Published on 17 September 2019
A Blue Heritage plaque commemorating Sunderland’s first woman MP has been unveiled in the city centre.
University of Sunderland academic and researcher Dr Sarah Hellawell campaigned to secure the plaque, marking the work of Marion Phillips.
Even today, little is known about the Labour Party politician who held her seat in the city between 1929 and 1931.
Now the plaque has been unveiled in front of current Houghton and Sunderland South MP Bridget Phillipson during a ceremony at the former Labour Party Committee Rooms in Foyle Street.
A feminist of her time, Phillips campaigned tirelessly to educate women, urging them to stand up for their rights and take part in political and social reforms.
Dr Hellawell, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University, said: “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 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.”
Thanks to Dr Hellawell’s research, the Blue Heritage plaque is now in place so people of the city can be reminded of Phillips’ work and her commitment to helping others.
Dr Hellawell said: “During the past couple of years, the UK has commemorated a number of women from the suffrage movement and the first generation of women MPs.
“My research focuses on the history of women’s political activism and it is an honour to shed light on Phillips’ work in Sunderland. It seems right that Sunderland should commemorate Phillips with a plaque.
“She was a champion for local people and many Sunderland constituents spoke about their MP with admiration. That said, her headstrong attitude sometimes led to tension with some of her colleagues in the Labour Party.
“I’m thrilled that Marion Phillips is now commemorated with a Blue plaque and that my research has helped to raise awareness of this important figure from history who made an impact locally, nationally and internationally.”
Bridget Phillipson MP said: “I was delighted to attend the unveiling of the Blue plaque to commemorate Marion Phillips.
“The plaque marks 90 years since her election to Parliament in 1929, and pays tribute to her tireless work on behalf of the people of Sunderland. Marion dedicated her life to fighting for improved education, women’s rights and the eradication of poverty, and her impact on public and political life was far-reaching despite only serving as an MP for two years.
“Marion’s legacy is testimony to the importance of ensuring women are engaged in politics, and will serve as a reminder that whilst much has improved since 1929, there is still more to be done.”
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.
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.