Ellen Wilkinson’s search for social justice in 1936

As #WomensHistoryMonth draws to a close we hear from guest blogger Laura Beers, Associate Professor of History at American University, about the subject of her latest book, Ellen Wilkinson. In this piece Laura discusses a significant year in Ellen’s career, 1936, as an example of her quest for social justice…

Ellen Wilkinson by Bassano Ltd.,1924

In 1940, when Ellen Wilkinson was appointed as parliamentary secretary to the minister of pensions, Picture Post ran a three-page profile on her by her longtime friend the New Statesman editor, Kingsley Martin.  The caption to one photo read: “She has always been open to new ideas, persistent in promoting those in which she believes. Her new job gives scope to her passionate desire for social justice.”(Ellen in Office.” Picture Post [London, England] 22 June 1940: 18-20) The day after her sudden death from heart failure on February 6, 1947, the Manchester Guardian’s leader column noted that the woman who ended her career as Minister of Education had “brought to public affairs an acute mind, an ebullient spirit, and – the dominant thing in her – a passion for social justice, an intuitive and devoted partisanship for the poor and the weak.” Ellen similarly embraced the term, titling her 1940 Fabian society lecture, later published in the edited volume Programme for Victory, “Social Justice”. 

Here’s Ellen discussing the value of women MPs and campaigning for equal rights for mothers in the Manchester Dispatch in April 1932

Wilkinson’s own conception of social justice wove together overlapping threads of liberal internationalism, socialism, feminism and communism.  Nowhere is this clearer than in a review of her political activism in the year 1936.

1936 has not been chosen arbitrarily. Nearly seventy years after her death, Wilkinson is principally remembered for her campaign on behalf of her constituents in Jarrow, embodied in her leadership of the Jarrow Crusade of unemployed workmen from the Tyneside to the Palace of Westminster in October 1936. The Crusade did not succeed in its objective of bringing industry back to the blighted town, where male unemployment hovered around three-quarters of the adult population for more than a decade. Nonetheless, Ellen’s role as one of the leaders of the march has become metonymic for her passionate rejection of a political system that allowed for prolonged suffering in Jarrow and other distressed areas. 

Yet, too narrow a focus on her advocacy on behalf of Britain’s unemployed has obscured both the extent to which her conception of social justice was drawn on a broader canvas, and the ways in which her experiences combatting other forms of injustice, from colonialism, to fascism to sexism, informed her political work on behalf of the unemployed.

Diana Hopkinson reflected on working her experience working briefly as Wilkinson’s secretary in 1935-‘36: “Her energy was tremendous but it was most variously dispersed. … She was not easy to work for because she had so many strings in her bow.  I found it difficult to sort them out.  In addition to her parliamentary work there was her representation of the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW), her involvement with the India League, with a Left Wing theatre project and with journalism.  She was then writing notes for Time and Tide – the Sapphic Graphic.  Sometimes she used to dictate while she was in the bath shouting to me as I sat in the sitting room.”(Ibid. 153, 151.) If her union, the India League and the Forum Cinema in Soho posed an immediate challenge, Diana soon also found herself wrapping her head around the politics of the Spanish Civil War. 

Wilkinson’s belief that the fight for social reform did not stop at Britain’s borders is evident in a quick review of her diary in 1936. During the course of the year, she made at least seven trips outside of the United Kingdom.  In February she flew to Germany to meet with trade union colleagues and other members of the anti-fascist underground.  She also briefly visited Spain. She returned to Spain in March, spending a few days in Paris on her route home, where she met with Leon Blum and spoke to participants in the sit-in strikes in the city’s large department stores and Monoprix. In May, she was back in Spain, keeping in close touch with supporters of the Popular Front government that increasingly appeared under threat from anti-democratic elements within the military and clergy. In August, she set off for Russia with other members of her union, only to return to Britain shortly into the voyage as the news of the Spanish rebels’ advance convinced her that her presence was needed at home. The following week she was in Paris meeting with the Spanish ambassador and the leaders of the international Labour movement, before flying to Portugal two weeks later to meet with Spanish Republicans. Preparations for the Jarrow Crusade kept her in Britain for much of the autumn, but at the end of the year, she set sail for the United States, where she undertook a six-week tour that included a visit to the sit-in strikes in Flint, Michigan.  

Wilkinson was criticized in certain sections of the press for her alleged excessive foreign travel and neglect of home affairs. She, however, was adamant that her international travel was inseparable from her career as a British politician.  As she wrote argued her union journal in June 1936: “I hold pretty strongly the view that the most useless type of MP is the one that takes no interest at all in what is going on outside his own country.  We are too closely knit these days for that kind of parochial outlook.” (New Dawn, June 27, 1936.)

Wilkinson brought her 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 that she perceived the status of women both at home and abroad. That said, Wilkinson’s prejudices and limitations as a British national affected how she understood the world outside of her own borders.  Years later, as President of the founding conference of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, she would argue that, “We here could not be interested in international work if we were not firmly rooted in our national loyalties. You cannot build a bridge unless there is solid earth at each end of the bridge.”  Scholars have pointed to her words as evidence of the limits of cosmopolitan thinking amongst the generation that came through the war. But, arguably more significant is the sincere effort made by Wilkinson and many others to understand social justice on a truly transnational scale.  As she went on to say to her colleagues in 1945, “International fellowship and national personality are not incompatible.” (Conference for the Establishment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, London, 1-16 November 1945, p. 24, ECO/CONF./29, available at UNESDOC.)


Further Reading:

  • Laura Beers, Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist (Harvard University Press, 2016)
  • Leah Manning, A Life for Education (Gollancz, 1970)
  • Paula Bartley, Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister (Pluto Press, 2014)
  • Stuart Maconie, Long Road from Jarrow: A journey through Britain then and now
  • Richard Overy, The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919 – 1939
  • (Penguin, 2009)
  • You can also watch Laura’s recent seminar paper about Ellen Wilkinson at the National History Center in Washington D. C. here

2 thoughts on “Ellen Wilkinson’s search for social justice in 1936

  1. Fascinating piece, thank you, particularly on her international work.

    It’s interesting that Ellen Wilkinson also had to fight members of her own Party in her support of the Jarrow March, despite the fact that, at a local government level on Tyneside, the march had been supported by Liberal and Tory councillors. The march, I think, had been initially mis-characterised as part of the hunger march movement which seemed to have many nervous over communist influence.

    Although the Jarrow March could not even get acknowledgement from Westminster, (a Cabinet decision), many years later some march veterans suggested that it was part of a groundswell that ultimately led to the Labour victory of 1945, and the creation of the Welfare State.

    Thanks again for a fascinating insight.

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