank you, Jeremy - we've got the passion back into Labour politics. It's just that we're still a bit short on the '-a'.


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