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‘The real women’s party’: The social, cultural, and educational life of Labour Women between the wars.

MCCABE, NEWBY (2024) ‘The real women’s party’: The social, cultural, and educational life of Labour Women between the wars. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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When they joined Labour’s Women’s Section in 1918, women found themselves in a patriarchal movement that ignored their needs and their interests. At least, this is one popular interpretation of the interwar section that this research challenges. To understand why women participated in an organisation that apparently subjugated them, it explores not what role they played within the party but what role they wanted the party to play in their lives. While drawing upon elite papers and the party’s journal The Labour Woman, this thesis is intended to move as close as possible to the ambitions of women on the ground, and therefore focuses its analysis upon the local records of sections and Advisory Councils across England. In doing so, it offers the most comprehensive understanding of being a ‘Labour Woman’ to date.

This thesis adopts a thematic approach, grouped into three benefits women leveraged from their membership. The first two chapters consider education, with a section that aimed to be ‘The Working Women’s University’ and offered residential schools that combined learning with recreation and provided the mental and physical space women needed. While residential schools were only accessible to some women, the following chapter also shows how sections became mini centres of adult education on the ground. The next theme considered is leisure, which is shown not to be a distraction from party business but an important political priority women wanted to achieve. The chapters that explore this demonstrate how women worked to include their families into section life, ensuring domesticity was complemented rather than challenged by activism. As they additionally show, women also asserted their need for independent leisure, and were able to achieve and justify this right through their activism. Finally, the concept of community provides two other ways Labour Women can be understood. First, as a nationwide organisation with shared ambitions, figureheads, and rituals. Second, as a series of sections with different priorities and circumstances, who experienced membership first and foremost as a face-to-face, social, and communal activity.

Of course, this study naturally adds to our understanding of labour history and women’s place within it. To this question in particular, it shows why the party was so effective with women as well as offering a first glimpse of who these women were. Far from relying solely on older women with fewer domestic responsibilities, these pages demonstrate a section that was also often frequented by young, married, working-class women who had families at home.

However, the structure and engagement of this study with other, often siloed, historiographies have also furthered a range of other debates. This work adds to histories of adult education, showing the times and spaces women learned and the circumstances necessary to do so. It also emphasises the need for leisure and recreation for interwar women and shows the steps they took to claim such opportunities, both alone and with their families. Perhaps most importantly, this thesis contributes to our understanding of the, broadly conceived, women’s movement at this time. Both as an example of why partisan histories should not and cannot be easily separated from other associational movements and as a demonstration of the vitality and vibrancy of women’s engagement within the public sphere at this time. As will be shown, like their sisters in many other organisations, the women of the Labour Party’s energies were far from spent once the franchise had been won. Across these themes and discussions, Labour’s women’s sections are shown to be the place women could best achieve their political, if not their partisan, priorities. It was, in this respect at least, the first and most authentic real women’s party, built by and for its members and organisers across the country.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:labour, women, education, leisure, politics, community, interwar, Britain
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > History, Department of
Thesis Date:2024
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:18 Apr 2024 09:23

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