As a satisfying biography should, Beers’ life of Ellen Wilkinson enriches our understanding of the era in which Wilkinson lived as much as it broadens and deepens what there is to known about the Burnage-born pioneering socialist feminist activist and Member of Parliament. This is a substantial book, both in terms of length and scholarly contribution, lucidly interweaving the narrative of a public life stimulated by the love of politics and a flare for publicity, and a personal life enlivened by love affairs with political figures. Despite the absence of a set of personal papers and a clear archival footprint, Ellen Wilkinson has attracted considerable attention in the past few years, including two other recent biographies by Paula Bartley (2014) and Matt Perry (2014). Nor is it an accident that Wilkinson has stimulated so much interest some 70 years after her untimely death in 1947. The excavation of her life and the securing of her legacy and reputation reflect a number of trends and turns in both the historiography of modern Britain and in current political discourse. Wilkinson was at once a shining example of social mobility and self-determination; a political and sexual revolutionary who practised what she preached; an icon of the ‘Hungry Thirties’ as the most identifiable leader of the Jarrow Crusades; a hyper-energetic campaigner on a wide range of progressive issues; simultaneously an insider and an outsider in terms of class, gender, and ideological commitments; and a trailblazer in internationalizing her activism and building and benefitting from the ever more complex transnational networks that aspired but failed to keep Europe at peace after the First World War. It is a vibrant life to chronicle, and Beers does so with agility. Beers is driven to reframe ‘our understanding of the British left in this period’ with the emphasis on how ‘many British radicals viewed themselves as members of an international socialist community’ (p. 3). Indeed, Wilkinson ran the gamut of left-wing parties, organizations, and ginger groups, a fellow traveller both tangibly and figuratively. She was a capable theorist and political writer, as well as a highly effective public speaker and networker, taking full advantage of the increasing ease of Continental travel, conferencing, and international socialist collaboration. This was especially evident in the 1930 s when she emerged as a tireless anti-fascist and then a leader of the British Popular Front, her anti-fascism eventually outmanoeuvring her pacifism—a common enough experience as the international situation became undeniably hopeless. Also like other anti-appeasers, and from all points of the political spectrum, she became a keen supporter of Churchill. This was incongruous on a number of levels, especially because of their polarized views on all things imperial. In earlier accounts of her life, she has been represented and memorialized as a ‘Labour worthy’, and she did rise to high office within the party structure itself as chairman of the National Executive Committee. But Beers also stresses that she became more and more of a pragmatist, curbing her radical ideas for the sake of steering the party to power, especially by 1945. Her loyalty and leadership were rewarded, of course, when she was appointed the first female Minister of Education in 1945. While there has yet to be a female Foreign Secretary—and one could imagine a figure like Wilkinson having paved the way here—there have been numerous women holding office in the Ministry of Education. And that brings us to Wilkinson’s feminism and her achievements as a woman. A socialist feminist from her youth and experiencing her rites of passage in the constitutionalist National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) before the First World War, Wilkinson’s career does much to illustrate the opportunities and constrictions on women’s citizenship in the aftermath of suffrage. She is a towering figure in women’s history, and definitely a ‘woman worthy’, although one suspects that she would have balked at such a high-minded, Victorian-sounding mark of approval. She worked vigorously for women’s causes, and with women, developing bonds of friendship and effective working partnerships with women across party lines, including the Tory Nancy Astor. While her instinctual feminism hardly waned, her influence and activities went far beyond the gender-segregated realm of women’s national and international organizations. She was a female politician who regularly smashed through glass ceilings in the still heavily masculine edifices of parliamentary and international politics. As Beers notes, we need to resist the urge to elevate her as a feminist icon because ‘her feminism, although a consistent part of her identity throughout her career, was never the guiding principal behind her politics’ (p. 455). Wilkinson was a woman who realized herself politically rather than a feminist crusader as such. She had played a role in the suffrage movement at the tail end of the campaign; yet in generational terms, she was more flapper than Edwardian feminist. She was still under 30 years of age in 1918 when the Representation of the People’s Act was passed, and thus could not vote. Never married and thus open to the sexist and derisive label of ‘spinster MP’, she was hardly sexless, and, as Beers’ stresses, remarkably sexually liberated. She had many affairs, including romantic relationships with Herbert Morrison and Czech Soviet spy Otto Katz. As ambitious, perceptive, and meticulously researched as Red Ellen is, the biographical mode inevitably imposes limitations. The political biography form is probably even trickier. While cogently written, generally compassionate about a remarkably compassionate and courageous subject, and with some flecks of humour, reading through more than 500 pages does take perseverance. In the main, that perseverance is rewarded, and one can safely predict that Beers’ book will long stand as the definitive biography, as well as a valuable work of reference for the political history of the era more generally. Yet, even with what is revealed about Wilkinson’s family relationships, her close friendships and romantic entanglements, I did not feel we got to know her on a deeply personal level and as that passionate ‘fiery particle’ who added colour to the monochromatically depicted long years straddling two world wars. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Aug 16, 2017
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