Editorial Feature

A brief history of British women MPs

How have women changed the face of the UK Parliament?

On 21 November 1918, nine months after the first women in the UK won the right to vote, The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed, allowing women to stand as MPs for the first time. 100 years on, how have women changed the face of the UK Parliament?

1918-1945

The watershed 1918 general election took place on 14 December, shortly after the end of World War I, with 8.5 million women eligible to vote for the first time.

16 women also exercised their newly won right to stand as parliamentary candidates. Among these were leading figures from the suffrage movement, including Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and Charlotte Despard. Christabel Pankhurst, co-founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) earned an impressive 47.8 percent of the vote share in her constituency of Smethwick, coming in second place.

Christabel Pankhurst (From the collection of Museum of London)
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (From the collection of LSE Library)
Charlotte Despard (From the collection of LSE Library)

Just one woman was elected as an MP in 1918. The Sinn Fein candidate for Dublin St Patrick, Countess Constance Markievicz, won with nearly two thirds of the vote, becoming the first woman to be elected to Parliament. However, as an Irish nationalist, she did not take her seat in Westminster.

The first woman to take her seat as an MP was American-born Viscountess Nancy Astor. Nancy became the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton following a by-election in 1919, which was triggered when her husband Waldorf Astor - the previous constituency MP - inherited his father’s position in the House of Lords. Nancy won the by-election, taking on Waldorf’s seat in the Commons, and served until 1945.

Studio portrait of Constance Markievicz in uniform by Keogh Brothers (From the collection of National Library of Ireland)
Portrait of first two women MPs: Mrs Margaret Wintringham and Lady Nancy Astor (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Two years later, in 1921, Margaret Wintringham became the first British-born woman to take her seat in Parliament, and the first female Liberal Party MP. Like Nancy, Margaret won her seat in a by-election, triggered after her husband - the previous Liberal MP for Louth - died.

Margaret served as an MP until 1924, when she lost her seat at the General Election. During her time as an MP she campaigned for equal pay, women-only railway carriages, state scholarships for girls, and for women to receive the vote on the same terms as men.

After losing her seat, between 1925 and 1926 she was president of the Women’s National Liberal Federation.

The first female Labour Party MPs were elected in the 1923 election - including Margaret Bondfield, MP for Northampton. Under the first Labour government, between 1929 and 1931, Margaret became the UK’s first female cabinet minister after being named Minister of Labour. She had a strong trade union background, having previously been the first female chair of the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) general council.

Disarmament (From the collection of LSE Library)

1945-1997

By the end of World War II, at the 1945 General Election, there were 24 female MPs - 21 of whom were from the Labour Party. Nearly 20 years later, in 1964, Labour MP Harriet Slater became the first female Government Whip. She remained in this role until her retirement in 1966.

Arguably the biggest landmark since women’s suffrage was the election, in 1979, of the UK’s first female prime minister. A divisive figure, Conservative MP Margaret Thatcher was prime minister from 1979 until 1990, making her the longest serving British PM of the 20th century.

Margaret Thatcher talks to the Observer (From the collection of LSE Library)

In 1987 Diane Abbott became the first black female MP, when she was elected Labour MP for Hackney and Stoke Newington. Women in the Commons saw a boost at the 1997 election, with 120 female MPs elected - twice as many as at the previous General Election in 1992. Among them was Anne Beg, the first female MP in a wheelchair, who served as Labour MP for Aberdeen South between 1997-2015. Like her, 101 of the 120 were Labour MPs, nicknamed ‘Blair’s Babes’ by the press, after Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was pictured with 96 of them.

1997-present

Today 208 out of 650 MPs in Parliament are female, and Theresa May has served as the UK’s second female Conservative Prime Minister since 2016. In 2017, Labour MP Harriet Harman was dubbed ‘Mother of The House’ in recognition of her status as the longest continuously serving woman MP. She has been the MP for Peckham (now Camberwell and Peckham) for more than 35 years, since 1982.

The Unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett Statue (From the collection of Mayor of London)

Most recently, Janet Daby was elected as the Labour Member of Parliament for Lewisham East. Janet is the daughter of Windrush migrants, and was elected in June 2018 when her predecessor Heidi Alexander was appointed Deputy Mayor of London, triggering a by-election.

House of Commons - British Parliament (From the collection of House of Commons plenary)
Share this story with a friend
Google apps