Book Review from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
A Woman of Vision—A Life of Marion Phillips MP. By Marian Goronwy Roberts, Bridge Books, Wrexham, 2000.
A true visionary, or a crusading reformist? Both conclusions could be drawn from this biography of Marion Phillips. Roberts charts the successes and failures of this formidable Australian, who came to Britain in 1905, serving on numerous women's committees alongside Beatrice Webb, Mrs Keir Hardie, Mrs MacDonald and Lady Frances Balfour, eventually becoming Labour MP for Sunderland in 1929, one of only nine women members of Parliament.
Roberts's admiration for Marion Phillips is obvious as she describes how, through determination and skill, Phillips placed the working woman's perspective onto the political agenda. Unlike Mrs Pankhurst, her vision was not concentrated upon extending the franchise. As leader of the Women's Labour League, she described its role as "keeping the Labour Party well informed of the needs of women and providing women with the means of becoming educated in political matters". In this endeavour she gave an impetus for a quarter of a million housewives to take part in the labour movement and helped raise issues such as equality for women in the workplace, healthcare for children, the value of motherhood and an ending of the drudgery of home life. Speaking on the need for adequate bathing and washing facilities in new housing projects, she remarked: "If Labour councillors will not support us on this demand, we shall have to cry a halt on all municipal housing until we have replaced all Labour men by Labour women".
Phillips's tireless efforts on behalf of working women left me a little exhausted just by the reading of it; yet it becomes the cause of my disappointment in the book. Roberts's portrayal of Phillips concentrates far too heavily on the detail of Phillips's political struggles on behalf of women. Or perhaps it was Marion Phillips herself who did so. There were brief episodes in the biography where Phillips broke free from her world of immediate problems and practical considerations and offered some analysis. In an article on birth control, for instance, Marion Phillips stands against the prevailing view of her reforming colleagues to limit family size, arguing that large families are only a disadvantage where economic causes make it impossible to accommodate them, arguing that birth control was becoming the doctrine of liberalism, because the Liberals did not want to make drastic changes in the distribution of wealth.
Such wider reflections were few and far between. Baby clinics, labour-saving devices, wage demands, strike committees, school meals, maternity pay . . . all piling up into an enormous reformist heap. I was overwhelmed by it, hoping Phillips or her biographer could clear a path towards a genuine vision.
Much of her work, and the work of others like her, have made it possible for women like me to be accepted as equal members of our class. As a visionary for socialism, however, Marion Phillips barely scratched the surface. None of her battles for reform could ever relieve the ultimate exploitation of women—that of wage slavery itself.
It is often difficult for socialists to evaluate successful reformers. Do we acknowledge their achievements or point to their limited ambitions? Roberts's book is an interesting read in places, but hardly inspiring. It is up to us, as socialists, to take our vision forward. To quote Phillips in her address to the women of Hartlepool: "There is still a lot of educating to do and we are going to begin by educating ourselves".