Barbara Castle is a true feminist icon. True, she didn’t burn her bra, storm a Miss World competition or reclaim a gynaecological term for everyday use. However, her career symbolises a very important turning point in feminist history; not only did she prove that women were as strong and capable as a any man and thus well qualified to occupy positions of power in society, but that women needn’t hide their femininity and sexuality in order to do this. She stormed her way into a male dominated political environment, smashing aside the sexist, exclusive, old boy’s network to show that she and her dress could wield as much power as any man in a suit.
Born in 1910 into a middle-class family in Chesterfield, Barbara Castle was raised in a staunchly socialist household with a mother who was a Labour councillor and a father who was a tax inspector but also an intellectual. She studied at Oxford where, as she did during the rest of her career, she competed in a male-dominated environment. She spent her early career as a journalist, marrying newspaper editor Ted Castle in 1944 and with him she went on to found Tribune, a vehemently socialist and anti-fascist publication.
In 1943 she had made her debut political performance at the Labour party conference with her famous call for the government to fully implement the recommendations of the Beveridge Report (‘We want jam today, not jam tomorrow’). She also joined other female members of the party in criticising the gross under-representation of women in Parliament. She consequently stood and won a seat in Blackburn (beating three male candidates), a seat she held until she retired in 1979. Her political ambitions then led her to spend several years as a civil servant, accruing the necessary experience to break onto the political circuit. However, it was her alliance with Harold Wilson which ultimately gave her a break. During his period in office he gave her three prestigious appointments; Minister for Overseas Development, Minister for Transport and Secretary of State for Employment. During Wilson’s second period in office (defeating Edward Heath in 1974) she was also Secretary of State for Health and Social Services.
Barbara would never have called herself a feminist. In fact, she told representatives of the Women’s Liberation Movement in America that ‘women should find a cause bigger than themselves’ and that ‘If [she] had bothered about whether [she] was called Mrs, Miss or Ms, [she] would never have worked up to the good neuter title of Minister’. For Barbara, the struggle went beyond the position of women. Hers was a fight for universal justice, for an ethical socialism that protected not only women but the old, the poor, the young and so forth. On the other hand, she did openly and frequently criticise the barriers to female participation in the political sphere and, particularly as Secretary of State for Social Services, enacted legislation that substantially improved life for ordinary women. For instance, she introduced free family planning clinics that made contraception available to all women and pioneered a child benefits system that paid welfare directly to the mother rather than into the father’s pay packet. Most famously, she fought bitterly for the Equal Pay Act and publicly supported the women of Dagenham Ford Factory in their strike over unequal wages.
Yet Barbara Castle’s true value to women goes beyond legislative changes. She was unashamedly feminine. She was always immaculately turned out and refused to be photographed without first touching up her lipstick. She proudly proclaimed ‘I care about my appearance and I think that all women in public life should, for the fun of it, for their own satisfaction’. She defiantly opposed the idea that femininity betrayed womanhood and proved that being a woman was entirely compatible with professionalism. She urged women not to ‘throw away your womanly assets on being an honorary man. You should have the strength that women have and to call it a man’s strength is an insult’. For, being a woman did not make her qualitatively different from her male peers and she opposed any suggestion that Westminster should be made gentler in order to accommodate women. She did not use her sex as a political prop saying to one reporter ‘I have never consciously exploited the fact that I am a woman. I wouldn’t dare try that even if I knew how to. I have too much respect for my male colleagues to think they would be particularly impressed.’
As such, she never feared confronting men head on. As Transport Minister, she faced down largely male opposition when she enacted legislation that made seat belts compulsory, introduced the breathalyser test and reduced the motorway speed limit to 70mph. Furthermore, she stoutly squared up to the Trade Unions as Secretary of State for Employment and demanded reforms that would curtail their powers in order to reduce the damaging effect of striking on the economy and to allow previously sidelined voices (women’s and smaller trade unions) a role in industrial relations. Although her controversial proposals were ultimately rejected by her party, she was extremely popular with the public at large for her tough stance.
Her popularity was such that many wondered why she wasn’t ever appointed Prime Minister. When asked the question, Barbara responded ‘they wouldn’t have me darling, I’m a woman’. However, whilst she never managed to completely smash the glass ceiling, her career certainly made it possible for future female politicians to gain a foothold in government. Moreover, her iconic status is deserved because of the way in which she challenged contemporary perceptions of women. She showed that being glamorous and feminine did not mean she should be confined to the domestic sphere. She showed that women are strong and powerful in their own right and can occupy positions of power with the same courage, vitality and success as their male colleagues. Furthermore, she refused to base her political personality on her sex and rejected the notion that Westminster should be changed to accommodate a womanly presence. Barbara saw herself as a socialist politician who happened to be a woman and therefore regarded herself as a true equal of her male colleagues. Her significance lies in this refusal to be defined or curtailed by her gender because she provided society with a tangible example of female strength, a solid counter-argument to those men who perceived women to be unfit for the world of politics and business. This is why I believe she is one of the greatest transformative figures in British history and why, in the light of her death in 2001, she deserves commemoration and celebration.
Article by Emily Williams. Edited by Marc Geddes