We wouldn’t be where we are today without the women MPs of 1945

These politicians helped to redraw the map of political possibility in a post-war era, a chapter of history from which we would do well to learn from today

Boris Johnson appears to laugh off question about women in government

Seventy-five years ago today, on 26 July 1945, the British people awoke to the news of a Labour landslide, ushering in a post-war government that would transform the country.

Amongst the list of celebrated achievements was the creation of the National Health Service and the modern welfare state. Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan and Herbert Morrison have rightly gone down in history. But this history has neglected the contribution of the 1945 women. Ellen Wilkinson, Edith Summerskill, Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee and Bessie Braddock: these women should be household names, but sadly all too often they are not, not even Castle and Lee, who had enduring political careers and went on to achieve so much in the Wilson governments – including the Equal Pay Act and the Open University.

In 1945, just over 25 years after women won the right to vote and stand as MPs, the number of women MPs trebled to 24, 21 of whom were Labour. There was also one Conservative, one Liberal and one Independent: Eleanor Rathbone, who more than anyone else can take credit for family allowances, known today as child benefit.

Parliament in 1945 was, as Edith Summerskill put it, “a little like a boys’ school which had decided to take a few girls”. Barbara Castle was even stopped by a policeman when trying to enter parliament for the first time on the presumption that she couldn’t possibly be an MP.

The Lady Members’ Room, where the 24 women were expected to work, bustled with energy and hope. Having “borne the brunt of long battles, many defeats, much victimisation and bitterness” as one new Labour MP put it. The Labour women shared chocolates through long all-night sittings – Ellen Wilkinson seemed to survive on little more than coffee and chocolates stashed in her handbag. Castle and Lee are said to have once danced a can-can on the desks in the Lady Members’ Room. It was, as Castle reflected in her diaries, a “wonderful time to be alive”.

The only woman in Attlee’s cabinet was Wilkinson, known as “Red Ellen” for her flame-red hair and socialist politics. Wilkinson had grown up in a working-class community in Manchester before rising up the union ranks and being elected as the fourth Labour woman MP in 1924. Her role in leading the Jarrow Crusade and in coordinating safe air raid shelters during the wartime government had given her experience of fighting for justice both from the outside and inside of government.

In 1945 it was time for her to fight from the inside on the issues she cared about most of all. Wilkinson not only rolled out free secondary education to all pupils for the first time and introduced free school milk (taken away three decades later by Margaret Thatcher), but successfully persuaded her cabinet colleagues to raise the school leaving age to 15.

Despite the protestations of Labour deputy leader Herbert Morrison and of Nye Bevan that the policy was too expensive and that housing and health should come first, she was determined to establish the centrality of education in tackling one of the Beveridge report’s five “giant evils”: ignorance. Wilkinson prevailed during heated cabinet exchanges with her male colleagues and, by sheer grit and determination, persuaded Attlee to push the reform through.

If Wilkinson sought to eliminate the Beveridge giant of ignorance, Edith Summerskill had been long determined to eliminate another – disease. Elected in 1938, Summerskill was also a part-time GP. Although from a much more privileged background, Summerskill’s politics came from experience, just like Wilkinson’s: her work in general practice led her to conclude that much poor health was caused by poverty, deprivation and inequality.

In 1938, shortly after being elected, Summerskill called for “a state medical service in the country so that the people can have a free health service”. She reflected that the idea “is a kind of utopia but we know that that utopia will probably come during the next ten years”. It was exactly ten years later, in 1948, that the NHS was founded.

The women of 1945 helped to redraw the map of political possibility in a post-war era, a chapter of history from which we would do well to learn from today. If Ellen Wilkinson was in government now, it wouldn’t have taken a fellow Manchester success story – Marcus Rashford – to highlight the need for summer food vouchers. And Jennie Lee and Bessie Braddock would have thought it shameful to charge immigrants £400 a year in order to use NHS services as the Conservatives have done.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women in terms of their jobs and their future earning potential, partly because so many have taken on increased caring responsibilities. We must not allow any of the advances of the past 75 years to be undone.

The struggle for equality after the war was a class struggle and it was also a struggle for women’s equality. The modern British welfare state, our political landscape and our society would not be what it is today without the Labour women of 1945.

Rachel Reeves is the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office and shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. She is the Labour MP for Leeds West​

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in