International Women’s Day Reading List

From feminist theory, to history and contemporary politics, these are some of Pluto’s best books, old and new, that celebrate radical women.


Revolutionary Learning: Marxism, Feminism and Knowledge by Sara Carpenter and Shahrzad Mojab Carpenter T03129

Revolutionary Learning by Sara Carpenter and Shahrzad Mojab explores the Marxist and feminist theorisation of knowledge production and learning. From an explicitly feminist perspective, the authors reconsider the contributions of Marx, Gramsci and Freire to educational theory, expanding Marxist analyses of education by considering it in relation to patriarchal and imperialist capitalism.  The reproductive nature of institutions is revealed through an ethnography of schools and pushed further by the authors who go on to examine how education and consciousness connects with the broader environment of public policy, civil society, the market, and other instruments of ‘public pedagogy.’

The book’s use of work by feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial scholars means it will have significant implications for critical education scholarship, but its use value extends beyond educational praxis; providing the tools dissect, theorize, resist and transform capitalist social relations.


Captive Revolution: Palestinian Women’s Anti-Colonial Struggle within the Israeli Prison System by Nahla AbdoAbdo T02851

Throughout the world, women have played a part in struggles against colonialism, imperialism and other forms of oppression, but their vital contributions to revolutions, national liberation and anti-colonial resistance are rarely chronicled.

Nahla Abdo’s Captive Revolution seeks to break the silence on Palestinian women political detainees. Based on stories of the women themselves, as well as her own experiences as a former political prisoner, Abdo draws on a wealth of oral history and primary research in order to analyse their anti-colonial struggle, their agency and their appalling treatment as political detainees. Through crucial comparisons between the experiences of female political detainees in other conflict; a history of female activism emerges.

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‘Feminism is for Everybody’ bell hooks for International Woman’s Day

bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody is the antidote to every ‘when’s international men’s day?!’ tweet. Designed to be read by all genders, this short, accessible introduction to feminist theory, by one of its liveliest and most influential practitioners, seeks to rescue feminism from esoterism and academic jargon; simplifying, arguing and convincing.



Everywhere I go I proudly tell folks who want to know who I am and what I do that I am a writer, a feminist theorist, a cultural critic. I tell them I write about movies and popular culture, analysing the message in the medium. Most people find this exciting and want to know more. Everyone goes to movies, watches television, glances through magazines, and everyone has thoughts about the messages they receive, about the images they look at. It is easy for the diverse public I encounter to understand what I do as a cultural critic, to understand my passion for writing (lots of folks want to write, and do). But feminist theory — that’s the place where the questions stop. In- stead I tend to hear all about the evil of feminism and the bad feminists: how “they” hate men; how “they” want to go against nature — and god; how “they” are all lesbians; how “they” are taking all the jobs and making the world hard for white men, who do not stand a chance. When I ask these same folks about the feminist books or magazines they read, when I ask them about the feminist talks they have heard, about the feminist activists they know, they respond by let- ting me know that everything they know about feminism has come into their lives thirdhand, that they really have not come close enough to feminist movement to know what really happens, what it’s really about. Mostly they think feminism is a bunch of angry women who want to be like men. They do not even think about feminism as being about rights — about women gaining equal rights. When I talk about the feminism I know — up close and personal — they willingly listen, although when our conversations end, they are quick to tell me I am different, not like the “real” feminists who hate men, who are angry. I assure them I am as a real and as radical a feminist as one can be, and if they dare to come closer to feminism they will see it is not how they have imagined it.

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The story behind ‘Suffragette’

For International Women’s Day, Jaqueline Mulhallen writes on the inadequacies of the film Suffragette

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The film Suffragette comes out on DVD this week, in part to coincide with International Women’s Day. While the film has been praised for portraying the suffering, determination and sacrifice of women who were trying to get the vote, it tells only part of the story.

Set in the last couple of years of a campaign which the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had launched nine years earlier, the film focuses on the more violent and desperate phase of the campaign. It includes the hunger strikes and the force-feeding which many suffered, as well as the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby while she was attempting to attach the WSPU colours to the King’s horse, as well as documenting the women’s protests through window-breaking and arson. However, it ignores the origins of the organisation, which started amongst a number of women from the Labour movement in Manchester and the North West.

The Northern cotton mills employed by far the largest group of women workers in the country, and the trade union organisers Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth were encouraging the mill workers to demand the vote. At the large protest in Downing Street in 1905, these women from the cotton mills in their grey shawls and clogs formed a significant part of the crowd. Other early protests included women from East London waving red flags. Although the film shows a working class woman from East London, her experience is at odds with the real story of women in the East End which is much more exciting and dramatic than the story of the film.

Over time, the WSPU became increasingly by Unknown photographer, bromide print, mid 1900sundemocratic. One of the original figures of the movement Christabel Pankhurst (who does not feature in the film) wanted her ideas to prevail, and splits occurred. The first was in 1907 when a number of women left the organisation to form the Women’s Freedom League. Christabel was more attracted to wealthy women, who gave generously to the WSPU, and her politics became more and more orientated towards the Conservative Party of the time. She began to see working class women as irrelevant to the fight for the vote. The failing of this re-orientation was proven when she and her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst met Herbert Henry Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister in 1912. In typical fashion, he stood firmly against their demands for votes for women.

