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Phillips, Marionfree

  • Brian Harrison

Marion Phillips (1881–1932)

by Lafayette, 1929

Phillips, Marion (1881–1932), first Labour Party woman organizer, was born on 29 October 1881 at St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia, youngest in the family of three sons and four daughters of Phillip David Phillips (1836–1909), a well-to-do Australian-born Jewish lawyer, and his wife, Rose Asher, from New Zealand. She was educated at home, at the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne (1897–8), and then at Ormond College and Melbourne University, where she studied philosophy and history (BA, 1904). She went to England in 1904 to study at the London School of Economics (1904–7), and graduated DSc (Econ) with a doctoral thesis on the development of New South Wales; she published it in 1909 as A Colonial Autocracy. She was a lecturer at the London School of Economics in 1911 and from 1918 to 1920, but was gradually drawn into politics.

From 1905 to 1909 Phillips was employed first by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and then by the royal commission on the poor laws as a research assistant for inquiries into public health, poor-law medical relief, and the treatment of destitute children. In 1907 she joined the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party and in 1908 the Women's Labour League, whose executive committee she joined in the following year. Also in 1909 she set up house with two women friends, Mary Longman and Ethel Bentham. She joined the non-militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, and acted for a time as its secretary during 1910. While admiring the bravery of the militant suffragettes, Phillips was politically astute in forcibly pointing out the damage done by their non-party alignment and by the distractions from democratic discussion that militancy entailed. She was for a time an organizing secretary to the Women's Trade Union League, and in 1911 became temporary secretary of the Women's Labour League; she rose to full-time secretary in 1912 and edited its League leaflet (from 1913 entitled Labour Woman) from 1912 until her death. Katharine Bruce Glasier, gossiping to Ramsay MacDonald on 21 April 1913, said that Phillips reminded her of Eleanor Marx in 'her love of power and intrigue'; deploring Phillips's egotism, Glasier exclaimed, 'O if only she could fall in love and mate and marry. But just now she is as hard and cold as glass' (TNA: PRO, Ramsay MacDonald MSS, 1157/18). In 1912 Phillips was active in the Fabian reform committee, which annoyed the older generation of Fabians by trying to forge closer and more exclusive links between the Fabians and the Labour Party. In the same year she was elected a Labour councillor in the London borough of Kensington, where she pressed for public provision of baby clinics, school meals, improved council housing, employment schemes, and prohibition of sweated labour.

Phillips strongly defended the need for separate women's political organizations, at least until women matched men in political experience and maturity. During the war she was a member of the War Emergency Workers' National Committee, the consumers' council of the Ministry of Food, and the Central Committee on Women's Training and Employment. In 1917–18 she served on the committee on post-war reconstruction, where she often clashed with Beatrice Webb. She became a member of the advisory committee of London magistrates, and edited a volume of essays—Women and the Labour Party (1918)—which aimed to show 'the contribution which the Labour Party has to make upon questions that are peculiarly the concern of women' (introduction, 9). Its ten distinguished contributors surveyed the various needs of women in differing circumstances—as mothers, brain-workers, and domestic workers—and their circumstances in relation to such problems as housekeeping, trade unionism, internationalism, and the poor law.

In 1917 Phillips became secretary of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women's Organizations, which drew together women in trade unions, the co-operative movement, and the Women's Labour League, whose branches became the core of the Labour Party's branch women's sections. The league's conference became the annual Conference of Labour Women, and its secretary in 1918 became Labour's chief woman officer. This ensured that Phillips was well placed for prominence in the distinct structure for women that the Labour Party now established, and she pushed her advantage home. Throughout her career Phillips was known for her powerful and abrasive manner: in June 1917 Beatrice Webb described her as 'shrewd and capable but contentious', and in March 1918 as 'hardly an element of solidarity in an office' (Beatrice Webb's Diaries, 1912–1924, 85, 116). In May 1918 Webb referred to Phillips's 'insolently critical attitude towards all persons and institutions' and her 'sharp satirical tongue'—so much so that she was 'much disliked by the other leading women of the labour movement' (Diary of Beatrice Webb, 3.302).

None the less, personal and party ambitions were now fused for Phillips, and her redoubtable energies help to explain how 2000 women's sections of the party came into existence within fourteen years. She would arrive at area conferences 'carrying a secretary's kit and demonstrating how best to use a card index, how to draft minutes or to keep section accounts' (Middleton, 35), and with two other activists she collated her experience into a practical manual, Women's Work in the Labour Party, complete with diagrams and reading guidance. Labour Woman—an earnest, close-printed, double-column monthly—was Phillips's organ for repudiating any compromise with frivolous views of women: she aimed only at 'the sane working woman who feels her responsibilities as a citizen and desires to carry them out' (Labour Woman, Jan 1920, 8). Phillips, and many women like her, worked hard at the undramatic but necessary organizational tasks involved in creating a new political constituency, settling where necessary for the practical, but never losing sight of the ideal. She was particularly active in advancing women's interests on international bodies, and in pressing for improved working-class housing estates to include community centres with nurseries, communal kitchens, libraries, concert halls, and home-help services; all these she saw as not merely desirable in themselves but as essential to emancipate working-class housewives.

