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Friday 8 March 2019

International Women's Day: Remembering Barbara Castle

Today is International Women's Day and I wanted to share a profile of one of the women I admire the most, the late Labour politician Barbara Castle, nicknamed "The Red Queen."

Most young women have probably only heard of Barbara through the film "Made in Dagenham," which focused on the battle by female piece workers at Ford to get equal pay and rights.

While Mrs Castle is mostly remembered for passing the Equal Pay Act in 1970, her achievements were many and all the remarkable for happening in the 1960s when women were expected to be housewives and still didn't have their own bank accounts.

Barbara became only the fourth woman to sit in Cabinet, in 1964, in Harold Wilson's government. She was the first ever overseas development minister, launching the department that is now known as the international development department. Somewhat ironically she became transport minister, even though she couldn't drive. It's said that she was so tired of being whistled at by drunken male MPs that she promptly introduced legislation to outlaw drink driving. She also made the wearing of seat belts compulsory, saving thousands of lives.

Barbara was very much her own woman. Petite and red haired, she cultivated a glamorous aesthetic, and was once interviewed at home in pink mules, long cigarette holder poised in manicured hands. “Plums don’t fall into plain girls’ laps,” she once declared. She defied the convention that redheads should wear quiet colours, sporting bright red dresses and ostentatious jewellery as well as going to the hairdresser’s twice weekly. Her look was copied to some extent by Britain's first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Barbara Castle
Barbara Castle: copyright Getty Images
When her husband Ted was made a life peer she became a "Lady", but Barbara refused the title until she received one in her own right in 1990.

Lady Castle was a campaigner until her death. Having campaigned against Britain joining the Common Market in the 1975 Referendum, she later changed her mind on the EU, spending more than a decade in the European Parliament from 1979.

Her passion for politics never faltered. She would battle with her own Labour colleagues over restoring the link between pensions and earnings right up until her death in 2002, aged 92.

Labour's shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Emily Thornberry, says: "I would say that Barbara Castle was the most outstanding woman politician that the Labour Party ever had. She was not afraid of a fight, she achieved a great deal, whether that was in terms of international development, setting up that department, whether it was in terms of getting people to wear seat belts or getting women equal pay, or just being an example of what women can do, and should do.

"I think that is why people should remember her."

As a fitting tribute, a statue in memory of Lady Castle will be unveiled in Blackburn, where she was MP for 34 years, on October 6 2020 - her 110th birthday.

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Further reading on Barbara Castle

Political heroes: Emily Thornberry on Barbara Castle
Power Dressing: why female MPs have faced a century of scrutiny
Barbara Castle, Labour's Greatest Woman


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