In her wonderful biography of Jennie Lee, Patricia Hollis recounts an anecdote that neatly captures the character of Dr Edith Summerskill (1901-1980), one of Labour’s longest-serving female MPs. The young journalist Melanie Phillips went to Edith’s home to try and secure an interview for a book she had been asked to write. She was invited in because Edith thought she was someone else, which she was not:
“Upon discovering this, she enquired what I had done for the feminist movement. I replied I had done nothing of any significance. She seemed much taken aback by this information. Well, what movements did I belong to, then? None at all, I replied. None at all? How old was I? And was I educated? Upon learning that I was twenty-seven and had been educated at Oxford, she drew herself up in her chair as if I had delivered some savage insult. Did I not know who she was? Did I not know that she had spent years of her life working so that girls like me could go to Oxford? … And what was I writing this book for anyway? Just out of interest, I replied feebly. Interest, she exclaimed! I was obviously writing it for the money. She had nothing in common with me; she would tell me nothing; and she thought I had better leave. Within ten minutes of meeting Lady Summerskill, I found myself on the other side of her front door.”
To Edith, a person’s work was the mark of her character. She dedicated her life to understanding and then promoting the causes in which she believed: feminism, socialism and, above all, the revolutionary potential of universal healthcare.
The youngest daughter of Dr William Summerskill and Edith Clara Wilde, Edith followed in her father’s footsteps and trained as a doctor at a time when this was almost unheard of for a woman. Her father – who had argued throughout his career for better healthcare provision – had a profound effect on Edith’s professional path. As a child, she accompanied him often on home visits. The poverty Edith encountered on these occasions left a deep mark on her conscience. She resolved to pursue medicine, qualifying in London in 1924. Yet her intellectual interests always went wider than medical practice. She soon found herself developing a keen interest in how to improve healthcare provision, not merely how to practise it. It was her experiences as a young doctor which confirmed her as a socialist. Looking back from old age, Edith accounted for her youthful convictions by recalling a story from one of her first days practising medicine. She had attended her first confinement as a newly qualified doctor. Shocked at the sparse surroundings and the under-nourishment of the mother, whose first child had rickets, she said:
“In that room that night, I became a Socialist.”
This nostalgic tale sounds rather neat. No doubt, in reality, it encapsulates a number of messy experiences which confirmed Edith’s Socialist principles. Either way, Edith poured her energies into marrying her professional work to the advancement of socialism. She played a central role in the founding of the Socialist Medical Association in 1930, a body which affiliated to the Labour Party that same year. To Edith, the need for socialist policies for the nation’s healthcare was both obvious and pressing. From the 1930s onwards she became a vocal advocate of socialist healthcare, and in the process she helped lay the foundations on which the reforms of 1948 were to be built.
While still at medical school, Edith had met and married Edward Jeffrey Samuel. It was to prove a lasting match, producing two children and a degree of stability in Edith’s life that enabled her to pursue her political ambitions. Unlike most women of her day, she was not required by him to cease her own career upon marriage. Nor did she take his surname, a radical and shocking move at the time. Edith was acutely aware of how unconventional her position was, and she resolved to make full use of it to undertake work which would benefit other women. In response to the frequent (and provocative) question ‘why have not more women achieved eminence in the arts and sciences?’ she would respond:
“Personally, I am astounded that so many have distinguished themselves despite the conditions which society has imposed on them.”
Having worked hard to establish contacts within the Labour Party, Edith’s political career began in 1934 when she unexpectedly won a by-election to Middlesex county council. Still reeling from its electoral wipe-out in 1931, the Labour Party remained in a fragile state and Edith’s victory provided a much needed boost. Riding high on this publicity, Edith contested (but lost) a parliamentary by-election in Putney before fixing her sights on Bury for the 1935 general election. Unlike most female Labour candidates, Edith’s seat was eminently winnable. Unfortunately, the contest proved less straightforward than she had hoped. Learning of Edith’s candidacy, the hierarchy of the local Catholic Church approached Edith with an ultimatum. In return for their open support, she must agree to refrain in future from giving any advice on, or advocating, birth control to women. Otherwise…
It was a deal that Edith could not accept. All her experience as a doctor had convinced her of the importance of birth control to the emancipation of women and the alleviation of poverty in working-class families. She refused to agree. The Sunday before the general election, Edith’s candidacy was roundly condemned from the pulpits of Bury’s Catholic churches. The seat was retained by the Conservatives. While the manner of defeat stuck in her throat, Edith’s bitter experience at Bury set her course as a politician who would stick resolutely to her principles, regardless of the personal cost.
In any event, she did not have long to wait. The path to parliament had been rocky, but in 1938 Edith won the seat of Fulham in a parliamentary by-election. She would go on to win five general election contests, becoming one of Labour’s longest-serving female MPs. Throughout that time, Edith campaigned relentlessly on the topics closest to her heart: abortion, child neglect and better health provision for all. Her most important contribution came during the Second World War. A long-term advocate for healthcare reform, Edith took a prominent role in preparing Labour – and the country – for the task of social reform that would come at the war’s end. Her now famous message was very simple: the war had changed forever the British public’s expectations of what healthcare can and should be. Although the achievement of a National Health Service in 1948 is usually attributed to others, Edith Summerskill’s tireless advocacy for that change over several decades played a crucial role.
While Edith’s relationship with male colleagues could be stormy, she had a strong rapport with Clement Attlee. In recognition, he appointed her to the Ministry of Food in 1945. It was an astute move, allowing Edith to draw on her scientific background in advocating sound nutrition during a period of unpopular rationing. By the time of Labour’s exhausted defeat in 1951, Edith was firmly installed within ‘the establishment’ of the party: not universally liked but difficult to ignore. Serving in the shadow cabinet during the 1950s, she became embroiled in Labour’s vicious internal divisions when she attacked Nye Bevan openly and called for his expulsion from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Her stance gained her several enemies, not least Nye’s fiercely protective wife, Jennie Lee, who accused Edith of being a puppet of right-wing union bosses intent on hounding Nye out of the party. As often with Jennie, the rhetoric was far from the full picture: Edith bore no malice towards Nye (indeed, the two had been good friends during the 1930s). But she seemed incapable of holding back when she felt that a matter of principle was at stake. She was never afraid to speak her mind, whether to naïve young journalists or living legends of the Labour movement. It was a quality that gained her resentment and respect in equal measure.
Edith’s later career saw her adopt an eclectic range of causes, from campaigning against the Suez War to opposing the development of nuclear weapons. An ardent feminist, she also continued her lifelong campaign to see abortion legalised and made widely available. But by her later years her political influence had waned. She became something of a grand dame of the Labour Party, admired for her continued fighting spirit and her determination to be resolutely herself.
From Edith’s prolific writings, we gain a picture of her as a forthright, somewhat stubborn woman with an iron will. Unlike many of her colleagues, her professional achievements were not shadowed by personal drama and scandal. Her published letters to her daughter Shirley (herself a noted Labour parliamentarian) are at once rational and touching in their discussions of sexuality, marriage, feminism and politics. They give a picture of a woman who knew what she wanted to change and what should stay the same. In that sense, the letters are a fitting tribute to a determined politician, whose words and deeds did so much for the movements in which she believed.
NEXT WEEK: Mo Mowlam