MISS FIREBALL, M.P.
Red hair, a biting tongue, d daughter of a mill hand Ellen Wilkinson, Minister
THE yearly school election was a very serious affair to the students. They were put out at their teachers’ insistence that there should be at least one girl among the candidates. The handsome lad who set himself up as boss of school politics had to bow to the decision. So he told an argumentative redheaded lass that she could run as a Socialist.
“Am I a Socialist?” she asked.
“Well, we’re not going to let a girl have the Liberal or Conservative nomination.”
That was how Ellen Wilkinson started out as a British Labor Party politician. Since her first election battle at the turn of the century in the grimy Manchester school, Ellen has fought, wisecracked and plain worked her way into Parliament, chairmanship of the Labor Party and now the job of Minister for Education. She is the second woman Cabinet member in Britain’s history.
She tackled that first election with gusto, although it looked hopeless. The 500 students took in her only speech, then started heckling. Her good-looking opponent caught her off guard, demanding “who would do the dirty work under Socialism?”
Ellen thought a moment , then shot back, “People like you. Better be useful than ornamental.”
Recalling the incident later, she said, “Sheer rudeness saved the day and the laughter saved my vote.” She won the three-cornered fight by four votes.
She got a lot tougher before she calmed down a bit. under the weight of a cabinet job, and she never shied from using laughter, acidity, dramatics, bullheadedness or any ot her technique that would help win the battle that she’s been fighting ever since. Her aggressive fervor, her red hair, her short
stature, her biting tongue and her rubber-band resilience against attacks from any quarter have made her heroine of most of Britain’s workingclass men and women and won the healthy although sometimes embittered respect of all parties. She’s the nation’s leading woman politician.
Today Ellen is entrusted with what many of her compatriots consider the farthest-reaching arm of the Labor Government’s program. In some ways her job is easier than that of her Cabinet colleagues tussling with the immediate task of nationalizing coal mines and the Bank of England, because
Britain’s long-range education policy is based on the 1944 coalition government bill. The bill, which had the support of the Labor Party when Winston Churchill’s Government put it on the statute books, outlines gradual but revolutionary reforms in state-supported education which will take a generation to accomplish.
“ Young Miss Ellen”
RESPONSIBILITY and years have mellowed Ellen somewhat, if a diminutive but live volcano can be called mellow at any stage of its existence. Her voice has pitched down a bit. Her greed for work and more work has had its effects on her health, and she balances her 14-hour working days by puttering about the garden and chatting with neighbors at her cottage at Penn, Buckinghamshire, on as many week ends as she can manage.
But recognition has changed neither her simple habits nor her direct, friendly manner. Ever since she first came to London she has lived alone in a one-room fiat. Now she has one near Victoria, in Dolphin Square. The cooking is done in one corner, her bedroom is the
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Miss Fireball, M.P.
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divan, her study the comfortable armchair by her bookcase. When she arrived in London she could afford no servants. She still does all her own housework and shopping, cooks her own meals when she isn’t dining out. Her sister sometimes visits her. Their parents have been dead for years.
She calls herself a bachelor—no one would think of calling her an old maid. Ellen is 54 now, a fact she tries femininely to conceal. It doesn’t matter much though. She’s still thought of as “young Miss Ellen” and she still merits it because her passion for mechanical and social progress and her energy give her a youthful outlook.
Her guiding principle in turning Britain’s creaking school system into the solid groundworks of a modern educated democracy is “to provide equal opportunities for all children based on the ability of the child and irrespective of the means of the parent.”
It is a phrase that has a special meaning for her. Ellen’s own education was a thorough one—she has a master’s degree from the University of Manchester—-but she had to struggle for every bit of it.
Her father was a cotton mill worker. He started, to earn his living when he was eight and at 12 was head of his household. He learned to read and write at the local Sunday school, the sum total of his formal education. Of his four children, three went to university, although he never earned more than four pounds a week.