While the suffragettes’ initial window breaking protest was a response to violence suffered by women from the police was a success, the arson attacks which began in 1912 started to lose support among the general public. Soon, a warrant was issued for Christabel’s arrest, and she fled to Paris. She never suffered through a hunger strike and spent only a brief time in prison, and after her release was able to direct the WSPU campaign from abroad. Then came the second split with her supporters Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, which occurred due to their disagreements over the violent turn of the campaign.

It was then that Christabel’s younger sister, Sylvia, decided to give up her career as an artist SylviaP-001and become a leader of the WSPU. Sylvia Pankhurst believed that the vote could only be won by building a mass organisation of working-class women together with men. Sylvia had been a loyal member of the WSPU, selling the paper, writing for it, organising and speaking at meetings and going on hunger strike, but she had never openly criticised its policies, despite the fact she was a friend of Keir Hardie, and never gave up her commitment to socialist politics.

In 1912 Sylvia opened branch of the WSPU in Bow, London. This East London Federation of Suffragettes grew into a large organisation which included men. At the huge demonstrations and meetings held by the ELFS the police were rarely able to arrest Sylvia, who was protected by both men and women. This was the time of the Great Unrest, and many of the men in Bow worked in the docks, an area which was vulnerable to strikes.

Unlike Christabel, Sylvia had been so successful in her aim of building a strong organisation of working women, that in 1914 she was able to organise a deputation of six of these women to see the Prime Minister by threatening him with a hunger strike outside the House of Commons. The huge procession which accompanied this frail dying woman there consisted of both men and women whose presence so near Parliament must have alarmed the government who prevented the demonstration proceeding any further. However, Sylvia gave the police the slip and arrived in a taxi. The six women who saw Asquith finally convinced him of the justice of giving votes for women with their moving life stories.

Looking again at the film Suffragette, it is difficult to see how any working man or woman in 1912 could have been unaware of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, or find it necessary to go anywhere else in London to carry out activity, when there were so many meetings and demonstrations right there at home. Given the support men gave to the East London Federation it is also strange to see the men in the film so antagonistic towards the women. While Sylvia’s initial speeches had been greeted with rotten vegetables and fish heads, this phase did not last long and Sylvia herself was very popular. The husband in the film Suffragette separates from his wife because of her activity and gives their child up for adoption. This doesn’t accord with anything I have read about working-class communities at that time, nor does it ring true with my experience of living in East London for the last 20 years of the 20th century.


Jacqueline Mulhallen wrote and performed in the plays ‘Sylvia’ and ‘Rebels and Friends’. Her ground-breaking book The Theatre of Shelley (Open Book Publishers, 2010) has been internationally acclaimed. She contributed a chapter on Shelley to The Oxford Handbook to Georgian Theatre (OUP, 2014) shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize 2015.


Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

Ellen Wilkinson: Communism, feminism and the Labour Party

For International Women’s Day, Paula Bartley celebrates one of the UK’s boldest radical politicians.

Remember When "Red Ellen" - Ellen Wilkinson MP - who led the Jarrow Marchers speaking in Trafalgar Square

On March 8th 1938, Ellen Wilkinson was the key-note speaker for the first celebration of International Women’s Day in London. Today, her voice still resonates, at a time when our country is faced with a government all too keen to punish the underprivileged and all too keen to protect the interests of a rich few.

From an early age, Ellen Wilkinson’s veins flowed with a political blood and her whole life revolved around campaigns for social justice in one form or another. She was committed to women’s rights from an early age – in 1913, aged 21, she became a paid worker for the Manchester National Union of Women’s Suffrage. By July 1915 Ellen was appointed the first national organiser for women at the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers. All her life she remained a trade unionist, proud of the links between NUDAW, the Labour Party and the working-class.

During the war – as with so many young  people – Ellen became attracted to revolutionary communism. On this day, nearly one hundred years ago, women textile workers in Petrograd, Russia celebrated International Women’s Day by downing their tools and taking to the streets demanding bread for their children and an end to the war. Over the next few days women swept through Petrograd, encouraging men to support their protests. The March revolution had begun, the Tsar resigned and a new Provisional Government was formed. In November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power and attempted to create a socialist state in Russia. Like many on the left, Ellen was swept away by the Russian revolution and became excited by the possibility of communism in the United Kingdom.

Ellen became one of the first members of the Communist Party, and she remained a member until the Labour Party made it a proscribed organisation. In 1924 Ellen, now 33 years old, stood as Labour Party candidate for Middlesbrough East. She was the only woman on the opposition benches and one of only four women in the House of Commons.

