Labour Women MPs - the 2010 Ursula Masson Memorial Lecture

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In this year’s Ursula Masson Memorial Lecture, Professor June Hannam, associate dean at the University of the West of England, spoke on ‘Writing To History: Autobiographies of The First Labour Women MPs’. Ursula’s introduction to Elizabeth Andrews, A Woman’s Work is Never Done (Honno Press, 2006) placed women’s struggles at the centre of Labour politics. Yet the Labour movement itself frequently marginalised women, and Labour women MPs often described themselves as being in ‘the men’s house’ in the inter-war years.

Feminist historians have noted how nineteenth century women tended to write their life histories as novels rather than as autobiographies. This tradition still endures but the political women of the Labour party adopted a different approach: they were consciously ‘writing to history’, using their autobiographies to highlight both political and personal struggles. The relationship of these Labour MPs to women as a whole was not straightforward. Edith Summerskill entitled her memoirs A Woman’s World but no other memoir has an explicitly feminist or even woman-centred title. This is because women Labour MPs were part of a mixed-sex group, and one which privileged class over gender: their primary loyalty was to the Labour party and the common struggle not to a collective sisterhood. It was therefore difficult for them to portray women as a special category.

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There were also class-based and generational differences within the small group of women Labour MPs, and this diversity is reflected in the range of reasons they gave for becoming politically active in the first place. The rhetoric of the party stressed modernity: the Labour party was going to create a modern, egalitarian Britain. Yet domesticity was still highly valued and Labour women were often inspired by what we think of as traditionally female motivating factors. For many, it was their direct experience of poverty, ill-health, religious commitment or war which had made them turn to the Labour party. For both middle and working class women, the emotional connection to their political work was paramount, often to the extent that there was a strain of anti-intellectualism within the female section of the party.

Were Labour women married to the party as has been often claimed? These autobiographies suggest otherwise as they detail the friendships and the love affairs of these women. Many politically active women did remain unmarried but that did not mean that their emotional lives were barren. Nor did politically-active women have to conform to the stereotype of the dry, mannish spinster. The ‘stiff-collared’ Susan Lawrence cut a rather masculine figure but both Jennie Lee and Ellen Wilkinson were glamorous attractive women. Then, as now, much more attention was paid to the appearance of women than to the appearance of men.

Fiona Reid

Autobiographies of Labour women MPs - Select List

Edith Picton Turbervill (1872-1960): Life is Good, An Autobiography (1939)
Jennie Lee (1904-1988): Tomorrow is a New Day, (1939); This Great Journey, (1963); My Life with Nye, (1980)
Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947): Myself When Young, ed. Margot Asquith (1938); Clash (1929)
Mary Agnes Hamilton (1882-1966): Remembering My Good Friends, (1944); Uphill All the Way, (1953)
Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) : A Life’s Work (1948)
Edith Summerskill (1901-1980) : A Women’s World, Her Memoirs (1967)
Leah Manning (1886-1977) : A Life for Education: An Autobiography (1970)