At six the freckle-faced child entered the state elementary school. At 11, she won her first scholarship, and by steady grinding for the prizes without which she could not go on, Ellen continued through the state secondary school and university.
She was always at the top of her class, except in drawing, sewing and mathematics, which she never learned. For the sake of childhood happiness, however, her intelligence was a handicap.
“1 was just a little sausage in the vast educational sausage factory in the eyes of the makers of the state scheme,” she says. She got no encouragement from her teachers, not even the little extra tasks accorded the bright boys, “because after all I was only a girl.” As a result, “I was naughty, because I was bored.”
Later she became a pupil-teacher, instructing two and a half days a week in Manchester, attending classes herself the other two and a half days.
She assesses frankly the consequences of the type of schooling she received.
“With no one to make me do the things I hate, buckle down to mathematics, use my hands in sewing and drawing, I left school with a boundless self-confidence that my brains did not warrant. It has never occurred to me that there is anything l couldn’t do. I liave never hesitated to undertake any job that I wanted to do, and have continually relied on bluff to cover up the consequent deficiencies.
“I learned all too early that a clear decisive voice and a confident manner could get one through 90% of the difficulties of life, and the awful 10% are thrust down so deep into my thoughts by a fierce will that the consequent agony of spirit has remained my own.”
Her mind, her temperament, and her emotions are perfectly cast for the role of firebrand. Her memories serve to fan the flame.
It was only as the tiny girl was becomiug a tiny young woman—
exactly five feet high, 100 pounds— that she learned the complicated set of immediate causes behind her family’s struggle for existence. Her father had been unemployed for some time when Ellen was born. He was out of work because he had been fired and then blacklisted from Manchester’s cotton mills, for union activities.
There was no unemployment insurance then, and her mother kept the family by doing dressmaking right up until the baby came. There were also no maternity benefits or state nursing homes. Her mother was badly handled when Ellen was born, and suffered lifelong agony as a result.
Spurred by her recollections as well as her beliefs, Ellen went into local politics as soon as she finished university. She got a job as organizer for the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers in 1915—eventually becoming chief organizer and official M.P. of the union in 1924 at £1,000 a year, plus her parliamentary salary of £600.
Unlike a lot of feminists since the suffragettes, Ellen has won many of her battles because she’s too shrewd to get hysterical and always knows exactly what she’s fighting for.
She doesn’t argue vaguely about women’s rights. She argues about home electrification to lighten the burden of the workingman’s wife, who, she says, is grossly underpaid. She argues about better domestic science education for girls who want to be housewives,so that they can accomplish their tasks more efficiently and more easily.
She argues that with these two advances, women should be able to get away from their homes for part of the day so that they could study languages, literature and art and exercise their minds as they must exercise their hands.
She fought for equal pay for women in the civil service, startling Parliament by forcing a defeat for Stanley Baldwin’s Government in 1936. It didn’t stick, however, because the Government rounded up many members who had been absent and defeated her right back.
Concentrating on the women of the working class, Ellen’s brand of feminism hasn’t won her much popularity in Mayfair. Just when a group of supporters who admired her ability, her energy and her sound judgment had overcome skittery opposition to Ellen’s politics and wangled for her the post of honorary colonel of the wartime Women’s Transport Service, Ellen spoiled it by announcing her opinion of the corps. She called it “snobbish and undemocratic.” She didn’t get the colonelcy.
She got another cannonade from that section of female British society when she fought against awarding a high percentage of the top posts in the ATS (Britain’s CWACs) to titled ladies. If all the top-ranking jobs went to titles, Ellen said, there would be snobbery all the way down
“Is the qualification of a good Mayfair hostess what you have set down as the qualification of a good commandant?” Ellen demanded in Parliament.
She insisted that attention be paid to the women’s organizing and administrative experience. Lady Astor, with whom Ellen carried on a long-standing parliamentary feud, asked was Ellen “doing all she could to get Labor women into the ATS,” which was then being busily recruited.
“Not while they are in the hands of a social set like yours,” was the retort.
