Biography, Blog, General, Women's History

Labour Women in Power: Cabinet Ministers in the 20th century – Dr. Paula Bartley.

(L-R Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Judith Hart and Shirley Williams)

In this post, Dr. Paula Bartley gives us a sneak peak of her fabulous new book: Labour Women in Power: Cabinet Ministers in the 20th century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

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.

In 1929 Ramsay MacDonald appointed Margaret Bondfield as Minister of Labour – in charge of unemployment benefits – the first female Cabinet Minister.  

When Bondfield  took office Britain was in financial difficulties, faced with a large national debt and an increasingly lopsided balance of payments which was exacerbated by the Wall Street Crash. Bondfield’s job became impossible. It’s a long story but the Government collapsed and Ramsay MacDonald formed a National Government. Margaret Bondfield was one of eighteen Ministers who refused to join him.

In 1945, when Labour returned to office, the new Prime Minister Clement Attlee appointed Ellen Wilkinson as Minister of Education.   Ellen’s main task as Minister was to implement the controversial 1944 Education Act. She also raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15, provided free milk to school children and helped set up UNESCO.

Almost twenty years later, in October 1964, when Labour returned to Government Harold Wilson appointed Barbara Castle the first-ever Minister for Overseas Development.

Altogether Barbara Castle held four posts in the Wilson governments: Minister of Overseas Development, Minister of Transport, Secretary of State for and Secretary of State for Employment and Secretary of State for Social Services.Her second appointment as Minister of Transport was a surprise: she was a woman; she couldn’t drive. Barbara Castle walked into a male misogynistic enclave. Even the layout of the Ministry was unfavourable, there was for instance no women’s lavatory on the ministerial floor, a physical reminder that women were not expected to be there. Castle was unfazed: during her post she implemented the breathalyzer, the 70 hour speed limit and introduced seat belts.In April 1968 Barbara Castle was promoted again, this time as Secretary of State for Employment, in charge of the most controversial of all Government policies, that of reforming the trade unions. Her white paper In Place of Strife, proposed to curb their powers. This paper was political dynamite and many Labour members criticised her proposals. She redeemed a little of her left-wing feminist reputation by supporting introducing the Equal Pay Act 1970. In 1974 Castle was appointed to her fourth and final job as Secretary of State for Social Services, radically reforming pensions and bringing in child benefit payable to mothers.

In 1968 Harold Wilson promoted Judith Hart 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.Hart was quickly dubbed Wilson’s ‘glamour girl’. Her new job was an odd one. She was not given a department to manage but had a ‘rag-bag of responsibilities’: to oversee government policy; to bridge the ever-widening gap between Parliament and the electorate by making politics attractive; to supervise the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales; to be a ‘mini-Minister of Youth’ by appealing to young people; and lastly to promote the equality of women. However she was only in the job for just over a year before Wilson sacked her, mainly because of her forceful criticism of Castle’s paper In Place of Strife.

In 1974 Harold Wilson appointed Shirley Williams Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. Once more, there were two women in the Cabinet.In 1976 Callaghan replaced Wilson, Castle was sacked and Williams as Secretary of State for Education and Paymaster General, posts which she held concurrently. Ellen Wilkinson had backed grammar schools; Shirley Williams favoured comprehensives – By 1978, 80% of secondary schools were comprehensive.

A number of these women, particularly Castle, Hart and Williams were all considered by the press to be future leaders of the Labour Party, and then the first female Prime Minister. The question one has to ask is: why has no Labour woman achieved this distinction?

Paula Bartley is a feminist historian who has written widely on, and promoted, women’s history. She is the author of The Changing Role of Women (1996), Prostitution (1999), Votes for Women (2007), and also biographies of Emmeline Pankhurst (2002), Ellen Wilkinson (2014), and Queen Victoria (2016).

Images of Bondfield, Wilkinson, Castle, Hart and Williams all sourced from Wikimedia commons. Image of Williams from – photographer unknown.