British MP “Red” Ellen Wilkinson was one of the first female delegates in the United Nations. She played a central role in Britain’s postwar Labour government and introduced free milk and school dinners as education secretary. A passionate believer in social justice in post World War One Britain, Ellen Wilkinson is best remembered for leading the Jarrow Crusade. In October 1936, she was the only woman to march alongside two hundred unemployed shipwrights and steelworkers from Tyneside to London to protest against unemployment and poverty. Now, she is one of three pioneering women to be celebrated in statue form in the UK.
We spoke to Laura Beers, author of Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist, for her thoughts on this significant moment in women’s history:
The decision by Ellen’s first parliamentary constituency of Middlesbrough to erect a statue in her honour is a testament to the great impact on British politics she had. She was a champion of the dispossessed and downtrodden throughout Britain, as constituents in Middlesbrough long remembered her advocacy for Teesside in parliament. Her work to raise the school leaving age to 15 as the first Minister of Education in Attlee’s government was born of a belief that all of Britain’s children should be given the opportunity to realize their full potential, regardless of family or income. She was an important voice in opposition to appeasement in the 1930s and a champion of women’s rights. The work she did for her trade union, her constituents, for women and other politically marginalized groups at home and abroad is finally receiving the recognition it deserves in the city that she represented with passion and dedication from 1924 to 1931.
As Beers shows in Red Ellen, Wilkinson’s tireless work on behalf of her constituents was intimately interwoven with her international concern. From the book:
She brought a Marxist economic analysis into her understanding of both continental fascism and British imperialism; and, in turn, her appreciation of Britain’s role in international affairs affected her analysis of domestic politics. Her feminism was imbricated by class analysis that affected the way she perceived the status of women both at home and abroad. To Ellen, the campaign against mass unemployment in Britain was linked to the movements against fascism and colonialism and the campaign for women’s rights in that each was a crucial front in the war against injustice and human suffering.
From today’s vantage, Beers’s portrait of Wilkinson should reframe our understanding of the British left between the wars and bolster our sense of the possibilities for international social justice coalitions. “Red Ellen’s life story,” writes Beers, “is as much an inspiration for activism today as it is a history of an increasingly distant radical past.”