April 13, 2021

We’re republishing Jenni’s appreciation of Baroness Shirley Williams following the news of the politician’s death. 

In spring of 2013, when I was asked to chair a discussion at the Women of the World conference at the South Bank, I was told I could choose any guest I like, as well as the subject matter. As I was 63 at the time, I said I wanted to speak with women who had served as role models to me, and who would have interesting things to pass on to what would be an audience consisting of a lot of young women.

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Baroness Mary Warnock, the great philosopher, agreed to attend, as did the woman I’ve admired more than any in my life: Baroness Shirley Williams. Mary was 89 and Shirley 83, and they were the cleverest, wittiest, most articulate and thoughtful women I knew.

At one point in the conversation we discussed a topic that has continued to rage — the sexual harassment of women. Mary explained how she’d had a tutor at Oxford who was known for being rather too “hands on”. She endured his attentions without complaint as he was such a brilliant teacher. Anyone else who “had a go” was simply told to “Fuck Off”. It’s what she recommended to the young audience.

Shirley remembered a frequent offender in the House of Commons when she was first an MP in the mid-sixties. She wouldn’t name the junior minister who chased her around the filing cabinets, but told me he so annoyed the six young women with whom she’d formed friendships in parliament that they made a plan. They would all wear punishing stiletto heels and manoeuvre themselves into position in front of him during divisions. Then, one by one, they would step back onto his foot. The next day they saw him hobbling into the tea room. Collective action had fixed things.

I have interviewed a number of leading politicians in my lifetime, and I have never looked forward to those encounters as much as I did when I knew it was Shirley Williams who would be sitting in front of me. I once described her as “having the word integrity stamped through her like a stick of Blackpool rock”. I could have added charm, warmth, humour, honour, humanity, knowledge and wisdom to her list of qualities.

She always acknowledged the influence of her father, the political philosopher, George Catlin, on her confidence in pursuing her own political career. In the 1930s it was unusual to find a man who would treat his daughter in the same way as her brother. Usually, she said, fathers would hand round cigars at the birth of a boy and share commiserations if they had a girl.

From her mother, the novelist, Vera Brittain, she learned her pacifism and never to be afraid of expressing controversial views. Vera, the author of Testament of Youth (1933), had written a pamphlet criticising the British government’s blanket bombing of German cities during the Second World War, causing the deaths of thousands of German civilians.

It went down very badly in Britain, but rather well in post-war Germany, leading to Shirley being invited to Dresden in 2014 to celebrate the naming of a canal after Brittain. Shirley was proud that her mother had instilled in her a passion for peace and humanity; her feminism was also rooted in the influence of her mother and Vera’s long lasting and very close friendship with her fellow writer, Winifred Holtby.

It was not easy in the Fifties and early Sixties for a bright young woman to get herself elected to parliament. When, after university and a Fulbright scholarship in America, Shirley needed to find a job, she worked for two years on the Daily Mirror. She hated tabloid journalism but used the opportunity to learn about poverty and deprivation as she chased stories. At around the time she was first adopted as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party, in 1952, she was sacked from the Mirror. She remembered the editor telling her: “You weren’t very good, but you were cheap.”

Her years campaigning for a seat in the Commons were equally instructive about working-class life in post-war Britain. She recalled front doors being opened for a young, slightly tousled woman by the lady of the house who would simply shout back to the husband sitting by the smoky coal fire, “Who is it we vote for?”

Before she finally made it into Parliament in 1964, as the MP for Hitchin in Hertfordshire, she married Bernard Williams, suffered three miscarriages and finally gave birth to her daughter, Rebecca, in 1961. Then came that nightmare so many clever, ambitious women have faced. How do you combine a demanding job, the care of a child and the demands of a husband who wanted dinner on the table, interesting conversation, a social life and had no interest in what she described to me as “the less attractive sides of being a parent”?

What kept her going as her marriage began to fall apart? It was, she told me, “the most hard of hard boards”, but she had determined that she would “pay back society for the privilege of her birth”. She was, she said, a boringly consistent moderate politician who wanted to help individuals improve the quality of their lives, break down the barriers between European states that had seen the devastation of two world wars and fight for social justice at every level of society. She also wanted to be in a “front seat at the theatre of the world.”

Her divorce in 1967 broke her heart. Her Catholic faith has run through so many of her moral decisions. The only time we had a real difference of opinion was on the question of legalising abortion. She had supported the change in the law, knowing how much damage had been done to women by backstreet abortionists, but was never comfortable with it being “treated too casually”. The Church’s rules on contraception, though, she found indefensible. Women’s rights mattered to her even when she had to struggle with her faith.

Throughout her long political life, as she rose through cabinet posts including Education, and then as shadow Home Secretary, she was unyielding in her determination to do good and make life more fair for everyone. She has no regrets about her determination to introduce comprehensive education. Under the grammar/secondary modern system she maintained, only one in five children had the chance to achieve the highest standards in education. She vowed that there should be no more “wasted children”.

Nor does she regret leaving the Labour party as it moved further and further to the Left, becoming one of the Gang of Four, leading the Social Democratic Party in the eighties, merging with the Liberals and leading the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords until 2004, only retiring from it in 2014.

In the closing chapter of her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves (2009), she writes: “Like many women of my generation and the one before mine, I thought of myself as not quite good enough for the very highest positions in politics.” On that she was profoundly wrong, and I doubt it was a lack of confidence shared by the woman who did become our first female Prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

As far as I know the two women never got on, and I do remember Shirley expressing her disappointment at how little Thatcher did to support other women. Thatcher was dismissive of the need for providing child care and never appointed an elected woman to her cabinet. Janet Young, leader of the House of Lords, was her only female appointment. Shirley was tipped as a possible Prime Minister in the mid-70s, but of course lost her seat in 1979, as Thatcher won the top job. Women would, I’m sure, have fared better with Shirley in the lead.

I remember Shirley telling me that she hated the way Thatcher was proud to be known as “the only man in the cabinet”, but greatly admired the way the PM handled her menopause. “Mrs Thatcher, presumably, at one stage or another, went through the menopause. There was not a single indication that she did. Since that time no-one has ever said women can’t be tough enough to be politicians.”

Shirley Williams would, I’m convinced, have been every bit as tough and would have brought talented women into cabinet, providing a more equal balance for the corridors of power. She was also a warm, compassionate, honest, decent democratic socialist, trying to hammer out a compromise between capitalism and social justice. She would have been a wise and wonderful Prime Minister.