In the last in our series of International Women’s Day blog posts today, Rachel Reeves MP talks about Alice Bacon – who was the first woman to represent Leeds in Parliament.
Alice Bacon was one of the great unsung heroes of post-war Britain. Born the daughter of a coal-miner in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of World War I and elected to Parliament in the great Labour landslide of 1945, her background was not that of a typical Member of Parliament.
For one, just a handful of women had preceded her as MPs. That fact alone made Alice a pioneer, who had to learn to thrive in an environment that was frequently inhospitable to women. By negotiating the challenges they faced just doing their jobs – whether it was the lack of suitable office space for women MPs, or their pigeonholing as being only interested in certain ‘women’s issues’ – Alice and those who entered Parliament with her were trailblazers.
And, Alice was the daughter of a coal-miner. While this might not have been the traditional preparation for working in the Palace of Westminster, it ensured that Alice was perhaps surprisingly well-equipped to carry out her work as an MP, having helped miners fill in claims for compensation in working-men’s clubs – her training ground, and she developed a strong bond with the kind of community she would go on to represent in Parliament.
Most of all, Alice was a proud Yorkshire woman, who lived for almost her entire life in her childhood home in Normanton. For 25 years, she served the people of Leeds as a dedicated constituency MP, and was known as ‘our Alice’ by her constituents. Her surgeries took place at the Leeds Corn Exchange and were billed as ‘Any Problems’ – even today people remember Alice helping with housing, pension, schooling and other issues. She is a great role model for today’s MPs and Councillors.
Alice was a close ally of great Leeds Labour stalwarts like Hugh Gaitskell and Denis Healey. And when she retired, she was made Baroness Bacon of the City of Leeds and Normanton in the West Riding of the County of York.
As a Government Minister, first at the Home Office and then the Department of Education and Science, Alice played a vital role in some of the great reforms of the 1960s: the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion, and the abolition of the death penalty. However, the cause closest to her heart was one shaped by her experience growing up in Yorkshire: the introduction of comprehensive education. On this issue, she spoke as someone who had taught in a secondary modern and understood the problems associated with selective education, as well as excessive class sizes and inadequate school buildings. Alice championed the issue of the comprehensive from the moment she arrived in Parliament, before it was ever accepted as Labour Party policy, and as the minister responsible for schools after 1967, she was able to drive through the reform countrywide.
The Labour Party in Yorkshire has a proud history – from Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle, to Gaitskell and Healey. Alice Bacon deserves to be remembered alongside such illustrious counterparts.