In this series, I will be writing about women, past and present, who inspire me and whom I believe deserve to be celebrated. My principle motivation in starting this series began with a desire to highlight some of the women throughout history, outside of the narrow perspective we are exposed to in the media. I realise there is some irony in a man writing about women’s history and women today, but as a proud feminist, I hope that my posts will make the point that these women aren’t just inspiring to women and girls, but should be heroes to men too, and celebrated by all of us.
The first woman to feature in this series is one of my greatest heroes, social reformer, Labour titan, and inspiration for the name of this blog, Beatrice Webb. In this post I will attempt to provide some insight into her life and work, how she is remembered and why she should not be forgotten, and to share with you why she is a hero to me.
Beatrice Potter was born in 1858 to a wealthy family of noted businessmen and Liberal politicians, and was raised in this reformist, liberal tradition. As a young girl, she was not entitled to the formal education available to boys of period, but her privileged background provided her with the resources to become self-taught and soon became well versed in the politics and philosophy of the day.
As a young woman of privilege, she began work investigating housing in London, and undertook research into the London slums alongside Charles Booth. It was during this time that her liberal outlook was challenged by the poverty and deprivation she witnessed, and she took it upon herself to address this situation.
In 1892 Beatrice married Sidney Webb, but continued in her work as a social researcher. Through the Fabian Society, Beatrice became a powerful advocate of social reform and the Labour movement, championing trade unionism and the co-operative movement. Her work in this area continued into the 20th Century, as Beatrice became the lead author of the Minority Report, published in 1909, which heavily influenced not only the reforms of the Liberal government at the time, but also provided the basis for the 1942 Beveridge Report and the subsequent creation of the Welfare State under the Attlee government. Beatrice and Sidney were also foremost in the Fabian Society in providing the intellectual leadership and direction in the formation and infancy of the Labour Party.
And yet, despite the extent of her work and influence, Beatrice Webb is largely forgotten by many today, even within the Labour movement. She is usually referred to alongside her husband as ‘the Webbs’, remembered for the projects they undertook together – founding the London School of Economics in 1895, their intellectual leadership of the Fabian Society and the Labour movement, and the creation of the New Statesman in 1913 – but forgotten for the work she pioneered by herself.
It is true that their joint work was remarkable and in one another Beatrice and Sidney found professional, as well as personal partners, but whilst Sidney Webb went on to hold various cabinet positions under Ramsay MacDonald, and was eventually made Baron Passfield, Beatrice’s own work went largely uncelebrated. It is a cruel irony that Beatrice’s existence has become absorbed by Sidney, a man whose greatest quality in Beatrice’s eyes was the freedom and independence he encouraged in her.
Indeed, the independence, strength and determination which endeared Beatrice to Sidney is central to the admiration I hold for her today. Her rejection of Joseph Chamberlain’s interests due to her desire to maintain her independence, and her refusal to allow marriage and men to impede on her personal freedoms and professional ambitions is incredibly inspiring and prescient still today.
Beatrice Webb is inspiring to me, however, for another reason, in that she doesn’t fit within the narrative of women in history that we learn about in schools and the media; usually reserved to queens and the suffragettes. The suffragettes of course played a vitally important role in women’s history and in shaping our society, and I am not for a moment suggesting that they should not be celebrated and honoured as they are, but we should also look at women beyond the suffragettes, before and after, who made history in myriad different ways.
Beatrice Webb is one such woman. Her role in history, in building the Labour movement and shaping the social outlook of Britain is remarkable, and irrespective of your politics or ideology her impact is irrefutable and deserves recognition. To me, she is a pioneer, who defied the obstacles and the doubters to strive and change society for the better, challenging society’s expectations of her both as a woman and a socialist. She will always be a hero and an inspiration to me, and I hope that after reading this she will be a hero to you as well.