Saturday, June 3, 2017

Red Ellen :; The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist by Laura Beers (Harvard University Press, ISBN 9780674971523)

Though it neatly sums up who this book is about, there are many other descriptions of the formidable Ellen Wilkinson that could have been added to its subtitle: indefatigable union organizer, charismatic member of parliament… not to mention the nicknames she garnered over decades of public service: The Mighty Atom, Elfin Fury, Five Feet of Pugnacity, and, of course, Red Ellen.

In fact, despite the painstaking research of author and academic Laura Beers, Red Ellen’s 450 pages seem barely to scratch the surface of the life of a woman who was, according to the author, ‘the pre-eminent female British politician of her day’. She travelled the world, and met Lenin, Gandhi and Einstein. She reported on the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and led the workers on the Jarrow Hunger March in 1936.

Throughout her career, she grappled with decisions that pitted her ideals against her pragmatism, winning admirers and enemies. Driven by a deep-held belief in the interconnectedness of the world’s nations and the need for global social justice, Ellen was ahead of her time – and would recognize many of the challenges we face today, including austerity (she fought hard against government budget cuts in the early 1930s).

Before I picked up this book, I had never heard of Ellen Wilkinson. Now I wish I could have met her.

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