Ellen Wilkinson was the first female Minister of Education and the second woman to become a Cabinet Minister.
Wilkinson was known by some as “Red Ellen”, as in the early 1920s before she entered Parliament she was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Before entering politics, Wilkinson worked for a women’s suffrage organisation and later as a trade union officer.
In 1924, Wilkinson was elected as Labour MP (she felt this was the most likely constitutional route to political power for her socialist beliefs) for Middlesbrough East. In 1931 when she was not re-elected, she became the first woman press reporter to sit in the parliamentary Press Gallery.
Wilkinson became an MP once more in 1935, this time for the constituency of Jarrow. She became a national figure after her prominent role in the 1936 Jarrow March of the town’s unemployed to London to petition for the right to work. The March was unsuccessful in its main intention, but managed to change post-Second World War attitudes to unemployment and social justice.
She became was the first female Minister of Education and the second woman to become a Cabinet Minister in 1945. That same year, she travelled to San Francisco to work on the establishment of the United Nations. Wilkinson had been very quick to recognise the evil of the Nazi regime in Germany and warned of the dangers it posed internationally. She would have been keen to avoid the situation ever happening again.
In the role of Minister of Education, Wilkinson was responsible for increasing school leaving age to 15, ensuring that children were able to access the right to free secondary education, providing free school milk, improving in the school meals service and increasing the availability of university scholarships. She also fought for the expansion of part-time adult education. Although her communist views mellowed during her lifetime, Wilkinson remained committed to fighting to end the class struggle until her death in 1947.