The Ten… women who were pioneers in British politics

Britain is marking the centenary of votes for women.

The 1918 Representation of the People Act extended the franchise to men over 21 and women over 30. This has prompted a renewed interest in the Suffragettes who fought, and in some cases died, to secure electoral rights for women.

The first thing to note is that we are still really bad at this. One hundred years on and there has never been a Parliament that came close to equal numbers of male and female MPs. You could seat every woman ever elected to the Commons (489) and still have 161 seats left over.

Today, women make up less than a third of the Commons (208 out of 650) and this places Westminster 39th in Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings on female representation, behind Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Ethiopia. There have still been only two female prime ministers, the Cabinet has seen more Old Etonians than women, and of the three parties that have dominated British politics in the last century, only one has had a woman leader.

No question, then. There’s much more to do. But what happened after (some) women got the vote in 1918? What women were elected to Parliament and what is their legacy? Here is a list of ten important women who became MPs.

I’ve mostly avoided obvious candidates for inclusion, so there’s no first MP (I’ll leave you to argue over whether that was the Countess or the Viscountess), Margaret Thatcher or Theresa May, or Jo Cox (the only female MP to have been assassinated).

1. Margaret Bondfield

Undeservedly forgotten, the Labour MP was the first woman appointed to the Cabinet or the Privy Council and before that had been a pioneering campaigner for women’s rights and rights for workers. She was something of a proto-Blairite and her support for restricting unemployment benefits, after years as a prominent trade unionist, has caused her legacy to be neglected in Labour circles.

2. Betty Harvie Anderson

A Tory force of nature, the East Renfrewshire MP was the first woman to chair the House of Commons (as Deputy Speaker) and stood out from the Scottish establishment consensus by opposing devolution. Baroness Skrimshire, as she would later be ennobled, had plenty of experience in the bravery department. During World War II, she saw active service as chief commander of an anti-aircraft brigade.

3. Thelma Cazalet-Keir

The Islington East MP was a Tory feminist — still an awkward locution — and her finest hour came in 1944 when the Education Bill was making its way through Parliament. She moved an amendment requiring equal pay for female teachers and won by one vote despite the determined opposition of Winston Churchill.

4. Betty Boothroyd

There’s isn’t much that Betty Boothroyd hasn’t done. She was a chorus line dancer, a volunteer on JFK’s presidential campaign, a Congressional aide, a parliamentary researcher, a councillor, an MP, an MEP, a government whip, and of course Speaker of the House of Commons. The first and only female Speaker became iconic in the role, her frequent bellows of ‘order’ reducing Cabinet ministers and retired colonels to hushed schoolboys. She is also, to my knowledge, the only Speaker to appear on Live & Kicking or be a lifelong paragliding enthusiast.

5. Winnie Ewing

Matriarch of the most famous Ewing clan this side of the Mississippi, Winnie Ewing was not the first SNP MP but she was and arguably remains the most symbolic. Her victory in the 1967 Hamilton by-election put Scottish nationalism on the political agenda and forced Labour to take devolution seriously. Her declaration, ‘Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on’, is still quoted by Nationalists today. She was affectionately known as Madame Ecosse during her quarter century of service as an MEP and was later elected to the Scottish Parliament. She chaired the first session of the devolved legislature, opening with the words: ‘The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened.’

6. Florence Horsbrugh

It’s unforgivable that Horsbrugh has been forgotten. She was the first woman and the first Conservative woman to represent Dundee; the first woman to deliver an Humble Address; the first woman appointed to a Tory Cabinet; and the minister responsible for wartime evacuation and food. After the war, she was a delegate to the conference that led to the drafting of the UN Charter and later served as Minister for Education.

7. Mo Mowlam 

For those under a certain age, it’s difficult to capture just how popular Mo Mowlam was. The warm, beating heart of 1990s Labour, Mowlam was as sharp as anyone around her but cultivated a public image that was relaxed, jocular, and straight-speaking. She was an unspun minister at the height of New Labour control freakery and the public loved her for it. It has become popular to claim involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process but Mowlam was actually there and really did help reach the Good Friday Agreement. Her personal life was often grim, including an alcoholic father and losing the love of her life to a drowning accident. While lecturing at Florida State University in the late Seventies, and with Ted Bundy stalking the campus, she narrowly escaped an attack by an assailant she later identified as the serial killer. She died from a brain tumour aged 55.

8. Marion Phillips

Phillips was prolific pamphleteer through the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society. Her relationship with feminism was similar to Jennie Lee’s; it was always a secondary consideration to socialism and class struggle. Even so, she became Labour’s inaugural chief women’s officer and was responsible for increasing the party’s female membership. Phillips was the first Australian woman elected to the House of Commons — 14 years before a woman was elected to the Australian House of Representatives — and was, as best as I can determine, the first Jewish woman to enter Parliament.

9. Ellen Wilkinson

‘Red Ellen’ was a suffragette, Jarrow marcher, novelist, polemicist, a supporter of Spanish republicanism, and a scathing critic of appeasement. After the election of the 1945 Labour government, she became the first female Minister for Education, an office she held till her death two years later.

10. Jennie Lee

A Labour legend, Lee was first elected to Parliament for the Independent Labour Party in 1929, aged just 24. She went toe-to-toe with Churchill early on, earning the respect of the then Chancellor, and was a passionate supporter of the Republican cause in Spain. As Minister for the Arts, she was responsible for setting up the Open University and expanding the Arts Council. Her husband, Aneurin, also took an interest in politics.

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