The “LSE Women: making history” Library series highlights women’s stories from some of the archives and special collections held at LSE Library. Curator Daniel Payne shares Edith Summerskill’s fight for women’s rights.
In her first speech at the House of Commons as Labour MP for Warrington, Dr Edith Summerskill said:
There is a saying that women are no good at figures, that they have no head for figures; but I am reminded that throughout this country in thousands of homes the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a woman.
Thus began a political career which fought for women’s rights in every sphere, and led to becoming the Minister of National Insurance under the Labour government. You can read all of Edith’s speeches in parliament by accessing Hansard Online.
Edith was drawn to politics after working as a medical doctor in her twenties and thirties and experiencing first-hand the effects of long-term poverty, hunger and a social service that wasn’t fit for purpose.
In 1938 she became the MP for Fulham West. In her autobiography she describes parliament as “like a boys’ school which had decided to take a few girls”, and is reminded of a discussion she had on the subject of equal pay for women in her time as Councillor at Middlesex County Council. As the discussion was ongoing a male journalist handed her a note:
Altho’ the words I have to say
Are never meant to vex
A women’s only chance of equal pay
Is change of sex.
As Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, Edith recalls in her memoirs her first appearance before the sweet confectionary trade in front of the “aristocrats of the business” Mr Mackintosh and Mr. Cadbury. Edith writes:
The department gave me a brief, but, having a sweet tooth, I thought I would open up with a reminder that…as I have always had a liking for liquorice I thought it only fair to say that while Mr Mackintosh and Mr Cadbury had played some part in my life, nevertheless I would at some time like to meet Mr Percy Bassett. There was a roar of laughter and from the back row up jumped a charming little plump man who called out, ‘Here I am, I’m Percy Bassett’. After that everything was easy.
As a medical doctor, her interests in health persisted in politics. In the 1930s she and other doctors formed a group called the Socialist Medical Association, which was intended to be a “a blue-print for a National Health Service which could be implemented by the next Labour Government”.
Edith wrote many letters to her daughter throughout her life, which covered a range of topics. Shirley Summerskill would go on to become a Labour politician herself. These are published in “Letters to my daughter”, available at the Women’s Library at LSE. Her final letter in this collection to her daughter finishes thus:
The shades of the women who blazed the trail that you and I might be free to fulfil ourselves seemed to sit with me on the green benches of Westminster last night. I feel now that you in your turn will go forward to destroy finally those monstrous customs and prejudices which have haunted the lives of generations of women.
The archives of Edith Summerskill are available at LSE Library and include correspondence, speech notes, photographs, election ephemera, press cuttings and other documents. There is also material available in the Women’s Library at LSE. To find out more and to access this archive, have a look at the Library’s collection highlights webpages or get in touch.
Posts about LSE Library explore the history of the Library, our archives and special collections.