The Women in the Room

My new book, The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History, is about how women were involved in the founding and the early years of the Labour Party. But why did I think that such a book was necessary, and what did I learn from writing it?

The history of the Labour Party is traditionally a very male affair. Trade union leaders, socialists, firebrand public speakers and canny parliamentary operators all seem to have been men, and women, insofar as they appear in the story at all, appear to drift in and out via the suffrage movement and not much else. After all, women did not have the vote in 1900, so how could they have been involved in a project to get working-class men into Westminster?

Add to that the fact that the history of women’s activism at this time was largely written by suffragists and suffragettes, and that most of them either excluded women who were not part of their narrative or (almost as bad) treated them with suspicion and occasional contempt, and you have a perfect storm in which socialist and trade unionist women who fought for economic justice, peace and universal suffrage are lost.

Margaret Bondfield, socialist and trade unionist.

I became aware of this only gradually, but the tipping point arrived when I tried to find out more about Margaret Bondfield and failed. Here was a woman of real historical significance, who broke almost every glass ceiling she encountered and in 1929 became Britain’s first female cabinet minister. Yet, although there are entries for her in biographical dictionaries, there is no full biography, no modern assessment, and no recognition of her remarkable contribution to the advancement of women. In most histories of the Labour Party she barely merits a mention, despite being the only female delegate at the TUC meeting which agreed to set it up.

As I started looking for material about Margaret, a whole host of other women about whom I had previously known very little presented themselves to me. Mary Macarthur, the charismatic  trade unionist who was so high profile in her day that when she married the newspapers ran articles about what she wore. Margaret MacDonald, a gifted statistician and founder of the Women’s Labour League, who was so well-known and loved that when she died the route of her funeral cortege was lined with mourners. Clementina Black, who took on the TUC establishment and won. And there were many more.

Somebody, I thought, should write a book about them. When I said this to other people, several said ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’. So I did, and The Women in the Room is the result.

After much thought, I decided to root these women’s stories in the history of the Labour Party itself rather than simply write a piece of ‘women’s history’. This is because they did not see themselves as separate from the movement in any way, and would have been horrified to find themselves bundled off away from the fight for better wages and conditions for working people or the battles for education, health services and free school meals. Nor did they see themselves as an integral part of the women’s suffrage movement: Margaret Bondfield, for instance, wished them well with their campaign but had no doubt about which side of the divide she was on. ‘Don’t let them come’ she said with some asperity in 1907 during a debate with the Women’s Freedom League, ‘and tell me that they are working for my class’.

Socialist and trade unionist women saw class as a key issue. But most (though not all) suffragists and suffragettes were campaigning for women to be able to vote on the same basis as men, which meant the retention, at least in the short term, of a property qualification. Many Labour people were sceptical about the claim that granting the vote to middle-class women would solve the problems of women slaving in sweated workshops for starvation wages, and many of them regarded economic reform as a higher priority than suffrage. In the face of almost overwhelming opposition they fought for the rights of the women they represented, but they did it within the framework of the Labour and trade union movements. The two strands are inextricably intertwined, so my book follows them both.

The period it covers runs from the foundation of the TUC in 1868 to the end of the First World War, and it tells stories as well as recounts history. It looks at the suffrage movement through the prism of working-class history rather than the other way around, and in doing so shines a new light on both. I hope that people reading it will use it as a starting point for adjusting our understanding of our shared history, and will encourage people to new research and new writing about the left-wing women of this period.

Who knows, perhaps someone may even write a biography of Margaret Bondfield. Now that really would be worth reading!

The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History will be published in September 2018 by I B Tauris. It can be pre-ordered through bookshops both on and off line.