Ellen Wilkinson was a key radical figure in British socialism and feminism of the early and mid-20th century, a woman of idealism, pragmatism, energy and passion who was involved in many of the major struggles of the period. Born in October 1891 Ellen contributed to women’s suffrage and the early Labour movement; she helped found the British Communist Party; was a pacifist in the First World War; was involved in the General Strike, 1926; supported the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War; led the iconic Jarrow Crusade; campaigned against imperialism; and was the first female Minister of Education.
Born into a working-class Methodist family at the end of the Victorian era, Ellen witnessed at first hand the tribulations faced by the employed, the under-employed and the unemployed. Ellen’s conversion to socialism and feminism was as much fuelled by reading socialist literature and listening to socialist speeches as by her own practical experience.
The period just before the First World War has been seen as a revolutionary time in which socialists, feminists, trade unionists and other rebels fought to change a system deemed to disadvantage the many. Ellen Wilkinson, according to contemporaries, was a first rate organizer and eloquent speaker. As a student at Manchester University in 1910 she quickly became involved in the University Socialist Federation. Two years later, in 1912, she became a member of the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies soon becoming a district organizer. She also ran the local branch of the Fabian Society. These experiences were good training for the political world she was later to inhabit and colonise. It was at this time that Ellen first encountered one of the most important aspects of her political career and her personal life: Marxism.
Many female activists abandoned their radicalism with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Ellen, however, believed that the war was an unjust and imperialist war and by now a committed pacifist, she supported the Non-Conscription Fellowship and took an active part in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In July 1915, she became the first woman organizer at National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW), a trade union which believed that capitalism was the source of the country’s ills and that trade unions could overthrow the system.
After the war many leading activists lost their political drive and faded into obscurity. This was not the case with Ellen who quickly emerged as a talented young politician. In 1924, only 33 years old, Ellen became one of only 4 women in the House of Commons, leaving the Communist Party to focus on her Parliamentary career. Between 1924 and 1931 she was Labour M.P. for Middlesbrough East, a Teeside constituency, and used her parliamentary position to help extend the female franchise and support the General Strike and the subsequent Miners’ Strike.
In 1931, with the onset of the Depression, the Labour Government collapsed and Ellen lost her seat. During this time she needed to earn a living so worked for NUDAW, lectured and wrote several books e.g. Peeps at Politicians (1931), The Division Bell Mystery (1932), The Terror in Germany (1933), Why Fascism (1934), as well as contributing to journals such as Time and Tide.
In 1935 Wilkinson re-entered Parliament as M.P for Jarrow, a town with one of the worst unemployment records in England. In October 1936 Ellen helped organize a march of 200 unemployed workers from Jarrow to London – the iconic Jarrow march. Ellen criticized the politics of austerity that sustained Britain’s economic decline. Her famous book The Town that was Murdered (1939) is a heartfelt criticism of the coalition government’s indifference to the industrial north at the height of the depression.
The growth of Fascism in the inter-war period concerned those of a left-wing disposition. Ellen Wilkinson believed that the Spanish Civil War was part of the international struggle against Fascism so in December 1936 she traveled to Spain with Clement Atlee to give support to the Republican forces fighting Franco; in May 1937 Wilkinson helped establish the Dependents Aid Committee which raised money for the families of men who were involved in the International Brigade. It was at this time that Ellen’s anti-imperialist beliefs hardened when she went to India to find out about the conditions of Indians under the British Empire. She toured the country, visited Gandhi in prison and returned a convinced supporter of Indian independence.
By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939 Ellen had already jettisoned her belief in pacifism. In her view, the war was a fight against the evils of fascism not an unjust imperialist crusade. She joined Winston Churchill’s War-time Government, first as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and later Parliamentary Secretary to her lover Herbert Morrison, the wartime Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security. Ellen was given responsibility for air raid shelters, a seemingly innocuous role but one that was suited to her pragmatic and problem-solving personality.
The war-time Education Act of 1944 advocated a tripartite system of grammar schools, modern schools and technical schools. As the (first female) Minister of Education in the post-war Labour Government she was responsible for its implementation. As Minister she raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15, persuaded Parliament to pass the 1946 School Milk act that gave free milk to British school children, reduced the number of direct grant schools and instituted University Scholarships which provided funding for higher education. In her own words she wanted ‘to remove from education those class distinctions which are the negation of democracy’.
Ellen died in 1947 of a combination of exhaustion, bronchial pneumonia and a drug overdose or, as some argue, suicide. To the end she remained a committed socialist and feminist. Her core belief was that women and men should have equal rights and this belief informed all her political thinking and practice. She continually bombarded the Conservatives with impassioned attacks on their short-sighted and self-interested politics and never, ever, gave up her fight against injustices.
Dr Paula Bartley has been promoting women’s history in schools, colleges and universities for a long time. Her books include The Changing Role of Women (Hodder, 1996), Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, (Routledge, 2000), Emmeline Pankhurst (Routledge, 2002), Votes for Women (Hodder, 3rd edition, 2007). She is currently working on a biography of Ellen Wilkinson entitled ‘Red Ellen’: the political life of Ellen Wilkinson, 1891-1947.