Ellen was a trade union sponsored MP and all her life fought to improve the pay and conditions for working people. In May 1926 there was a General Strike in support of coal-miners who had had their wages cut. Ellen worked hard to support the miners and later helped immortalise the strike in two books. Her co-authored A Workers History of the Great Strike is an emotionally charged account of those nine days and her autobiographical novel Clash captures the atmosphere and excitement of the struggle.

Unsurprisingly, the Tory Government did not approve of strike action, and did its utmost to make the General Strike fail. When the strike collapsed the Government reduced wages, increased working hours and permitted conditions in the mines to deteriorate even more.

By 1927, the Government had passed the Trades Disputes Act which restricted workers’ rights even further. It made sympathetic strikes illegal, protected strike-breakers, and made picketing almost impossible. These rights were later won back … and later taken away by Margaret Thatcher.

The Trades Disputes Act also made it harder for unions to raise funds. Instead of members ‘contracting out’ of paying a levy to the Party the new Act made them ‘contract in’.  Ellen and her union thought the Trades Disputes Act was a calculated attempt to cripple the trade unions and to destroy the Labour party. It was, they believed, ‘inspired by motives of class and partisan hostility.’

Indeed, she insisted that ever since the Conservative Government had been returned to power they had worked steadily in the interests of the rich.

But, as ever, history delivers unexpected political twists. In 1929, despite Tory attempts to undermine the Labour Party, Labour won the next election. Thanks to the efforts of Ellen and other sympathetic MPs, all women over the age of 21 were eligible to vote. Fourteen women MPs were elected, nine of whom were Labour. But the Labour Party was immediately faced with one of the world’s biggest economic disasters. On October 29th 1929 the Wall Street Crash precipitated a world-wide economic crisis. Banks collapsed, businesses went bust, consumer spending plummeted, currencies lost their value and unemployment rose.

The Labour Government had an economic choice: it could either cut expenditure or pump money into the economy. It chose austerity.

This was 1930, not 2016, yet Ellen knew exactly where to place the blame for this economic catastrophe: the greed of the bankers. ‘We are told’ she thundered ‘that the Budget doesn’t balance, that there are going to be terrible things happen unless you are prepared to accept cuts – cuts everywhere except in the dividend of the bankers’.

Ellen believed that a planned economy was the only real solution to the economic crisis. She wanted to nationalise the Bank of England and key industries. Capitalism, she believed, needed to be controlled. The debate on the cuts – as we know – led to the break up of the Labour Government.  It eventually collapsed in August 1931. Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Labour leader to become Prime Minister of a Conservative dominated Coalition Government. Ellen, as with most Labour MPs, refused to join it. It was, and still is, the most damaging split that the Labour Party ever experienced. And it took a long time – fourteen years in effect – to recover.

In September 1931 Ramsay McDonald was expelled from the Labour Party and the following month a General Election took place. The National Government, with McDonald as leader, won a landslide victory securing 554 seats: all at the expense of the Labour Party which won a humiliating 52. It was a crushing defeat. Ellen lost her seat, and no Labour women were left in Parliament. The Labour Party had kept to its core values but at the expense of a loss of power.  It certainly seemed as if the Labour Party had wandered into a political wilderness from which it would be unable to re-emerge.

Ellen missed Parliament, and in 1935 she stood and was elected for Jarrow.  Once again, she was the only woman on the Labour benches. In the early 1930s, Jarrow was one of the most disadvantaged and depressed towns in England. It had one of the worst unemployment records, largely because the Conservative government were instrumental in closing down the shipyard. In Ellen’s words they ‘had cut the throat of Jarrow’. While the banks were ‘stuffed full of money’, she complained, ‘I am working with men and women who are without’.

Ellen is best known for her organisation of the Jarrow Crusade, a march that has become thejarrow iconic image of the Hungry Thirties, an image of resistance, an image of survival, an image of resolution and fortitude. On Monday October 5th 1936 the marchers set off to walk to London; on October 31st, thirty days and 290 miles later, they reached the capital.

The Crusade hit the headlines. And in her electrifying account of the Crusade with its evocative title, The Town that was Murdered, she ensured that the March would remain celebrated.

Ellen was no dreamy intellectual hoping for an unrealistic nirvana. She was a pragmatist, a realist. Her politics was informed by the lives of people like her Jarrow constituents – not by reading theoretical handbooks.

Ellen has deep resonance for anyone interested in politics today. The MP for Jarrow was clear about what she believed. She talked like a human being about real things. Her words were delivered with such feeling that you trusted what she said. She was no political robot, blindly iterating policy if she thought it might win votes. She was one of that rare breed: a conviction politician whose compassion was always evident. For me, she represented Labour’s heart and soul. She was ‘unspun’, inspirational, committed to the values of equality and fairness.


Paula Bartley is an independent scholar and former Senior Lecturer in History at the Bartley EWUniversity of Wolverhampton. She is the author of Votes for Women (2007), Emmeline Pankhurst (2002) and The Changing Role of Women (1996). Her work has appeared in the American Historical Review, Social History, Midland History and Women’s History Review.


Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister is available to buy from Pluto Press here.