Historian traces sexual reforms and labour politics in Britain

In 1945, the British Labour Party won by a landslide and introduced a public health system, public ownership of industry and educational reform. It had been generally assumed that whichever political party won in postwar Britain would do the same thing.

Not so, argued York history Professor Stephen Brooke in his 1992 book, Labour’s War: The Labour Party and the Second World War. After delving into Labour Party records, he found its working class roots and socially progressive agenda made it ideologically “very distinctive” from other political parties.

While researching that first book, an extension of his Oxford University dissertation, Brooke discovered a trove of non-party archives many British Labour Party historians had never tapped. They were unpublished records of women’s organizations and pressure groups, working locally and on the political fringes and seeking Labour Party support to press for legal access to abortion, birth control, contraception education, decriminalization of homosexuality and equal rights. It was the 1990s and scholars were beginning to re-examine history through gendered lenses. Brooke began to wonder how the Labour Party dealt with women’s issues, some of the most controversial issues of the 20th century and yet untouched by scholars.

Fourteen years later, Brooke has completed Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day, just released in Britain by Oxford University Press and to be launched in January on this side of the Atlantic.

Written for scholars and political and sexual history buffs alike, this 300-page book tells the stories of individuals and local organizations who advocated for birth control, abortion law reform and gay rights from the 1880s to the 1990s. It tells how they turned to the Labour Party – the left, not the right – to push for legal reform. “Mainstream politicians do not want to touch issues of sexual equality and gay rights,” says Brooke. So advocates – from working class housewives to village councillors – were forced to make their case from the margins of politics, as best they could, well into the 1970s.

“One of the things that was so rewarding about working on a book like this is not dealing with the usual suspects,” says Brooke. “The people who were advocating for birth control or access to abortion were not in it for glory or ambition but doing it for the sake of an issue. The cast of characters was amazing – men and women who were not leading politicians, struggling and working for difficult causes with great determination and great integrity.” Such crusaders for gender-related and sexual reform surfaced as early as the 1880s and throughout the next 100 years, the span of this book, and showed great courage and determination in the face of much resistance, says Brooke. “To me that was very moving.”

The 20th-century scope is a very broad sweep because of a natural narrative, says Brooke. In the late 19th century, a revival in socialism coincided with an interest in reform of women’s position and in sexual freedom for women and homosexual men. A century later, in 1997, the New Labour Party under Tony Blair introduced reforms that recognized individuals, no matter what sexual orientation, as equal under the law, and anti-discrimination laws. “There is a mainstreaming of sexual equality in Britain now,” says Brooke.

Sexual politics were not always about an individual woman’s right to choose and her sexual freedom, as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, says Brooke. When working class women in the 1930s called for abortion law reform and access to birth control, they wanted social equality with middle and upper class women who had easier access. They wanted a better life. This is where sexual politics and labour politics merged. As the voice of the working class and progressive social reform, the British Labour Party was the natural party to address this issue. “It was all about vision of betterment,” says Brooke.

He started research on Sexual Politics while teaching at Dalhousie University and continued after joining York’s faculty 10 years ago. A Faculty of Arts fellowship in 2007 enabled him to devote a year to digging deep into previously unexplored archives in Britain.

And now for something completely different. Brooke is busy on two new projects – photography in British cities in the 1950s and 1960s, and left wing politics in London in the 1980s.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer