In 1908 Ellen Wilkinson, a fiery adolescent from a working-class family in Manchester, was “the only girl who talks in school debates.” By midcentury, Wilkinson had helped found Britain’s Communist Party, earned a seat in Parliament, and become a renowned advocate for the poor and dispossessed at home and abroad. She was one of the first female delegates to the United Nations, and she played a central role in Britain’s postwar Labour government. In Laura Beers’s account of Wilkinson’s remarkable life, we have a richly detailed portrait of a time when Left-leaning British men and women from a range of backgrounds sought to reshape domestic, imperial, and international affairs.
Wilkinson is best remembered as the leader of the Jarrow Crusade, the 300-mile march of two hundred unemployed shipwrights and steelworkers to petition the British government for assistance. But this was just one small part of Red Ellen’s larger transnational fight for social justice. She was involved in a range of campaigns, from the quest for official recognition of the Spanish Republican government, to the fight for Indian independence, to the effort to smuggle Jewish refugees out of Germany.
During Wilkinson’s lifetime, many British radicals viewed themselves as members of an international socialist community, and some, like her, became involved in socialist, feminist, and pacifist movements that spanned the globe. By focusing on the extent to which Wilkinson’s activism transcended Britain’s borders, Red Ellen adjusts our perception of the British Left in the early twentieth century.
A thorough, readable account of a remarkable life. From working class roots in Manchester, Ellen Wilkinson went on to become a socialist, suffragist, Labour MP, journalist, novelist, internationalist, trade unionist, Jarrow Crusade leader, and the only woman in Attlee’s postwar Cabinet—a lifetime journey few women, or men, could achieve even now.
Extremely well researched and exceptionally well written, Red Ellen is work of the very highest caliber by an immensely talented historian of twentieth-century Britain. Beers provides a real sense of who Ellen Wilkinson was, how people reacted to her, and most importantly of all, why she mattered.
A highly accessible biography of a major figure of twentieth-century British political culture. Beers presents her case for Wilkinson as a political polymath with verve and a convincing narrative style, and reveals the multifarious roles in politics—both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary—that Wilkinson played.
Beers has produced a detailed account of an extraordinary life.
In Red Ellen, Laura Beers…draws a multifaceted portrait, capturing the woman herself as well as her remarkable political career.
Gives readers a vivid insight into the life of one of the most important figures in the history of the British radical left.
- 2017, Joint winner of the Stansky Book Prize
- 568 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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