AS International Women's Day approaches, a new book charts the history of female MPs and their achievements over the past 100 years, including Middlesbrough’s ‘Red Ellen’.

IN 1919, Nancy Astor was elected as the Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton, becoming the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. Her achievement was all the more remarkable given that women (and even then only some women) had only been entitled to vote for just over a year.

In the past 100 years, a total of 489 women have been elected to Parliament. Yet it was not until 2015 that the total number of women ever elected surpassed the number of male MPs in a single parliament. The achievements of these political pioneers have been remarkable – Britain has now had two female Prime Ministers and women MPs have made significant strides in fighting for gender equality from the earliest suffrage campaigns to Barbara Castle's fight for equal pay to Harriet Harman's recent legislation on the gender pay gap. Yet the stories of so many women MPs have too often been overlooked in political histories.

In her new book, Rachel Reeves, Labour MP for Leeds West, brings many forgotten MPs out of the shadows and looks at the many battles fought by the Women of Westminster, from 1919 to 2019. Featuring interviews with leading women from Theresa May and Dianne Abbot to Harriet Harman, Reeves celebrates the inspirational achievements of women in parliament over the course of the past 100 years.

The Northern Echo:

One of the women Reeves focuses on is the Rt. Hon Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Middlesborough between 1924-1931 and Jarrow from 1935-1947. She may have been small in stature – a little under five-foot – but her ambitions were mighty and her energy ferocious. Wilkinson was one of the first women Labour MPs in Parliament and fought for the provision of free milk for schoolchildren, among many causes.

She had grown up in a working class community with slum housing in Manchester and was exposed to gruelling poverty from an early age. The seat for which she was elected, Middlesbrough East, was so poor she described it as “a book of illustrations to Karl Marx”. An industrial town that had never been in Labour hands before, its municipal politics was dominated by owners of the steel mills. Unusually, Wilkinson won the support of the male-dominated local trade unions, and “Red Ellen” won a surprise victory for Labour at a time the country was more generally moving towards the Right.

Later, Wilkinson said she had been wary of becoming a “sort of pet lamb” as the only Labour woman, and being expected to speak on certain issues. But she didn’t let that dampen her enthusiasm. From railing against Churchill’s tax on tea and silk in 1925 and its impact on the cost of stockings, to vociferous campaigning on widows’ pensions, she often “sat through the night wrapped in a cloak and munching chocolates from her handbag”, according to one source.

Wilkinson was like none of the women in Parliament before her: she was a strong feminist and socialist, yet she did not let those categories get in the way of building bridges, making reform and achieving progress. She was one of the new generation of modern women, with her love of colourful outfits, the political spotlight, and more controversially, her various love affairs with married men.

Wilkinson was also the first woman MP to enter the House of Commons smoking room. As she bounded up to the door, she was stopped by a policeman who informed her that ladies did not usually enter. “I am not a lady, I am a Member of Parliament,” she responded as she opened the door.

A tension between principles and pragmatism marked Wilkinson’s political life. She was one of three women in Churchill’s wartime coalition government, putting aside her aversion to his right-wing politics for the sake of the nation. She was put in charge of hardship tribunals, and became known as the Shelter Queen when she implemented the drastic measures required to make air raid shelter provision effective. In August 1942, she also persuaded 2,000 striking men in the North-East to resume work, saying: “If you want a fight, fight Hitler”.

After the war ended, Wilkinson was one of the authors of the manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, which took Labour to victory and saw Churchill, the nation’s wartime hero, thrown out of office. Although women were gradually displaced from their wartime jobs, by 1945, the days of Ellen Wilkinson sitting alone as a woman on the Labour benches were a distant memory. The Lady Members’ Room bustled with new Labour women, including Barbara Castle and Bessie Braddock.

In August, 1945, Wilkinson became the first minister of education and the second woman in the cabinet. Despite the fact that she found many of her colleagues reluctant to prioritise education spending, she persisted and managed to get the school leaving age raised from 14 to 16. She also fought hard to raise the quality of education in secondary schools.

Sadly, two months before the implementation of the new school leaving age, for which she had worked so hard, tragedy struck. One cold February night in 1947, amid the harshest winter of the century, Ellen Wilkinson died of an overdose of one of the many medicines she was taking for her increasingly poor health. She was just 55.

• International Women's Day is on March 8.

• Women of Westminster: The MPs who changed politics by Rachel Reeves (IB Tauris, £18.99;