Barbara Ayrton Gould (1886-1950) may seem an unusual choice of Labour woman to profile. I’ve chosen her for two reasons. First, her early life was full of drama and spanned the most important political movements of her day. Second, Barbara’s repeated attempts to secure a parliamentary seat neatly demonstrate the barriers women faced for generations within the early Labour movement.
Barbara came from an unusual family. Both her parents (William and Phoebe, who was known as Hertha) were physicists and Hertha was a committed advocate for women’s rights. Barbara excelled academically and won a place at University College, London. Initially she studied hard, but by her second year her growing commitment to the women’s suffrage movement was occupying most of her time.
With her mother, Barbara joined the militant organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906. It was an explosive time in the fight for the vote. Under the control of the formidable Pankhurst family, the WSPU had developed confrontational tactics in its bid to force the Liberals to grant female suffrage. The previous year, Christabel Pankhurst and her loyal companion, Annie Kenney, had stormed a Manchester hustings at which a young candidate, Winston Churchill, was speaking. They had demanded that Churchill answer their question whether, if elected, he would give the vote to women. Churchill refused to be drawn and had the pair forcibly evicted from the meeting. This action caused outrage, leading the audience to refuse to let the hustings proceed until the question was addressed. Outside, Christabel and Annie convened an impromptu protest meeting and were promptly arrested for disturbing the peace. In an act of impulsive bravery, they decided to go to prison rather than pay a fine. The next day, the national newspapers were full of the story and angry debate about women’s suffrage ignited across the country. A new era of suffrage campaign tactics had been born.
For the young Barbara, full of fire in the belly, the need to be at the forefront of that campaign was irresistible. When her father died after a long illness, she was forced to leave her university studies and from that point onwards there was no formal bar to her becoming an active suffragette. Indeed, her mother encouraged it, bank-rolling her ‘apprenticeship in militancy’ until Barbara secured a role as a full-time WSPU organiser in 1909. The WSPU was then developing violent tactics, drawing support not just from militant women but also from several men who were committed to “the Cause”. Among these was a young academic, Gerald Gould, who had been a colleague of Barbara’s at University College, London. Gerald had helped to found the Men’s League For Women’s Suffrage and was an outspoken supporter of the WSPU’s work. Their shared commitment to the suffrage campaign drew Barbara and Gerald closer together, and they married in July 1910.
Crucially, Gerald supported Barbara’s involvement with the Pankhursts despite the increasing use of draconian measures by the state to punish WSPU activists. Having played an active role in the WSPU window-breaking campaigns, Barbara was arrested in 1912 and imprisoned at Holloway along with some 200 other women who had co-ordinated a window-breaking assault up and down Whitehall. When Barbara was refused bail, the prospect of a lengthy and unpleasant prison sentence loomed. In a daring move (the precise details of which remain unclear), she managed to flee to France disguised as a schoolgirl in order to avoid a lengthy sentence. Only when an amnesty was granted to suffrage campaigners following the outbreak of World War One was she able to return to London.
By that time, Barbara had become deeply disillusioned with the militant tactics of the WSPU. She objected, in particular, to the series of arson attacks which had been launched in 1913. When the WSPU suspended its activities during the war, Barbara and her mother left the organisation and joined the United Suffragists, which sustained moderate pressure on the government even during the war years. Only with the granting of a limited female suffrage in 1918 did Barbara’s commitment to the Cause start to wane.
The horrors of the war left a lasting impression on Barbara. By the war’s end in 1918, she was spending most of her time working within peace organisations, particularly those which aimed to forge international solidarity. It was this commitment which led to Barbara’s involvement in the Labour Party. Not only did she become a leading member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, she was also at the forefront of the Labour Party’s creation of separate organisations for women within its internal structure. In the 1920s she served as chief officer for women within the Labour Party, and for a time edited the magazine Labour Women. Yet Barbara’s attempts to seek parliamentary office were thwarted repeatedly. With rare exceptions, women in the 1920s and 1930s were given unwinnable or ultra-marginal seats to fight rather than the opportunity to tackle winnables. This was due to a number of factors, not least of which was nervousness within Labour’s ranks that female candidates would prove unpopular and drive away working-class voters. The practice of relegating female candidates to such seats barred a whole generation of talented women from fulfilling their political potential. For the few who made it, through tenacity, skill and luck, the usual story was one of interrupted careers, constantly fighting to retain marginals or casting round for more promising seats. In her first four attempts to win seats for Labour, Barbara was unsuccessful every time. A seat on the National Executive provided some consolation, but her desire to enter parliament remained undimmed.
Despite, therefore, having every reason to want to keep the party hierarchy on-side, during her time on the National Executive Barbara acted as a voice for ordinary members. In 1936, during the depths of depression in the ‘special areas’ of north-east England, she implored the party to tackle the poverty caused by long-term unemployment. The official response was to establish yet another commission of enquiry, a decision which sent Barbara and Ellen Wilkinson into fits of exasperation. Nonetheless, Barbara willingly served under Hugh Dalton to compile the commission’s report, Labour and the Distressed Areas (1937). The report was worded so strongly that it caused a national stir. It lambasted the government for the blight that mass unemployment brought to whole communities:
“[T]he Government, largely responsible, both by what it has done and by what it has failed to do, for the magnitude and the duration of this social disaster, is sunk in lethargy. Even in its moments of greatest activity, it has been half-hearted and ineffectual and has evaded its responsibilities by recourse to pettifogging subterfuges.”
The lofty style belonged unmistakably to Hugh Dalton, but the strength of the content owed a great deal to Barbara Ayrton Gould. Her resolute commitment to the task doubtless owed something to her need to fill the void left by her husband’s death that same year.
Only with Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 did Barbara finally realise her dream of becoming an MP, for Hendon North in London. In doing so, she was joined by several other female activists who had spent their best years fighting for selection and were now beyond their professional prime. Barbara devoted her brief years in parliament to two main issues: food supplies and child poverty. Having campaigned on the issue for decades, during the Attlee parliament Barbara succeeded in introducing a resolution which called for a government enquiry into child neglect. After so many years of struggle, it was a small but important personal victory.
By 1950 Barbara was in poor health and the demands of fighting to keep her seat took their toll. In the next general election she was narrowly defeated, and decided not to stand again. One senses that Barbara made the decision with a heavy heart, wearied by the demands of office after so many decades in the political wilderness. Having left parliament, she did not live to complete her work on child neglect but died at home that same year.
Barbara Ayrton Gould’s story is one of both romantic adventure and bitter disappointment. Her resolve in the face of disappointment is remarkable. For me, that resolve is a symbol of the frustrations faced by the earliest generations of Labour women. She spent her best years trying to work within the constraints of a political system which, for decades, treated her as an unwelcome inconvenience. Yet somehow Barbara managed to keep the faith. When she finally succeeded in her ambition to enter parliament, it was the culmination of years of personal struggle, imprisonment, ambition and hope. Although short-lived, her brief parliamentary career was the culmination of a life’s work.
NEXT WEEK: Edith Summerskill