'A remarkable woman': Debbie Abrahams reviews new biography of Edith Summerskill
Like many, I knew of Dr Edith Summerskill but didn’t really know about her. The recently published, very readable biography by former Labour MEP, Mary Honeyball, soon put a stop to that.
Born in 1901 to Dr William Summerskill and Edith Wilde and elected to the House of Commons in 1938, just before World War II broke out, what a delight it was to read Edith’s story. Given it is such a remarkable story of such a remarkable woman, I did wonder why it is only now that the first full length biography has been written about her.
Mary Honeyball hinted that this was primarily because the diarists of the day didn’t have an interest in women’s biographies, but given Barbara Castle was only seven years her junior in parliamentary terms and many thousands of words have been written about her, perhaps it was more about the material that was available about her. There was little from official documents, such as cabinet papers, as Edith was a cabinet attendee but never a member.
She was a doughty campaigner for women’s rights, the likeness of which wasn’t seen again until Harriet Harman took up the mantle again in the 1980s
Edith’s son, Michael Summerskill, is a huge source of the more personal material about Edith. From this, I think the reason so little has been written about Edith is that she was more interested in doing what she thought was right rather than popular even with her own Labour Party colleagues, and this was reflected in the campaigns she pursued. Together with Eleanor Rathbone, she was a doughty campaigner for women’s rights, the likeness of which wasn’t seen again until Harriet Harman took up the mantle again in the 1980s.
There was a remarkable story about Edith in the 1935 general election where she contested the Bury constituency seat near to me. Edith had already campaigned for a women’s right to have choice over her fertility, which was contrary to the teachings of the local Roman Catholic priests. They demanded that Edith denounce the use of contraception, but she refused. Although it is not thought she lost the election solely because of her stance, it undoubtedly influenced it. She is said to have learnt a valuable lesson from that experience and refused to contest the 1938 Fulham West seat in a by-election until she had a guarantee that the local clergy wouldn’t interfere in her election campaign.
In addition to Edith’s campaign for women’s fertility rights, she also campaigned for day nurseries, better education for girls, analgesia in childbirth, equal pay for women and for women to take up paid employment during the Second World War. Edith also introduced legislation to ensure that women have an equal share to the matrimonial finances and a right to stay in the home after a marriage breaks down.
What contributed to Edith’s remarkable story was that before she was elected as a Member of Parliament, she was a practising GP and she continued working with her husband and GP partner, Dr Jeffrey Samuel, in their practice after her election.
But what struck me most was why Edith was so fiercely independent and driven in the way she was at a time when women seldom worked after marriage, let alone after having children (in addition to Michael, Edith and Jeffrey had a daughter, Shirley).
Once more, Michael’s personal documents provide some understanding. Edith’s father, William, was a doctor and her love of medicine came from him, as did her desire to tackle to the poverty she witnessed, but he was also a serial adulterer fathering several children. At a time before child benefit or family allowance, when having a child outside marriage would condemn the woman as a social pariah, Edith’s mother (Edith senior) took responsibility for supporting these children, noting down the payments in a leger when these women came to their house for money. Unsurprisingly, Edith senior was said to be very unhappy and felt trapped. Edith junior was said to be fully aware of her father’s philandering and was always publicly supportive of him, but it does make me wonder how much these circumstances influenced her life choices.
I can thoroughly recommend this book on the life of the exceptional Edith Summerskill.
Debbie Abrahams is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.
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