A prominent socialist activist in the South Yorkshire area during the early years of the 20th Century, Beth Turner represented Rotherham for the Communist Unity Group, which had emerged from the Socialist Labour Party, at the 1st unity convention in 1920 that set up Britain’s Communist Party.
As a married textile worker, Turner was typical of many Yorkshire women and she gained favour in the young Party, which strongly featured the emancipation of women in its publications right from the beginning.
By 1924, the first national conference for the Party’s women had been established and 24 delegates attended. Her appointment as a full time Party worker was certainly part of the Bolshevisation plans, in which more and more working-class activists were ear marked for leadership and field work.
A central women’s department would now be headed by Beth Turner, as the Party’s first ever National Women’s Organiser. She was also a member of the central (executive) committee but by no means the only, or first, woman.
On election, she promptly began a national tour to set up local committees. To promote the work, she established a journal, Working Woman, which ran for three years.
Women’s membership of the Party doubled to 600 – one third of all recruits – by the time of the 7th Congress, in May 1925, when she was re-elected to the CC and was now unambiguously head of a women’s department at Party centre. There were now 34 women’s units and four districts had women’s departments.
Beth campaigned in the Durham coalfields during the miners’ and general strike of 1926, where she was highly valued by miners’ wives.
In June 1926, she and Edith Howarth travelled to Moscow where they visited an eye hospital before seeing factory workers in operation. Out of this came a report, Women in the Labour Market, published in The Communist in November 1927.
Her Women in Russia, a 32 page pamphlet, was published by the Communist Party in 1928.
This was a report by a delegation of five British women Communists (Beth Turner, Rose Smith, Lily Webb, Fanny Deakin, and Florence Durham). One of the photographs is of the women with Russian comrades, just after coming up from a pit visit.
Beth Turner was re-elected at the Party’s 8th Congress but fades from the record shortly after this.
An article by her follows:
What Leninism Means to Women
Workers’ Weekly, January 23, 1925 (thanks to Marxists Internet Archive)
When Lenin died and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic was plunged in mourning we know that the immediate affect on the people was to bring thousands of new recruits into the Communist Party. Among this “Lenin Levy” as it is called, one of the most significant features was the large number of working women.
There must have been a reason for this. The attitude of Lenin towards what is known as the “Women Question” was the determining factor. Lenin was the first great man to point out that the woman question was not a separate problem but one bound up with the problems before the working class.
Many reformers had approached this question from the point of view of what they would like for woman and what they thought women would like. They dreamed of labour-saving devices that would make for them perfect homes, better economic conditions that their children might be healthier and more free.
But Lenin saw that sentimentality would not help women out of the morass they were in. He taught that the most beautiful homes and hygienic nurseries were but prisons if women were solitary, and apart from life and the great struggle for economic freedom that is taking place to-day. He saw also that it is not practical to suppose that these things can be achieved by working women while the whole of the class of which they are a part is in a state of subjection and slavery.
Economic conditions already, he pointed out, were driving women out of the home. They were being compelled to work in the factory and form contacts with their fellows. This broadened their outlook and roused in them the first faint glimmerings of social responsibility. This sense of social responsibility must be developed and would prove the salvation of the women. Therefore, he continually advocated communal kitchens and public nurseries. There must be no hampering laws that created chasms between the sexes, and in his book The Great Initiative Lenin wrote exultantly:—
“We have literally left not one stone standing upon another of the edifice of degrading laws which denied rights to women, which placed formidable obstacles in the way of divorce, which penalised children born out of wedlock.”
Service and social responsibility was what Lenin demanded of women in return for equality. Realising this and knowing what the Revolution had done for them these Russian women knew that the highest tribute they could pay to Lenin was to come into the Party in which he had worked so earnestly, and defend with all their strength the liberties that had been given them by the Soviet State.
So, in this country wherever women respect the memory of Lenin we ask them to come into the Communist Party and help in the struggles of their class. With a powerful capitalist class, such as we have here, the fight will be a bitter one and with the clash of interests between employers and employed becoming more evident we do not know when the hour will come when we shall be called upon to do our part.
Wage-slave, wife, or mother, a woman’s interests are inseparable from the interests of her class. The Communist Party will give her the training and equipment and opportunity necessary to enable her to take part in a conscious united effort against the oppressors.
Thus, and thus only will the memory of Lenin remain a living force and inspire us, to work unwearyingly for the time when women shall be free members of a free army of workers.