Westminster was never quite the same after Ellen Wilkinson arrived in Parliament in October 1924.
She was the only woman elected in the Labour ranks, winning Middlesbrough East with a majority of 927, and quickly set about making her mark.
With her distinctive red hair, short stature, fashionable clothes and forceful manner she stood out like a beacon for women’s rights and social reform.
The House of Commons got an early flavour of Wilkinson’s determination when a policeman tried to stop her entering the smoking room because she was a woman.
Wilkinson swiftly replied: ‘I am not a lady – I am a Member of Parliament.’
Her drive and commitment made her a figurehead – and she quickly became known as ‘Red Ellen’ and ‘the Fiery Particle’.
Born in October 1891 in Coral Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Wilkinson worked for a women’s suffrage organisation after graduating from Manchester University.
Her parents were cotton worker Richard Wilkinson, who later became an insurance agent, and his wife Ellen, nee Wood. Both were devout Methodists who believed fervently in self-help.
Imbued with her parents’ values, Ellen Wilkinson was a trade union official before entering parliament as MP for Middlesbrough East. She became MP for Jarrow in November 1935.
An evocative archive image shows her standing with a group of workers outside Palmers Shipyard where the RMS Olympia is waiting to be broken up. Huge cranes dwarf the terraced houses leading to the yard.
A year later, Wilkinson gained international recognition for playing a leading role in the 1936 Jarrow March of the town’s unemployed to London.
Another extraordinary photo sees her sitting down to eat with the marchers before the final leg of the long journey to Stepney.
During the war, Wilkinson became Minister of Home Security in October 1940 with responsibility for air raid shelters and civil defence.
Her boundless energy ensured that more than half a million indoor Morrison shelters (reinforced steel tables) had been distributed to homes by the end of 1941. Little wonder she earned a new nickname – the ‘Shelter Queen.’
One of the most poignant photos to emerge from the conflict shows Wilkinson comforting a soldier who’d travelled through the night to help rescue his five-year-old twins from the debris of a bombed school.
They were never found.
The pity and compassion in Wilkinson’s eyes as she comforts the bereft Corporal is heart-rending, but typical of the empathy she shared with the people she served.
After the war, Wilkinson was appointed Minister of Education in Clement Atlee’s cabinet in August 1945.
She implemented the wartime coalition government’s 1944 Education Act, which provided free secondary school education for all and raised the minimum leaving age from 14 to 15.
The dedicated MP also introduced free school milk, increased university scholarships and improved school meals.
But working so hard and burning so brightly inevitably took its toll. Wilkinson suffered from bronchial asthma, made worse by heavy smoking, and developed pneumonia in February 1947 after attending an outdoor ceremony. She died in hospital three days later.
Wilkinson is one of 20 Manchester women of achievement in historian Helen Antrobus’s brilliant book First in the Fight, illustrated by artists from the city’s Women in Print co-operative.
Wilkinson’s striking image in the book is the work of illustrator and artist Deanna Halsall. It shows the MP’s red hair standing out against a backdrop of sombre Westminster colleagues.
The legacy of another pioneering woman of the 1930s, long-distance swimmer Sunny Lowry, is depicted by graphic designer Eve Warren.
Her illustration is a vibrant combination of blue shades and sea symbols shaped into a swimming costume. Lowry successfully swam the English Channel on August 28th 1933 at the age of 22.
A further Manchester heroine of the 1920s and 30s was Mary Quaile. She left school at the age of 12 before becoming head of the Manchester Women’s Trade Union Council in 1911.
First in the Fight features her as well as other later 20th century women such as broadcaster Olive Shapley, educationalist Shena Simon, mathematician Kathleen Ollerenshaw and nurse and anti-racism campaigner Louise Da Cocodia.
The Pankhursts are there too (how could they not be?) along with author Elizabeth Gaskell, Peterloo martyr Margaret Downes and social justice campaigner Esther Roper.
Many more names could have joined them. Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney and much-loved Prestwich comedian, actress and composer Victoria Wood to name but two.
It is enough that they are all remembered ahead of International Women’s Day as inspirational Manchester women who helped change the world.
*First in the Fight, the critically acclaimed story of the Emmeline Pankhurst statue in St Peter’s Square and a tribute to the 20 Manchester women on the statue long list, is on sale now.
Priced at £19.99 plus postage and packing, it’s available on the inostalgia website inostalgia.co.uk or through an order hotline on 01928 503777.