Tuesday 3 April 2012

Neglected women - Ellen Wilkinson by Eve Edwards

One of the huge pleasures of historical research is rooting through the leaf litter of articles and books on your reading list and coming across a little truffle of information.  I am at present engaged in a writing project set in the interwar period so have been boning up on social history, trying to enjoy Evelyn Waugh (unfortunately he leaves me cold), dipping into Scott Fitzgerald and indulging a new found passion for Jeeves and Wooster.

Out of these sources has emerged the figure of Ellen Wilkinson.  Ever heard of her?  If you went to the University of Manchester you might have noticed a building named after her, but I fear she has not kept the profile of her contemporary Nancy Astor, the first female MP.

Thanks to the TUC History Online archive
Let me revive her briefly here.  A tiny woman with a big voice, she would qualify for being what P G Woodhouse would call 'a bit on the tobasco side as a young woman'.  Red-haired and red in her politics, she was a founding member of the British Communist Party in 1920, entered parliament in 1924 as a Labour member for Middlesborough East, lost her seat in 1931 but returned in 1935 as member for Jarrow.

Morrison shelter - thanks to World War II Today
Now does that ring some bells?  She was the MP who supported the famous Jarrow marchers the following year and presented their petition to parliament.  Other highlights of a fascinating political career include responsibility for introducing the Morrison shelters during the war and being appointed as the first woman to hold the cabinet position of Minister for Education (and only the second woman to get her skirted knees under the cabinet table in the history of this country).  Tragically it seems that she took an overdose (possibly suicide) in 1947 aged just 55.  She did have an unhappy private life, in a secret affair with another prominent politician so there is plenty of fuel for theories as to why she ended her life as she did.

But my point is the simple one of 'Why didn't I know about her?'  Maybe I am alone in my ignorance but I think it is more likely that we forget too quickly the female pioneers who chip away at the glass ceiling for the rest of us.  With no Ellen, no Maggie!  Hmm.  Perhaps this would be a good role for the next Oscar winning film?  I'd cast Kate Winslet but only if she promised not to weep buckets when she won the prize - Ellen would not approve.

And finally, well done, Ellen Wilkinson - and thank you!



Lydia Syson said...

Having just been working on that period myself, I'd come across the wonderful Ellen Wilkinson in the context of the Spanish Civil War, so it was wonderful to read about her here. Along with a number of other unsung radical women (such as Leah Manning) she was hugely important in helping get Medical Aid for Spain off the ground, and went to Spain several times during the war. Let's hear it for them!

megan rix said...

Just been writing about Morrison shelters for my second book set in WW2. Also been asked what books about animals set during wars I'd recommend for an article on my top 10 recommendations - hard to choose!

Mary Tod said...

Thanks for telling us about Ellen. Pioneering women in all aspects of life inspire me. If only we could rewrite history from a female perspective. Will you be writing a novel about her?

Essie Fox said...

So many wonderful untold stories - and thank you for one more.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this. I am a geordie, I was taught about Ellen in school. She was an amazing women, she makes me proud to be a women and a geordie. Its been a very long time since I have heard her name mentioned. You are right she has never been given the credit she deserverd, it would make a lovely film.

Paula Bartley said...

Great to see Ellen Wilkinson being recognised at last! I am writing a biography of this remarkable women, to be published by Pluto Press.

Tustard said...

I've just discovered Ellen while reading up on the Spanish Civil War, another unknown piece of history. One of her visits was with Clement Attlee then Labour Party leader.

Anonymous said...

Ellen Wilkinson's affair with a prominent politician was in fact Herbert Morrison.