In introducing Women and the Labour Party Phillips had emphasized that 'essentially the interests of men and women are one and indivisible' (p. 10) but that the party recognized the need fully to draw upon women's special expertise in some aspects of life, and that major reforms could be secured only if men and women banded together politically. Hence the party's special structure, designed to encourage women into the political sphere. Phillips's career in the party should be seen against Labour's overall situation at this time: it was transcending its pressure-group origins to break into new areas of support and become a full-blown national party. If Liberal and Labour territory was to be extended and the new women voters mobilized, the more equalitarian forms of feminism could not be pursued to the end; besides, their individualism was difficult to reconcile with socialist and trade-union objectives. A broader variant of feminism, not necessarily so labelled, was required to gear the party into the daily lives of the women who were in the overwhelming majority: wives and mothers who did not necessarily seek paid work. Phillips resolved the tension between class and gender as priorities for those who were concerned about deprivation in Britain by attempting when possible to ride both horses; when forced to choose, however, she followed her party's class priorities and repudiated feminist sectarianism. For her it was more important to defend the working-class housewife and mother through practical schemes for public welfare than it was to carry forward the more moralistic and individualist dimensions of feminism. So ultimately Phillips's career had the effect of collaborating in the two-party system's inter-war fracturing of feminism.

Phillips strongly opposed committing the Labour Party to promoting birth control in the 1920s, if only because the party depended so heavily on a traditionalist and Roman Catholic working-class following. 'Sex should not be dragged into politics', she told Dora Russell; 'you will split the party from top to bottom' (Russell, 172). When feminists divided in 1929 on whether women should receive special protection on hours and conditions within the labour force, Phillips aligned herself against the Open Door Council and with feminists such as Margaret Bondfield or Clara Rackham who contested any analogy with the professional woman's capacity to bargain freely with the employer (The Times, 1 Feb 1929, 13), and she was particularly concerned to defend the expectant and nursing working mother (The Times, 4 March 1929). She clashed more than once with Lady Astor, arguing in Astor's constituency at the general election of 1924 that the House of Commons needed not women, but Labour women. She repudiated any notion of a ‘women's party’, together with Astor's notion of putting feminist commitment above party loyalty. In parliament on 28 November 1930 she accused Astor of criticizing Labour MPs, including herself, when absent, and of absenting herself when they spoke (Hansard 5C, 28 Nov 1930, col. 1723).

Phillips was small, dark, and serious-looking, with rimless spectacles, and became matronly in middle age—'handsome in a coarse and sumptuous way', as Beatrice Webb somewhat earlier put it (Diary of Beatrice Webb, 3.302, May 1918). With W. S. Tomkinson she co-edited English Women in Life and Letters (1926), a lavishly illustrated collection of documents illuminating the lives of British women in the past: servants, housewives, fashionable women, criminals, and paid workers. With a Unionist colleague she was elected Labour MP in 1929 for the double-member constituency of Sunderland. In her maiden speech on 9 July 1929 she spoke up for free trade, arguing that Sunderland shipbuilders had gained nothing from so-called ‘safeguarding’. Defending annual paid holidays on 15 November 1929, she wryly pointed out that 'the sort of holiday that my constituents in Sunderland get is an involuntary holiday, with either Poor Law relief, unemployment benefit, or nothing at all' (Hansard 5C, 15 Nov 1929, col. 2478). Her fellow Labour candidate in 1931, D. N. Pritt, described her as 'idolised in Sunderland', and praised her 'great capacity for organisation' (Pritt, 29). None the less the Unionists, profiting from Liberal withdrawal, won both seats at the general election of 1931.

Although Phillips was the first Australian woman to win a seat in a national parliament, she distanced herself in later life from her Australian background. She died an atheist, from stomach cancer, on 23 January 1932 at the Empire Nursing Home, Vincent Square, London; she was cremated at Golders Green on 27 January. Unmarried, she left her estate (£267) to her friend and political companion Charles Wye Kendall.


  • letter from Katharine Bruce Glasier to Ramsay MacDonald, TNA: PRO, Ramsay MacDonald MSS, 1157/18
  • O. Banks, The biographical dictionary of British feminists, 1 (1985), 162–4
  • B. Kingston, ‘Phillips, Marion’, AusDB, vol. 11
  • B. Kingston, ‘Phillips, Marion’, DLB, vol. 5
  • L. Middleton, ‘Women in labour politics’, Women in the labour movement: the British experience, ed. L. Middleton (1977), 22–37
  • M. Phillips, ‘Suffrage and militancy’, Socialist Review, 11/64 (June 1913), 257–62
  • LSE register, 1895–1932 (1934)
  • D. N. Pritt, The autobiography of D. N. Pritt, 1: From right to left (1965), 29–32
  • P. Brookes, Women at Westminster: an account of women in the British parliament, 1918–1966 (1967)
  • D. Russell, The tamarisk tree: my quest for liberty and love (1977)
  • P. M. Graves, Labour women: women in British working-class politics, 1918–1939 (1994)
  • Beatrice Webb's diaries, 1912–1924, ed. M. I. Cole (1952)
  • The diary of Beatrice Webb, ed. N. MacKenzie and J. MacKenzie, 4 vols. (1982–5), vol. 3
  • The Times (1 Feb 1929)
  • The Times (25 Jan 1932)
  • The Times (28 Jan 1932)
  • P. Hollis, Ladies elect: women in English local government, 1865–1914 (1987)


  • Labour History Archive and Study Service, Manchester, corresp. and MSS
  • JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian


  • Lafayette, photograph, 1929, NPG [see illus.]
  • group portrait, photograph, 1929, repro. in Brookes, Women at Westminster, facing p. 97
  • photograph, 1929, People's History Museum, Manchester; repro. in Graves, Labour women

Wealth at Death

£267 7s. 6d.: probate, 3 Aug 1932, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. M. Bellamy & J. Saville, eds., (1972–93)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
D. Pike & others, eds., , 16 vols. (1966–2002)