The life and legacy of Barbara Castle

How British MP Barbara Castle thrived in a male dominated sphere and was instrumental in the fight for gender equality

International Women’s Day was celebrated this a few weeks ago and it seemed only fitting to ask ourselves about the great women leaders of the past, for inspiration for the future, and to see what we can aspire to today. Barbara Castle was a British MP under the Wilson government. The choices she made affect our daily lives today (making seat belts mandatory as Minister of Transport and fighting for the Equal Pay Act being just two of them). Although she was very well known at the time, she has been somewhat  forgotten nowadays, fading in Margaret Thatcher’s shadow. This is a brief attempt to tell her story.

Fraught father-daughter ties

“She had a love-hate relationship with Oxford university and lamented the confined lives they led in the women’s college which was a direct result of Oxford’s openly sexist attitude.”

Barbara Betts was born in 1910 and spent most of her childhood in Bradford with her sister and brother. She was raised in a socialist family. As she confides in her autobiography “Fighting all the Way”, her mother was a great influence in her life. She was, as she would say, a “William Morris socialist”, wanting to turn “ugliness into beauty”. Her father was a much more authoritarian figure in her life, an intellectual civil servant, passionate about socialism, but he always held respect for Christian ideals. Although her father was strict, had many faults and a very short temper, he pushed Barbara to be her very best and fight for what she wanted. From time to time she would rebel against the political environment she found herself in, wanting to differentiate herself from her family. At age thirteen she published a playful poem in The Pioneer that acknowledged this ongoing discussion with her father. It ran :

“The other day, I chanced to say,

In life there are to learn

So many things, and time has wings,

That one must need discern

Those are best, and leave the rest,

The finer ones to fix.

‘I’ll not’, I said, ‘bother my head

Concerning politics.’

My father said, from his wise head,

‘What you have said is true,

Many would know, if time were slow,

Life’s treasures through and through,

But time is short, and so we ought,

That with men we may mix,

To learn indeed the few we need,

And one is politics.

‘All little deeds, and daily needs

Are ruled by politics.

Some new direction, at each election

You soon will help to fix.

Your daily life will teem with strife,

You’ll get some nasty kicks,

You’ll act the goat when you’ve a vote,

Devoid of – politics!’”

And indeed, Barbara went on to study politics at Oxford in 1929. She had a love-hate relationship with the university and lamented the confined lives they led in the women’s college which was a direct result of Oxford’s openly sexist attitude. Sexual discrimination, she complained, even extended to food. The women’s colleges were poor compared to the male ones. Although Barbara criticized the college, she did make lifelong friends there and she soon made the Oxford Labour Club her own, using her leadership skills to make a change. She notably fought against the absurdity of the old Oxford attitudes. In her last year at Oxford, Barbara was so engrossed in the Labour campaign that she only received a third for her degree. This came as a shock and was a real blow to her self confidence. She had disappointed her father and herself and was at a loss as to what to do after university.

Politics as a profession

“Barbara Castle ended women’s strike by increasing their rate of pay to 8% below that of men, rising to the full category B rate the following year.”

The 1930s were hard on Barbara. Like many other unemployed undergraduates during the deep depression, she had to live with her parents in Hyde. However, she once again found consolation in politics and became a prominent member of the Hyde Labour Club. There she met William Mellor, who was to be a formative influence in her life. Their relationship helped restore her self-confidence. He broadened her horizons and  introduced her  to new social circles. He encouraged her to do more public speaking, article writing and branch organizing for the Socialist League.

Barbara’s great opportunity came in the form of the 1943 Labour party conference where she was at last nominated to be delegate. Her fiery, passionate temper served her well. In fact, the speech on the Beveridge issue was such a success that Nye Bevan began taking notice of her politically. This was a milestone in her career as well as in her personal life. Ted Castle was the journalist who put Barbara Betts on the first page of The Mirror and that is how she met her husband. The story how they met is reflective of how their relationship dynamic was to be for the rest of their married life. He was always a very supportive husband, encouraging her and putting her in the spotlight, happy to see her succeed, preferring the sidelines himself. This relationship was essential in her later career and overall political success.

This initial success led her to become a Blackburn MP after the end of the Second World War. In later years, she always emphasised the pride she took in keeping in close touch with her constituents. For instance, on her second week she decided she needed to learn more about the cotton industry, which played an important role in her constituents’ lives, and she did so by working in a cotton mill and staying with a cotton worker’s family for a week. This is one of the many examples she gives in her autobiography.

During her time in parliament, Barbara Castle was not the most appreciated MP in parliament. Her fellow female MPs often criticized her flirtiness, which was perceived as a lack of professionalism, while a lot of male MPs deplored her authoritarian temperament and stubbornness that did not leave much space for compromise and negotiation. She was however well respected overall. One of the reasons she was so valued was her efficiency. She accomplished the things she set her mind to. Thus, one could argue that the personality traits she was criticized for were also those which made her a good minister.

A lasting legacy

“The personality traits she was criticized for were also those which made her a good minister.”

Today, Barbara Castle is most known for her role in the advancement of the Equal Pay Act. In 1968, Dagenham Ford sewing machinists went on strike when women workers at the firm learned  that their positions were being unfairly downgraded from more skilled production jobs to less skilled production jobs. Essentially, they would be paid 15% less than men for the same exact work. This strike went on for three weeks and resulted in a halt to all car production. As Secretary of State for Employment under Harold Wilson’s government, Barbara Castle ended the strike by increasing their rate of pay to 8% below that of men, rising to the full category B rate the following year. This led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970 which for the first time aimed to prohibit inequality of treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment.

Even though Barbara Castle played an important role in the emancipation of women, when asked if she considered herself a feminist, her answer was always twofold. She put forward quite an innovative interpretation of feminism for her time. During her entire career she had to fight for her rights and opinion in a mostly male environment. She did not believe in a women’s development in antagonism to men but in partnership with men. She identified as a very feminine person and took pride in being married and running a home. However, at the same time, she was never going to tolerate any injustice. She believed in choice and in equal opportunities. As she once said to the Shirley Conran, leader of the “Women in Media” group for equal rights: “Once you’ve won a right, you have to fight to keep it.”