Too socialist for the suffragettes: the left’s forgotten women

Early female socialists never figure in any roll-call of great suffragettes, because they objected on principle to a campaign that would leave so many disenfranchised.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The notion of women being written out of history is as old as the Bible, but it always seems more galling when it is the history of progressive movements – such as the abolitionist campaign in Britain or the fight for African-American civil rights – in which the role of women has been diminished.

Get ready to be galled therefore when you read Nan Sloane’s superb new book on the forgotten story of women in the development of the Labour and trade union movements, the campaign for workers’ rights, and the fight against poverty. Galled but also inspired, for this is a truly worthy, long-overdue and brilliantly written tribute to the women who helped drive the rise of British socialism.

It is also inevitably the story of how that group of socialist women overlapped, interacted and often clashed with leading figures in the suffragette movement.

For those unfamiliar with the period, it will be eye-opening to learn how heroines of women’s suffrage – such as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst – reacted with fury to the insistence of their socialist colleagues on campaigning for universal suffrage no matter a man or woman’s wealth or status, rather than the less threatening and more achievable goal of enfranchising older, propertied women alone.

Conversely, early female socialists such as Margaret MacDonald, Margaret Bondfield and Mary Macarthur – all brilliantly brought to life here – will never figure in any roll-call of great suffragettes, because they objected on principle to a campaign that would by design leave the vast majority of poor, working people – male and female – disenfranchised and denied the chance to use the political system to force change.

As Sloane shows, it was a schism that descended into deep rancour when the two sides also found themselves bitterly divided over support for the First World War, where the pragmatic, patriotic fervour urged by the elder Pankhursts was viewed by the female socialists as another betrayal of the working classes doomed to do the bulk of the dying.

Albeit in a much less offensive way, those passages reminded me of the arguments that persist to this day in the United States, where the original campaign for women’s suffrage is tainted by its promotion in the southern states as a means of reinforcing white supremacy in the Jim Crow era.

Having skilfully established that distinction between some of the most celebrated figures of the suffragette movement and the unsung women of early British socialism, Sloane unveils the remarkable story of the latter group, and the battles they fought to be heard and recognised within the Labour Party and trade union movement.

 My highlights included the 1907 rejection of the Women’s Labour League’s formal request to affiliate to the Labour Party, on the Catch-22 grounds that the party executive did not respond to letters from unaffiliated organisations, as well as the painful revelation that the decision of many early “Labour Clubs” to open bars to attract members and raise money meant that – due to the social conventions of the time – women were not allowed inside.

There are also numerous anecdotes of the contrivances used by women to conduct their political activism without exposure.  One personal favourite is the tale of Julia Varley, who took the guise of a wife trying to track down an errant husband to secretly inspect conditions inside male workhouses, lodging-houses and prisons, all the way from Bradford to Liverpool.

Sloane has a keen eye for comedy – her descriptions of the domestic chaos that formed the backdrop of early Labour meetings at the house of Margaret and Ramsey MacDonald are a joy – and for romance; her unabashed portrait of the female loves which (at the time) dared not speak their name are a similar pleasure.

As a recurrent motif throughout the book, I found the journey made by the likes of Isabella Ford and Marion Phillips from sitting silent on the balcony listening to Keir Hardie and others decide the direction of their party, to speaking alongside him at conferences and public rallies, both deeply moving and hugely evocative. They were always the “women in the room”, but – by sheer power of will and persistence – they ensured their presence and voice grew ever more prominent.

Sloane’s story ends in 1918, but it is impossible to read this account without asking ourselves whether the progress we have seen in the century since then, and the status women have achieved within the socialist movement today, lives up to the legacy left by MacDonald, Bondfield, Ford and the others whose pioneering achievements so richly populate this work.

If they were in Manchester last month, they would have seen a TUC dinner where the three speakers were a female president, general secretary and shadow foreign secretary, but where the hegemony of our gender caused less consternation than the fact we are all Arsenal fans. And if they were in Westminster this week, they would see Labour benches and a Labour shadow cabinet where women now have almost equal representation, and certainly an equal voice. That might gladden their hearts, but I believe two things would shock them.

First, that it has taken so long, with Frances O’Grady the first woman to lead the TUC, and the women on today’s Labour benches making up a quarter of all the 491 women ever elected to parliament. But second, that the great issues that first stirred them – low wages, insecure work, child poverty and gender inequality – remain such intractable problems today, not to mention the world’s continued addiction to militarism and war.

Sloane’s brilliant book not only reminds us how much those great socialist women achieved in the 50 years before 1918, but serves as a timely rebuke over how much we still have to do 100 years on. Any woman who reads it will not just feel inspired but impelled to join the fight we face today. 

The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History
Nan Sloane
IB Tauris, 264pp, £20

Emily Thornberry is MP for Islington South & Finsbury and shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war