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Interview with 2017 Stansky Prize Co-Winner Laura Beers

Published: July 10, 2018

Laura Beers, Stansky Prize 2017 Co-Winner

American University and University of Birmingham
Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist (Harvard University Press, 2016)

How did you become interested in this topic? 

After I finished my first book on the Labour party and the mass media, I had initially intended to write a history of women and the British party system. I was reaching that book when I came across Ellen Wilkinson’s press clipping collection, which is held at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. I “knew” Ellen Wilkinson from my work onYour Britain, as she had been an active proponent of Labour’s pursuing a modern mass media strategy in the 1920s and 1930s, and had served as party chairman during Labour’s landslide general election campaign in 1945. However, the woman whom I encountered through the pages of her clippings’ books was a revelation. In addition to being a remarkably media savvy politician, she was an inveterate traveler and consummate internationalist, and her career in the international socialist movement was as impressive as her domestic work as a champion of the dispossessed. (Wilkinson is most famous for leading the 1936 Jarrow Crusade of unemployed men from her constituency in Jarrow to the Palace of Westminster to petition, unsuccessfully, for relief for the distressed areas.) I was fascinated by how these two pieces of Wilkinson’s career fit together, and how she understood socialism as both a British and an international project. My passion for the press clippings led me to abandon the broader project and throw my full energy into researching what would become Red Ellen

Did any specific elements of your training as an historian prove to be useful to this project?

Early on in my career as a PhD student, I acted as a research assistant putting together primary source collections for a course on the British empire. The experience meant sitting in the basement of Widener library trawling through hard copies of Hansardand the British Parliamentary Papers, and my resulting facility with those sources has proved invaluable in much of my subsequent archive work.  It also taught me to be a detective 

Which archives and/or collections did you find most helpful?

The Labour and Communist Party collections in the People’s History Museum were unsurprisingly huge resources, as were the TUC collections at the Modern Records Centre, and the Women’s Library, which is now at the LSE (when I started the project, it was still held in Whitechapel). In terms of personal collections which offered a glimpse of the private Ellen, Robin Page Arnot, Winifred Horrabin and Winifred Holtby’s papers at the Hull History Centre were great finds, as were letters from Ellen to Nancy Astor.  

Did you make any particularly important archival findings? Was there a moment when you felt like you had achieved a breakthrough in your research?

The first time that I went to the Hull History Centre to read through Page Arnot’s papers, an archivist asked me what I was researching and then told me that they had boxes of uncatalogued papers from Wilkinson’s first biographer, Betty Vernon. The Vernon boxes ended up containing typescript notes from interviews that she had done with scores of men and women, now dead, who had known Wilkinson personally!

Did you encounter any unexpected problems or difficulties with your sources?

My principal difficulty with my sources was that – other than the press clippings – Wilkinson had no private papers. Her brother had burned all of her papers after her death, which meant that, while Wilkinson had a huge published archive, if I wanted to track down her private voice, I had to hunt for traces of her in the archives of her friends and colleagues. Fortunately, my husband jokes that I am detective manqué,and I became obsessed with tracking down traces of Wilkinson in archives throughout Britain.

Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career professionals as they begin research projects or embark upon the writing process?

Find a project that you are really passionate about, even if the topic isn’t super trendy. Red Ellenultimately took over seven years to write and if I hadn’t been totally obsessed with the project, I could not have seen it through.    

What did you find to be the most challenging part of the project?

Your Britainwas published shortly before I was married. In contrast, Red Ellen came out just after my second son was born. Finding the time and mental space to research and write a book as a mother on the tenure track is hard, and I was extremely lucky in the support that I had along the way.    

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.?

Red Ellen came out at a time when the Labour party was seriously rethinking its future direction, and I like to think that, for some of the people who read it, the picture that it painted of the early twentieth-century socialist left, and particularly of the left’s relationship to Europe, was provocative in inspiring their own thinking about Labour’s present and future. The project also came out near the centenary of women’s enfranchisement and contributed to the renewed attention to women’s contribution in politics. I like to think that Red Ellenhas played a role in the city of Middlesbrough’s decision to erect a statue to the woman who served as MP for Middlesbrough East from 1924-1931. 

How do you hope your work contributes to the historiography?

I hope that the book serves as a reminder of how integrated many early Labour activists were in the international socialist movement, and of the fact that not all female socialists were hostile to the suffrage movement and organized feminism. Ellen Wilkinson was one of the great “Labour worthies” of the Attlee generation, but her understanding of socialism was by no means limited to realizing opportunities for Britain’s male breadwinners.  

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?

I’m sticking with politics, but branching out into a new project on the politics of infertility in modern Britain. I’m interested in what debates over funding for research and treatment for infertility can tell us about British society more broadly in the modern period – how the social is constituted, who’s included, who’s excluded, what’s the relationship between the individual and the state? It’s a new departure for me, and has me sitting in medical archives, and reading back issues of the British Medical Journal, and I am really enjoying it!




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