Friday 18 September 2015

Women, Classics, & the Labour Party

Emma Reynolds MP, Sneerer of the Year
The low point of the week for me was watching the sneer on Emma Reynolds’ face when Jeremy Corbyn’s election result was announced. Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and until recently Shadow Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government.  I used to have a lot of time for her. Now she refuses to sit on the front bench with Corbyn.

I can’t find the clip online. But Reynolds’ bile was palpable. How can people elected to represent us display their contempt in this sickening way for the decisions made by ordinary voters in political parties?

My indignation was fuelled by researching women who were active in the Labour Party—then the Independent Labour Party—in its earliest days. They would all have been cheering rather than sneering at this week's focus on poverty, mental illness, and union freedom. Some had developed their radicalism while studying the Greek and Latin Classics. In my latest book, co-edited with Henry Stead, Greek and Roman Classics in the British Struggle for Social Reform, I have a whole essay about them available online here.

The most influential was Katharine Glasier, a rebellious Newnhamite classics teacher. She worked at Redlands, a private girls’ school in Bristol, until an encounter with demonstrating women cotton workers.  She resigned, became a full-time activist,  and married ‘down’ several social classes in choosing John Bruce Glasier, who succeeded Keir Hardie as Chairman of the ILP.  She was one of the 15 founding members of the ILP in 1893 and the only woman elected to its first national administrative council. A highly successful editor of the Labour Leader, she ran campaigns for the provision of baths at the pit-heads for miners, free school meals for the poor, nursery education, and the Save the Children fund.
Katharine Bruce Glasier

Her most brilliant pupil was Enid Stacy, who when not studying classics campaigned for striking Bristol workers. She often arrived home at midnight ‘with draggled skirt and swollen feet after hours of patient standing about in the effort to win laundrywomen to a trade union’. Enid annoyed the Bristol police and was sacked from her job as schoolteacher. So she devoted herself to the ILP’s campaign for the rights and suffrage of women.

Glasier was ecstatic when Mary Agnes Hamilton, another Newnham classicist and author of several books on classical topics, was swept to victory for Labour in Blackburn in 1929, having won the trust of the Trade Unions. She gained more votes as MP than any other woman Labour candidate. Against stiff odds, the ILP woman, so many of whom were classically educated, had finally taken up their rightful place in parliamentary politics. I bet they would have served in Corbyn’s team.


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