Mrs, Dr, MP: Pathé Close-Up of Dr Edith Summerskill
British Pathé has a wealth of videos which provide a window into the history of modern Britain. For the Research Challenge, as part of the MPhil in Modern British History MPhil here at Cambridge, our course directors invited us to select a video from this archive and historicise it. I was attracted by the newsreel with a thought provoking title: ‘Mrs Dr MP Pathé Close Up of Dr Edith Summerskill’. Before reading further, take a look at the short three-minute clip. Released in January 1945, this newsreel showcases a staged day in the life of Dr. Edith Summerskill, Labour MP for Fulham between 1938 and 1955, and subsequently for Warrington from 1955 to 1961. This clip allows us to look at how Summerskill navigated her self-representation as a female doctor, politician, and mother.
The video foregrounds Summerskill’s role as a doctor, which was typical of her wider press representation. Still, she is not introduced outright as Dr. Summerskill. Indeed, the title of the video specifies that she is a wife (Mrs) before she is a doctor or MP. The clip uses Summerskill’s handbag to signal the transition between her different roles – several decades before Margaret Thatcher’s potent use of the same accessory. The male commentator notes how Edith becomes Dr. Summerskill (though for only a few hours) with ‘doctor’s little bag’. The subsequent switch from doctor to housewife is reflected in the exchange of a doctor’s briefcase for a small white bag as she window-shops. Summerskill then replaces this bag with a ‘briefcase of work to be done at the House of Commons’, which both the audio and visual commentary emphasises. Summerskill’s multiple handbags embody her ‘tripartite existence’.
The clip shows that Summerskill faced the same issues as other housewives in negotiating food and clothing rationing. Crucially, shopping gave Summerskill the opportunity to bridge her identities as housewife and politician, meeting women in the services and other housewives. Such conversations conferred Summerskill with a staged legitimacy in representing women’s issues as one of the most vocal of the female politicians in debates over equal pay and the women’s services. Many of the early female MPs did not just represent their constituency, but also the issues of their sex, and Summerskill followed suit in becoming the second most vocal female MP discussing women’s rights and status per sessional day in Parliament. The inclusion of these conversations is significant in showing how the gendered roles of housewife and politician could be mutually reinforcing.
The subsequent inclusion of Summerskill’s interview with Ann Wibberly (editor of Everywoman) is significant in the context of wider discussions about women’s integration back into the home after the war. Despite being an active proponent of women’s rights, Summerskill noted how most women ‘want a husband, home and children’, reflecting how she saw herself as a ‘faithful wife and caring mother’, in contrast to other female politicians of the period. Yet, she still voiced her ongoing concerns about the lack of respect for women’s domestic labour and the potential divisions in the home arising from the continuing undervaluation of women’s domestic labour in the home. These sentiments should not come as a surprise; in 1944 she recommended that wife and husband should have equal shares in family income, bringing forward a petition of over 66,000 women to the House. In the clip, she makes a direct appeal to men to be ‘more broad-minded’ in allowing women to work outside the home.
Summerskill argues that her husband’s support was invaluable, providing the video with a neat segue into Summerskill’s home life. The commentator introduces Summerskill’s husband outright as Dr. E Jeffrey Samuel, drawing on the iconography of the pipe as a traditional symbol of masculine identity. The situation is one of domestic bliss as Edith and Jeffrey fill in a crossword while their children read. This idyllic representation of home life conveniently overlooks the more practical issues of domestic responsibilities, neglecting the role of nanny Agnes Watford, for example.
This video is useful for what it tells historians about the methods of self-representation and positioning available to Summerskill as a female politician, leading us to examine how she and the filmmakers represented her professional and personal responsibilities.
Powered by Facebook Comments