Rachel Reeves: Women pioneers in corridors of power

Alice Bacon speaking at the 1968 Labour conference.
Alice Bacon speaking at the 1968 Labour conference.
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IN the second extract of a three-part serialisation, Rachel Reeves explores the challenges that pioneering Leeds MP Alice Bacon faced on entering Parliament in 1945.

IN 1945, Alice Bacon was one of 15 women elected as Labour MPs for the first time – a group also including Barbara Castle and Bessie Braddock. Labour now had 
21 women MPs, a total no party would better until Labour returned 37 women in 1992.

Whilst Alice was not unique in being a female MP, she was rare. Of the 15 women MPs first elected in 1945 for Labour, she was just one of three to make it to ministerial rank – Barbara Castle and Margaret Herbison, who had a tenure as Minister for Social Security, being the others from this cohort.

Ellen Wilkinson at Education, Jennie Lee for the Arts and the Open University, and Edith Summerskill as Minister for Social Security would all make significant post-1945 contributions, but had been first elected to Parliament before the Second World War.

Of this 1945 generation, Alice’s 
service in the Commons was also only exceeded by two of her contemporaries – Freda Corbert and Barbara Castle who remains the longest serving female Labour MP to have sat in the House of Commons.

Women were very much the minority and the different status of women MPs in the 1940s and 1950s compared to their male counterparts could be seen, literally, in the corridors of Parliament. Quite aside from the usual hustle and bustle of such areas, during Alice’s early Parliamentary years it was quite likely that she or any of the female MPs could be found with their papers sprawled on a bench or even the floor, carrying out their everyday work.

The Lady Members’ room – ‘small, cramped, just seven desks to work on’ – often led to the migration of women members to the library or various benches across the parliamentary estate. Though women were now in the corridors of power, for the purposes of work they were relegated to its floor. Then, as now, glass ceilings remained to be broken.

Alice was certainly aware of this second-class status, but essentially took the same line as that given by Barbara Castle in her own Parliamentary selection meeting: “I am no feminist, I want you to judge me only as a socialist.”

“A woman MP would be a failure if she just regarded herself as a women’s MP. She has got to be prepared to do all the jobs that a man does,” proclaimed Alice in 1961.

There remains ‘tremendous admiration’ to this day amongst her former colleagues for what Alice achieved on her own stead ‘without any social engineering’.

She was clearly unflappable: indeed, one veteran Labour warhorse recalls the day that disaster struck in a House of Commons lift. “Suddenly, Alice’s knicker elastic snapped. This voluminous pair of flannelette drawers fell to the floor. With a cheery smile, Alice just stepped out of them, picked them up, and popped them in her handbag.”

Likewise, she clearly did not lack a sense of humour, even if sometimes at the expense of her fellow women MPs. An article appeared in the Sunday Express suggesting Bessie Braddock and Edith Summerskill had slept in a room in the House of Commons fitted with two beds, ‘stretched out on them and both snoring’.

Braddock’s biographer, Millie Toole, wrote of the evening: “Alice Bacon said that the four occupants of the room were Mrs Ford and herself, occupying chairs, and Dr Edith Summerskill and Lady Davidson on the couches. ‘It is a particularly unobservant person who would mistake [the larger] Mrs Braddock for Lady Davidson’, said Miss Bacon amid laughter.”

Most of all, Alice was loyal to her constituents, the leader who she most admired, Hugh Gaitskell, and the party she loved. And she was worked incredibly hard for these causes.

As she told the Leeds Women’s Luncheon Club: “The difference between a man MP and a woman MP is that a woman MP does all the work that a man does – plus a little bit extra.”

The launch of Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon by Rachel Reeves takes place on Thursday at 6.30pm in Waterstones, Leeds.

Tomorrow: Alice the Minister.