The relationship between the labour and women’s movements has never been straightforward. Apart from downright male hostility and resistance to women in ‘a man’s world’, trade union, labour and socialist leaders have sometimes subordinated women’s issues beneath others. This was certainly the case in the first-wave feminist struggle, with some notable exceptions…
Chief of all male labour supporters of the women’s movement was James Keir Hardie (1856-1915). Elected as the first socialist MP in Britain, he helped form the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and became the first leader of the subsequent Labour Party. Hardie had been influenced by Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst, after meeting them at an International Workers Conference in 1888. He worked closely with Sylvia Pankhurst and other members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). He campaigned energetically for women’s rights, and wrote ‘The Citizenship of Women: A Plea for Woman’s Suffrage’ (first published in 1905).
Hardie was converted to Christianity in 1897, and had ministered as a lay preacher for the Evangelical Union Church and been active in the Temperance Society. He was thus an important, if untypical, bridge between socialism and feminism. For whilst he remained good friends with atheist socialists such as Eleanor Marx and Friedrich Engels, he remained a Christian Socialist:
I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.
Ethel and Philip Snowden came from similar nonconformist religious backgrounds to Hardie. Ethel, later Viscountess, Snowden (1881 – 1951), had become a Christian Socialist through exposure to radical preaching and her experience of encountering poverty in Liverpool slums. She was a leading non-militant suffrage speaker before the First World War, founded the Women’s Peace Crusade to oppose the war and seek a negotiated peace, and later, after a visit to Russia was a strong critic of the Soviet Union. An often controversial speaker, among the views she advocated in her book The Woman Socialist (1907) were state control of marriage, joint title by women to the housekeeping money, a state salary for mothers, housekeeping organised collectively in each street and the conception that, under socialism, women would have ‘no need to paint face and tint hair’.
Ethel’s husband, Philip Snowden (1864-1937), the later first Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, was also a prominent suffragist speaker. Like Keir Hardie, he represented a widespread ethical and religious milieu of the period, in which socialism and feminism were seen as the practical and immanentist expression of the heart of Christianity.
George Lansbury (1859-1940) was the most controversial of the Labour parliamentary supporters of the women’s movement. A great fighter for his native East End of London, MP for Bow and Bromley from December 1910 to 1912 and from 1922 to 1940, he also led the Labour Party from 1932 to 1935. Lansbury was much more comfortable however leading challenges to authority on behalf of social justice and peace. One of the most dramatic instances of this was when he resigned from parliament in 1912 in protest against the treatment of women. Infuriated by Prime Minister Asquith’s response to questions about ‘torture’ of suffragettes:
I rushed down the House in a white heat of passion, shouting to him that what he was saying was exactly what every tyrant said who had out reformers in prison; that he knew perfectly well none of these women, beacuse of their creed and faith, could submit to the conditions which he laid down. (My Life p.118)
Lansbury was unsuccessful in the succeeding by-election, won by the Conservatives with ‘No Petticoat Government’ sloganising. Out of parliament, on 26 April 1913 he then addressed a WSPU rally at the Albert Hall and openly defended violent methods:
Let them burn and destroy property and do anything they will, and for every leader that is taken away, let a dozen step forward in their place.
For this, Lansbury was given three months’ imprisonment. He went on hunger strike, and was released after four days. It was not his only spell in prison, as he was also later jailed for his role in the Poplar Rates Rebellion when he was leader of the local Council.
Lansbury’s first half of life spiritual journey is in some sense a microcosm of the general progressive landscape of his day. Losing his religion about the same time as he found socialism (through the aggressively anti-religious Social Democratic Federation and Mrs Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsemere, he became an agnostic under Dr Stanton Coit’s Ethical Church guidance, and then rediscovered Christianity through the Revd Fenwick Kitto at Whitechapel. He remained a committed Anglican for the rest of his life, but this was also merged in a new synthesis with socialism and pacifism, whilst remaining open to other viewpoints, not least theosophy. At the centre of his generous and passionate heart was his clear understanding of the equality of every man and woman before God and the call to embody divine love. As he reflected, thinking of the desperate women who knocked at his door in the poverty of London’s east end, can we say to each one that they are ‘a sister in the sight of God’? If not:
she passes on, indifferent to our creed which to her is meaningless…
To me the most important question for the Christians of England to consider is this condition-of-women question. (in G.Haw Christianity and the Working Classes, 1906)
Such Christian Socialism also lay behind his later celebrated pacifism, even to the end in 1940. For, as he wrote in a final article in Tribune (published in 25 April 1940):
I hold fast to the truth that this world is big enough for all, that we are all brethren, children of one Father.
Similarly, when he died, his ashes were scattered at sea, in accordance with his will. For:
I desire this because although I love England very dearly …
I am a convinced internationalist.
This is the ‘larger Christ’, sometimes hidden in our church life and theology.
God of solidarity,
we give thanks for James Keir Hardie,
Ellen and Phillip Snowden and George Lansbury,
and for all who have cherished our one shared humanity.
Help us to stand shoulder to shoulder with the poor and oppressed
and with all struggling for new life.
In the power of the One who sets the captives free, Amen.