‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson (1891-1947) was the MP for Middlesborough East (1924-1931) and Jarrow (1935-1947). A lifelong socialist and feminist, she campaigned passionately in favour of an equal franchise and equal pay.
Wilkinson was a pioneering trade unionist; on leaving university in June 1913, she worked for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. She helped organise the Suffrage Pilgrimage of July 1913, when more than 50,000 women marched from all over the country to a mass rally in Hyde Park, London.
She became a national figure when she played a prominent role in the 1936 Jarrow March of the town’s unemployed to London to petition for the right to work.
She became only the second woman to achieve a position in the British cabinet when she became Minister for Education in 1945.
When a policeman once attempted to prevent Wilkinson from entering the House of Commons’ smoking room based on her sex, she responded, “I am not a lady – I am a Member of Parliament.”
Wilkinson encouraged open debate on birth control, she persuaded the government to correct anomalies affecting widows in its Pensions Bill, and in March 1926, she combined with Lady Astor from the Conservative benches to attack the government’s proposed decrease in expenditure on women’s training centres.
Wilkinson also oversaw the introduction of free school milk and raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15. Sadly, at the same time these acts were being pushed through, her health had begun to deteriorate, and she died suddenly in January 1947.
Labour is and always will be the Party of equality. Labour delivered: the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equality Act, the Minimum Wage and introduced Sure Start.
This year, International Women’s Day falls a year into a pandemic which has had huge consequences for women’s equality.
Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women; women are more likely to work in low paid or shutdown sectors, more likely to have taken on more caring responsibilities, and young women are particularly vulnerable to losing their jobs.
This Tory government has failed to address these facts in any of its economic responses to the pandemic, including last week’s Budget statement.
Women have been on the frontline of this crisis – caring for the sick and delivering the vaccine. But the government have turned their back on them and want to cut their pay.
This international women’s day, Labour is demanding a pay rise for our NHS Covid heroes. With inflation set to rise to 1.7 per cent this year, the 1 per cent pay rise is – in real terms – a pay cut for many NHS workers, including nurses, health visitors and clinical staff.
‘Women have worked hard; starved in prison; given of their time and lives that we might sit in the House of Commons and take part in the legislating of this country.’ – Ellen Wilkinson