Published on 29 August 2019
A plaque commemorating Sunderland’s first woman MP, Marion Phillips, will be unveiled in the city centre this September.
Yet, little is known about the Labour Party politician who held her seat in the city between 1929 and 1931.
A feminist of her time, she campaigned tirelessly to educate women, urging them to stand up for their rights and take part in political and social reforms.
Here, Dr Sarah Hellawell, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Sunderland who has campaigned for the commemoration for Phillips, reveals the MP’s tireless work and explains why she is deserving of a Blue Heritage plaque.
During the last 18 months, I have been busy delivering a number of public talks as part of the Suffrage Centenary commemorations.
I was left surprised that so few people have actually heard of Sunderland’s first female MP, Marion Phillips.
Because of this, I have delved a little deeper into the archival sources of this interesting politician and her work in the North East.
One of the outcomes of this research is the forthcoming installation of a Blue Heritage plaque at the site of the Sunderland Labour Party’s former offices at 18 Foyle Street, in the city centre.
Recently, there have been various efforts to commemorate the generation of first women MPs, such as the Astor100 project and plaque to Margaret Wintringham in Louth.
I do hope that Phillips’ plaque in Sunderland will help to rectify the dearth of public memorials to women.
So, who was Marion Phillips and why is she deserving of this commemoration?
Born in Australia, Phillips moved to the UK in 1904.
She graduated from London School of Economics then worked on the Royal Commission into the Poor Laws, becoming closely aligned to the British Labour movement.
In 1911 she assumed leadership of the Women’s Labour League and the editorship of the League Leaflet, which was later renamed Labour Woman. She was secretary of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations and worked with the international network of Labour and Socialist women.
During the Great War, she was appointed to a number of significant bodies, including the Reconstruction Committee. In 1918, Phillips became the Labour Party’s first Chief Woman Officer, a role she retained until her death.
So, why was this prominent figure in the labour and women’s movements selected as a parliamentary candidate for Sunderland of all places?
As Chief Woman Officer, Phillips travelled the country and was a regular visitor to the North-East for the women’s rally held in Durham.
At the time, Sunderland was a difficult seat for Labour. Despite a large working-class population, there was a growing middle-class and the seat was held by the Conservatives.
Despite her position with the party, Phillips had not intended to seek membership to the House of Commons. Yet, compelled by her work with the Durham County Labour Women’s Advisory Council, she accepted the nomination as the Labour Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Sunderland.
Her work with the Women’s Committee for the Relief of Miners’ Wives and Children during the General Strike brought her into close collaboration with the women of the Durham coalfield.
In July 1926, Phillips visited the Ryhope Miners’ Hall in Sunderland. She donated a christening gown and shawl to an impoverished mining family who were expecting a baby. In turn, the Barnes family christened their daughter Marion Phillips Barnes.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Marion Phillips’ namesake, who is now 93 years old and still living in Sunderland.
This example is one of many acts of kindness that earned the Chief Woman Officer a positive reputation within the North-East.
In 1926, the Durham County Labour Women’s Advisory Committee asked her to stand as one of Sunderland’s Labour candidates and donated £70 to her campaign.
At that time, Sunderland was still a two-member borough. Alf Smith had the financial backing of the party and trade unions. Notably, the next General Election was held after the Equal Franchise Act. The 1929 general election would be the first time men and women had equal voting rights.
In July 1928 Phillips sent a letter to all women in the constituency, stating that ‘For women especially, this next general election which will take place in 1929 is very important’.
On 30 May 1929, Phillips was elected with 31,794 votes. Alf Smith was also elected.
As an MP, Phillips campaigned on issues relating to the interests of the working people of Sunderland, including paid holidays, unemployment schemes and training for women workers.
However, her tenure as MP was short. Phillips – along with all other Labour women MPs – lost her seat at the General Election in October 1931.
Phillips died just three months later, following a short battle with stomach cancer. Obituaries paying testament to her life’s work poured in.
Ellen Wilkinson described her as ‘one of the best all-round women MPs we have yet had’. E. Stewart from Sunderland wrote that ‘by her death, Sunderland has lost a figure that will go down in history as its first woman member of Parliament’.
This September, 90 years after her election, Marion Phillips will be commemorated by a Blue Heritage plaque in central Sunderland, one of only three in the area dedicated to women. The plaque has been funded by the Sunderland University Gender Studies Network.
The plaque will be unveiled at 18 Foyle Street in Sunderland, once the Labour Party Committee Rooms for the city, at 3pm on Friday, September 13. More information on the event is available here.