While she doesn’t hold any records, Ellen has been in Parliament long enough to be on equal terms with any
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of the men. She first, ran in the general election of 1923, was defeated, and won the seat, for Kast Middleborough t he following year. J n 1931 she lost to a Liberal. Her union, anxious to return her, nominated her in Jarrow-on-Tyne in 1935. She has been the Jarrow member ever since.
Ellen was neither awed nor reverent when she got to Westminster. A backbencher, she once said, “is as much a cog in t he wheel as the man who screws on Nut 43 in an automobile factory.” That wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy lier lust for work. She wrote t wo novels (one of them about the J louse of Commons) and innumerable newspaper and magazine articles. She made speeches, by lier needle-sharp wit forcing members who reluctantly sit through back-bench tirades to listen. They still quote her famous blast at what she considered a stodgy, uninspired House—“this place is full of ex-future Prime Ministers.”
She made parliamentary history by steering through as a private member, without party aid, the Hire Purchase Act—a bill to prevent abuses of the installment system which robbed many poor people of furniture and goods they had bought and almost paid for.
So it was natural that when the coalition government was formed, Ellen got a ministerial job.
Her first post was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions in 1940. After five months, she was promoted to the same office in the far more important Ministry of Home Security, under Herbert Morrison. It was the 1945 election of the Labor Party, for which she fought with all her eloquence and irony, that brought her a Cabinet post.
Ellen loves politics. The Labor Party falls roughly into two categories of people—political leaders like Herbert Morrison, trade-union officials like Ernest Bevin. With a foot in each camp, Ellen has weathered and launched storms on each side.
Perhaps now that Labor has proved itself as a political power, she puts a little more weight in that direction. Recently she criticized unions for acting as though Labor M.P.’s represented them rather than the whole constituency. “Trade-unions are a good school for politics,” she said, “but not the only one. Get your people into Parliament young enough for them to learn their job. Don’t consider Westminster a reward for a lifetime of hard work as a union official.”
And she spoke with authority, for she is a member of the Labor Party’s executive committee and was its chairman when the decision was taken to pull out of the coalition government rather than continue on Winston Churchill’s terms.
Her complete loyalty to the party has not meant uninterrupted smooth sailing for her in its inner councils, however. The worst scrap she ever got into was over the Jarrow hunger march, an episode of daring desperation.
The great, depression stopped everything in Jarrow, Ellen’s constituency. Other towns began to recover, hut Jarrow remained dead. Eighty per cent, of its population was out of work. Hungry, ragged, dirty with the inevitable dirt of the starving poor, its citizens were getting angry. They blamed Ramsay MacDonald, then Prime Minister but no longer of a Labor Government, for allowing Jarrow’s steel mills and shipyards to close. Ellen, their M.P., could get them no help through the ordinary labyrinth of Whitehall channels.
Both Ellen and her constituents were exasperated. Four hundred of them formed a column to force their plight
on the nation’s attention, and Ellen stood at their head. Leading them fiercely down the ancient Roman road to Umdon, Ellen marched 300 miles to Ramsay MacDonald’s door. Her sullen, hungry force followed with determination. The Prime Minister at first refused to see her, finally succumbed.
The nation was shocked. Labor Party big-wigs were shocked too. Some of the marchers were Communists. Ellen was a woman. She was denounced for collaborating with too bright a shade of red. She was bitterly attacked for making an undignified spectacle of herself, accused of dishonoring the respectability of her post and seeking publicity. 1 Ellen fought back savagely and with sincere emotion.
She countercharged that the party was shirking its job, making reports and doing nothing concrete about its people in need. “Is there a pore in the body of an unemployed man that has not been card-indexed?” she shouted acidly. “The Labor Party has done nothing. They disapproved of the Jarrow marchers because they feared that some of them might be Communists. I hope to goodness that when Sir Walter Citrine (head of the TradesUnion Congress) gets to the pearly gates, St. Peter will be able to assure him that there are no Communists inside.”
