A Hidden Gem: Britain’s First Female Jewish MP

1 Feb, 2023 | Blogs, Latest

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By Abi Levy, René Cassin intern

As a feminist with an interest in politics I was somewhat shocked – yet intrigued – to hear about Marion Phillips for the first time. I was intrigued because she was the first female Jewish MP and worked to improve conditions for both children and women. Furthermore, I was shocked, because I had never heard of her, or come across her before, despite my studies covering areas of politics and gender. After talking to my friends and family, I realized that many of those around me, if not all, had not heard of her either. This blog, therefore, is dedicated to shining a light on Marion Phillips: her life and work as an early feminist in British politics.

Marion Philips, MP

Marion Phillips was originally born in Australia, in 1881, to a happy middle-class family. There she lived out her early years until she received a scholarship to work on her doctorate at the London School of Economics. While in London, Phillips started working as a research assistant as part of the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the working of the poor laws. This most likely strengthened her passion for politics; following this she became involved with numerous political associations including the Independent Labour Party, The Fabian Society, the Women’s Labour League, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations and the National Federation of Women Workers.

Following her start in politics, Marion Phillips developed her views as a socialist feminist, who was particularly passionate about alleviating the issues of working-class children and women. She was elected as Chief Women’s Officer of the Labour Party, where she worked to inform, educate and promote political issues concerning women, and was able to bring a quarter of a million women into the labour party. It was then in 1929 that she was elected as Labour MP for the constituency of Sunderland. As well as being the first female Jewish MP, she was also the first Australian woman to win a seat in any national parliament. Within her work as an MP, she fought for better schooling conditions and medical treatment for working-class children, as well as an open-air education so children had increased access to daylight and air. Her happy childhood was of particular inspiration for this campaign.

 However, her arguably most important work was within her campaigns for better conditions for women. Alongside Averil Sanderson Furniss, Marion Phillips visited council houses and the women who lived in them and came to the conclusion that there were multiple aspects to women-focused areas (of the time) that begged a drastic change. This is because women were not involved in the internal layout planning of the home, as internal architecture at the time was formed by men and men only. This led to the floor plan being awkward and inconvenient when women were partaking in housework, causing it to be time-consuming, tiring, and frustrating for women at the time. For example, in the kitchen and the scullery, the layout of the rooms often caused endless short journeys for simple tasks like draining the bath with a bucket when the sink was on the other side of the room. Sanderson Furniss and Phillips raised the needs of women in the architecture of the home, and although this did not explicitly change policy, it influenced practices about the home which were not housework itself, to include women.

You might ask, why this is so important?

It wasn’t just that she moved the bath and the sink closer together, it is that, at a time when women were confined almost explicitly to housework, she allowed women’s domestic working conditions to be improved and voices to be heard. This is so imperative as it meant that women would have more time to do activities external to their domestic life, as well as space to do them inside the home, including intellectual activities like politics. This progress fought the stigma that women did not have a voice and were not worthy of an opinion, or of doing intellectual things, which was commonly accepted at the time. Sadly, Phillips served in parliament only till 1931 and died the following year from stomach cancer.

Marion Phillips, therefore, made the home a safer and easier place of work for women and encouraged their voices to be heard, especially in matters which directly affected them. When looking into the home today, although we no longer have to worry about tasks like draining out the bath using a sink, we can see that the internal layout that Marion Phillips inspired has been upheld. The common kitchen and bathroom prioritise safety as well as logistical ease, for example, seen with all of the kitchen utilities being grouped logistically often around the sink, and the same for the bathroom. With, technology has also helped make the lives of women safer and less laborious, as can be seen with washing machines and dishwashers. However, in contrast to Phillips’ time when women’s working priority tended to be housework, women now commonly have to prioritise their occupational work as well, this has meant that housework is often carried out by men too. Therefore, Phillips’ work for a more efficient layout of the home, and the voice of women to be acknowledged for such, have led to some vital benefits for women which can be still seen today, but these changes have also come to benefit men. However, although Marion’s work improved conditions for women within their houses, many threats to women’s ease and unsafety outside of the home remain.

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