Telling the stories of some women who became Members of Parliament
Before the passing of the Parliamentary (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, women could not stand as Members of Parliament. This cartoon from "Punch Almanack" in 1853 was devoted to role reversal jokes.
Father of the family. "Come dear: we do seldom go out together now-can’t you take us all to the play tonight?"
Mistress of the House and MP: "How you talk, Charles! Don’t you see that I am too busy. I have a committee tomorrow morning, and I have my speech of the Great Crochet question to prepare for the evening."
Nancy Astor was elected to Parliament on 15 November 1919 and took her seat a month later. Her maiden speech on 24 February 1920 concerned the need to restrict the sale of alcohol. Above all, Nancy believed that alcohol excess damaged communities which had an impact on women and children. She said: “I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves”.
Nancy introduced a Private Member’s Bill in 1923 which became the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Act.
Margaret Wintringham stood successfully for election in 1921 on the death of her husband, who had been Liberal MP for Louth. Margaret was still in mourning, as shown in this photograph with Nancy Astor.
Margaret, working with Astor, lobbied male MPs to bring about the Equal Guardianship Act 1925 which gave equal rights for the guardianship of children to mothers and fathers. Before this Act, women, who separated or divorced, had no rights to their children.
Margaret Bondfield was one of the first women Justices of the Peace in 1921. She was also heavily involved in the trade union movement becoming chair of the Trades Union Council in 1923. In the same year, she stood successfully for election in Northampton. She was appointed first female Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, and in 1929, she became the first woman cabinet minister and first woman Privy Council. On her first days in Office she said: “The Ministry of Labour was no sinecure.”
Eleanor Rathbone entered Parliament as an independent MP from 1929 to 1946 for ‘the Combined English Universities’, which then had their own Parliamentary seat. Rathbone stood for women’s economic independence and introduced the important reform of family allowances (now known as child benefit) to be paid directly to mothers.
Rathbone published “The Disinherited Family” in 1924, outlining how women’s rightful share in the family income had become ‘disinherited’. The book was reviewed widely, catching the attention of William Beveridge, then the director of the London School of Economics. In 1942 he published the Beveridge Report setting out a framework for post-war social reform which included a family allowance.
The government bill introduced in 1945, however, made family allowances payable to the father. Rathbone organised a cross-party deputation which included MPs Nancy Astor, Edith Summerskill and Mavis Tate. They demanded payment to the mother and, through Rathbone’s cross-party lobbying, this was achieved. The first family allowances to mothers were paid on 6 August 1946.
The Second World War brought women MPs together to fight first for equal compensation for men and women who were injured in the war. Once that was achieved the next campaign was equal pay. A cross-party group of women MPs formed the Equal Pay Campaign Committee in 1944 including Mavis Tate, Thelma Cazalet-Keir, Edith Summerskill and Irene Ward.
Conservative Thelma Cazalet-Keir said: “Indeed the best speech I ever made – on Equal Pay for men and women, which resulted in the defeat of the Government – lasted under three minutes.” This speech related to equal pay for women teachers in a debate on the Education Bill 1944. The principle of equal pay for women civil servants was not achieved until 1954.
Clean milk was first advocated by Nancy Astor and Margaret Wintringham in the 1920s but it was Edith Summerskill, whose lobbying as Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Food in the 1940s, brought about the Clean Milk Act 1949. Her other campaigns ensured other legislation to benefit women: Married Women’s Property Act (1964) and Matrimonial Homes Act (1967).
Labour MPs Lena Jeger and Renée Short raised awareness about the dangers of backstreet abortions and campaigned for abortion reform. Lena encouraged the Abortion Law Reform Association to start a Parliamentary campaign. Two years later, David Steel's Private Member's Bill became law as the Abortion Act 1967.
Maureen Colquhoun studied at LSE and served as a local councillor before becoming a Labour MP in 1974. Maureen was an advocate for women’s rights and introduced a Private Member's Bill, the Balance of the Sexes Bill in 1975. She was the first openly gay politician but was deselected from the Labour Party because of her sexuality. Her autobiography, "The Woman in the House", published in 1980, describes her experiences as ‘an open gay in the House of Commons’.
Diane Abbott stood successfully in the 1987 General Election, winning the Hackney North and Stoke Newington seat for Labour. She became the first black woman MP.
Giving her reasons for a career in politics in 2007, she said: "I came into politics because of my concern about the relationship of the state to communities that are marginalised and suspected. It is easy to stand up for the civil liberties of our friends or of people in our trade union, but it is not easy to stand up for the civil liberties of people who are unpopular, suspected and look suspicious…"
This anti-suffrage postcard is a satirical representation of what women could look like as Speaker of the House of Commons. The idea became a reality in 1992 when Betty Boothroyd was appointed the first woman Speaker. She asked to be called ‘Madam Speaker’ and held this position for eight years.
From 1918 to 2019, there have been less than 500 women MPs. Neverthless, there have been many notable political 'firsts' by women in Parliament, some highlighted in this exhibit. Here are some more:
1961 First woman MP to ask a Prime Minister’s question (Irene Ward)
1997 First woman Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mo Mowlam)
1997 First woman leader of the House of Commons (Ann Taylor)
2006 First woman Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett)
2007 First woman Secretary of State for Home Affairs (Jacqui Smith)
2016 First woman Lord Chancellor (Liz Truss)
2017 First woman Black Rod (Sarah Clarke)
2019 First woman to hold permanently the position of Clerk Assistant (Sarah Davies)