In Parliament she spoke again of Jarrow, breaking down in tears at her own vivid description of its plight.
Saw Fascist Menace
Ellen was often accused of being a Communist in those days. Once the Labor Party put her on trial for flirting with fellow traveller organizations. She rode through that fight as well. Although she was sympathetic to the Communists she never belonged to the party.
She has an unswerving political line of her own—right of Communists and Anarchists, left of almost everyone else.
Like most politicians, Ellen has always concentrated on the home front, but she has never overlooked a foreign menace to her cause. She went to Germany several times, from 1932 until Hitler made her visits useless, and preached against Nazi brutality at every opportunity.
She offended a diplomatically proper Parliament in 1937 when, protesting against inclusion of Germany among the foreign powers to be invited to King George’s coronation, she demanded assurances at least that “we will be spared the insult of General Goering’s presence.”
When many Englishmen sighed with relief at Munich, Ellen cried out, “Chamberlain has given away almost everything Britain cares for.” She made trips to India, to Spain, to the United States, to Belgium. At Oviedo, in Spain, a small crowd threw stones at her when she went to investigate military suppression of a miners’ revolt and she was officially “kidnapped” across the border to France. In Flint, Michigan, she climbed in the window of a motor plant to spend the day with sit-down strikers.
When war came, Ellen’s life remained as hectic and eventful as ever. In the Home Security Ministry she was personally responsible for the 2,000,000 firewatchers who prevented England from blazing.
She darted about during the blitzes visiting air-raid shelters, braving the worst attacks because she would not miss one appointment on her jammed schedule. She drove herself because she thought it unfair to submit the minis-
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terial chauffeur to the added dangers. Her job was mainly to see that people and their homes were protected as best they could be. She escaped death when her own flat was bombed twice because she was out inspecting defenses for others.
Her Hat Was News
Once, exasperated at a crowd shouting the reasons why they didn’t want to fire-watch, Ellen rasped, “I’ve listened to you. Now you listen to me . . . where are your manners? It’s no good telling me that you have a perfectly good claim for exemption. 1 am not commissar for fire-watching so I cannot shoot you—though, my goodness, sometimes I would like to.”
Usually sheer force of personality gave five-foot Ellen a heavy edge over a crowd of any size. Sometimes she lost a skirmish. She was the official chosen to try to calm 10,000 angry demonstrators in Trafalgar Square calling for a second front in 1941. She told them “the British Government did not send a mission to the Communist party of Great Britain but to Mr. Stalin. The Russian people said what they wanted was supplies. They know their own business best. Your quarrel is with Mr. Stalin and not with me.” But they booed her down and she never finished that speech.
Her jammed life hasn’t left her much time for the fripperies of less occupied women. She never got anywhere near a list of best-dressed, although as a Cabinet member she has taken to
wearing saucy hats. One black toque with green feathers brought out cheers when she rose to speak in Commons and made the front page of most of London’s newspapers. Ellen said afterward, “I’m glad they like my new hat, but I have more important things to think about.”
She starts thinking about them daily at 9.30 a.m. when the shiny black ministerial car picks her up at her flat. For a few hours she goes over papers, receives callers, writes speeches. When she isn’t making a speech at lunchtime
telling deputations of teachers to be “less overvirtuous and more human”
— she eats with friends, never at her desk even for tea.
When Parliament is sitting, Ellen is bound to be there, often until after midnight. Otherwise there are political speeches to make and rounds of dinners and receptions. There are inspection trips to make from one end of England to the other, visiting schools, chatting with local authorities. Week ends are her only chance for rest, and she gets so little of that, her doctor occasionally orders her to take a few days and just sit still.
She has had many accidents, slipping, stumbling and crashing on stone steps and in automobiles in her hurry to get on with her ceaseless work. A particularly bad one came when she was thrown through the fuselage of a glider the Air Ministry was demonstrating to her. Crawling out of the wreckage, a battered but indestructible Ellen said, “Everything happens to me.” She was right. ★