Rachel Reeves MP on Leeds’ first Women MP, Alice Bacon

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.

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Rachel at a book signing for “Alice in Westminster”

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.

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Alice talking to Labour Party Conference in 1965

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.

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Cllr Alison Lowe on the importance of International Women’s Day today

International Women’s Day events are held worldwide on March 8 to celebrate women and their global contribution. Various women, including political, community, and business leaders, as well as leading educators, inventors, entrepreneurs, and television personalities, are usually invited to speak at events on the day, highlighting their successes to illustrate how much progress has been made, and often how much further there is till yet to go.

Many students in schools and other educational settings participate in special lessons, debates or presentations about the importance of women in society, their influence, and issues that affect them. In some countries school children bring gifts to their female teachers and women receive small presents from friends or family members. Many workplaces make a special mention about International Women’s Day through internal newsletters or notices, or by handing out promotional material focusing on the day.

In Leeds, we will also be celebrating the contribution of women to our fabulous city and honouring them throughout this day.  I will also be there to tell Leeds’ women why they are an asset to Leeds, their families and wider communities and why they should be proud to be women living in this great city of ours.

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Many women in Leeds will not always have had the start in life that their talent or potential deserved – I was subject to sexual abuse as a child and domestic violence as an adult – but that did not define me and nor should it define us. Women are the backbone of their families, communities and cities.  We are peacemakers, mediators, strategists and bringers of hope.  We keep our families together through bad times and good and we go without to make sure our families survive.  In the workplace we are Leaders of Councils, Chief Executives, doctors, nurses, physicists, lawyers and  Chief Constables.  We are whatever it is we want to be – and whatever it is we believe we can be.

If you are a citizen of Leeds, celebrate all that is great about our city, recognise the huge and continuing contribution of women and girls today and be part of making women’s lives better for tomorrow.

In the words of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:

Countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better. Peace agreements that include women are more durable. Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support. The evidence is clear: equality for women means progress for all.”

Cllr Pauleen Grahame on the Barnbow Lasses

On International Women’s Day – Cllr Pauleen Grahame writes about the Barnbow Lasses, A story of women who worked in a munitions factory which also records the worst tragedy in the history of the City of Leeds – in terms of people killed – a story however that never made the news headlines of the day. A dreadful explosion killed 35 Yorkshire women and girls at the Barnbow Munitions factory at Crossgates during the First World War.

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I was honoured to be asked by our local Historical Society if I could help with a Memorial for the Lasses who worked at the Barnbow Munitions Factory in Cross Gates during WW1.

Due to the official Secrets it was never discussed at the time.  I was adamant that there would be something to remember and let people know about these wonderful Women.

The Memorial Stone in Manston Park was agreed by all involved. There are also 2 Lecterns one at each entrance to  park informing people of the tragedy and the wonderful Women who worked there to save lives and many lost their own. I feel great Pride when I pass the park and see people children looking at the memorial.

As the Lasses would have walked the path to get to the factory I like to think that a few may visit in the night. At our Cross Gate Christmas Light Switch On I always mention the Lasses . It is my greatest achievement on I am most proud of as a councillor to have been involved in the recognition of these brave women who saved many lives and paid a great part in winning the war.

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Cllr Al Garthwaite on the history of International Women’s Day

After being celebrated widely during the first part of the twentieth century, International Women’s Day was neglected, apart from in the Soviet Union, where men would present women with flowers and make them a cup of tea, presumably as some sort of sop for doing nothing for them the rest of the year. This was until the second wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s; from that time, women all over the world celebrate and campaign in the days surrounding March 8th.

In Leeds, in the late 1970s, feminists booked the then-empty-and-going-on-for-derelict Corn Exchange and promoted International Women’s Day events, with lots of stalls showcasing women’s organisations and businesses, film screenings, music, singing, talks, massage, and the chance to help build a wall, facilitated by the organisation Women in Manual Trades. This was very popular; queues of women snaked up Vicar Lane before the start, and we were full all day.

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This idea was taken up again in the 1980s, when Leeds City Council Women’s Sub-Committee offered similar all-day programmes in the Corn Exchange and eventually, the Lord Mayor’s Banqueting Suite in the Civic Hall. Women’s groups all over Leeds also put on events, from motor bike riding to screen printing, conferences against violence against women, steel band concerts and South Asian dancing, funded by a special International Women’s Day grant pot. Vera Media’s 1987’s short film exploring the history of the day, highlighting activities all over the world and focussing especially on events in Leeds, was distributed nationally. (We showed it recently to a audience of mainly young women at the Hyde Park Book Club; 30 years on, it went down very well).

This year, there’s still time to catch some events in Leeds, like I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar); Girl Gang Presents Cool for Crafts Market; the Feminist Archive North exhibition; Edit Wikipedia for Women; and International Women’s Day – the Promised Band, a film exploring women’s lives in Israel and Palestine and how a rock band brought them together. See www.leedsinspired.co.uk/international women’s day for details. Leeds Beckett University and Leeds University also have events, among others listed online.

In the twenty-first century, International Women’s Day is as relevant and necessary as it ever was. Get out there and enjoy.