‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson

Her ideas, movements and world

Author: Matt Perry

This study seeks to delve beyond the familiar image of Ellen Wilkinson as the leader of the Jarrow Crusade. It has attempted to unearth new evidence to provide a richer understanding of this figure who is remarkable in terms of her achievements, her acquaintances and her witnessing of history’s great turning points. From a humble background, she ascended to the rank of Minister in the 1945 Labour government. Yet she was much more than a conventional Labour politician. She wrote journalism, political theory and novels. She was both a socialist and a feminist; at times, she described herself as a revolutionary. She met Lenin, Trotsky and Gandhi. She visited Soviet Russia, the GM sit-down strikes, the Indian civil disobedience campaign, the Spanish Civil War and the Third Reich. While viewed in the collective imagination as ‘Red Ellen’, whose politics were as red as her hair, her ideas were not static and present a series of puzzles. This study seeks to use transnational and social movement theory perspectives to grabble with the complex itinerary of ideas and her relationship with the movements for social transformation. This research is timely because interest in her life remains. This is in part because her principal concerns—working-class representation, the status of women, capitalist crisis, war, anti-fascism—remain central to contentious politics today.

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