ALL CHANGE! Women and the 1945 General Election

Guest post by Oonagh Gay

The general election of July 1945 was the first held for a decade. The Second World War had led to the suspension of elections. So the results were awaited with more than common interest. The contest was held on 5 July, (with some constituencies delaying until 12 and 19 July) but the polls were not counted and declared until 3 weeks later on 26 July. This was to allow those serving abroad in the armed forces to have their votes included. The landslide victory of the Labour Party was unexpected, and had a profound impact on the House of Commons.

Twenty-four women were elected for the 1945 Parliament, 15 of whom were new Members. In total 87 women stood as candidates, a twenty five per cent increase on 1935. As a result of the Labour victory, 21 were Labour, one Conservative (Viscountess Davidson) and one independent in the form of Eleanor Rathbone. Not a single new Conservative woman won in 1945 and not until a by election held in 1946 that a second Conservative woman was elected; this was Priscilla, Lady Tweedsmuir who became the youngest woman MP. There were further changes in 1946-7, in the deaths of Eleanor Rathbone and Ellen Wilkinson. Another Labour woman, Alice Cullen, was elected in a 1948 by election, incidentally the first Roman Catholic woman to be elected.

Parliamentary Archives, PUD/19/1/1
Group of women in Parliament, including Viscountess Davidson and Bessie Braddock, c. 1949. Parliamentary Archives, PUD/19/1/1

New areas of the UK elected a woman MP for the first time, such as Birmingham, with Edith Wills, Liverpool, with Bessie Braddock and Leeds with Alice Bacon. Between 1945 and 1987 the number of women MPs did not increase beyond 29, representing under five per cent of the House. The number of Conservative women remained tiny, at under 6 for at least a decade more, and with no chance of office until 1951.

So all eyes were on the Labour women. Some had already achieved prominence, such as Ellen Wilkinson, Jennie Lee, Jennie Adamson, Edith Summerskill and Leah Manning. Wilkinson as Minister of Education became the second woman to hold Cabinet rank. She died shortly after the raising of the school leaving age to 15 in April 1947. Summerskill was appointed as junior minister in the Ministry of Food and had to deal with food rationing and continuing shortages. In 1949 she sponsored the Milk (Special Designation) Bill, requiring milk to be pasteurised against TB, so fulfilling a long campaign begun by Lady Astor and Mrs Wintringham in the 1920s. As a doctor, her parliamentary interests also extended to women’s health concerns, such as abortion and childbirth. Jennie Adamson was appointed a junior minister at Pensions, but she resigned as an MP in 1946 to become Deputy Chair of the Unemployment Assistance Board. Jennie Lee had to wait until 1964 for a substantial government post, when as Minister of the Arts, she established the Open University.

Three new women MPs in their 30s stood out. These were Barbara Castle, Alice Bacon and Margaret Herbison, who all served in Labour Governments in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1945 Parliament, Castle became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor Stafford Cripps, an early indication of her abilities and ambition. She promoted the only successful Private Members’ Bill by a woman MP in this Parliament, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill in 1950, which gave women working as prostitutes more legal protection.

Women MPs, 1949. Parliamentary Archives, PUD/15/2/1
Event for women MPs celebrating Megan Lloyd George’s 20th anniversary in Parliament, 31 May 1949. Parliamentary Archives, PUD/15/2/1. Left to right standing:Lucy Middleton, Barbara Ayrton-Gould, Bessie Braddock, Caroline Ganley, Florence Paton, Edith Summerskill, Megan Lloyd George, Alice Bacon, Viscountess Davidson, Lady Grant of Monymusk (Priscilla Buchan, Baroness Tweedsmuir), Lucy Noel-Buxton, Edith Wills. Left to right seated: Margaret Herbison, Mabel Ridealgh, Jennie Lee, Margaret Wintringham.

Most new women MPs elected in 1945 had spent decades in the Labour or trades union movement, and knew each other. Some had sought selection for over a decade. These included journalist Barbara Ayrton-Gould, a former suffragette, imprisoned for window-smashing in 1912, and the barrister Freda Corbet, as well as returning MP Leah Manning. Nearly all, apart from Grace Colman had been married. Most had families which had promoted political careers for daughters and wives, and many had trained as teachers. Jean Mann, a Glasgow MP with five children and a husband long unemployed, knew the realities of the poverty which she hoped the welfare state would eradicate. Many had been councillors, including Bessie Braddock, who with her husband had been prominent in Liverpool. Caroline Ganley and Mabel Ridealgh had long Co-operative Movement careers.

Labour women MPs focused on the introduction of the welfare state and the implementation of their party manifesto, rather than pursuing an explicitly feminist agenda. But the needs and demands of constituents were met in speeches on the housing shortages, rationing and health. Lucy Middleton, for example, served on the Estimates Committee and was influential on securing war damage payments. Leah Manning unsuccessfully pressed for family planning to be included within the NHS. Equal pay and an end to the married women’s bar in the civil service and local government were also pursued.

Women MPs attracted attention. Barbara Castle found that the press were as ready to focus on her red hair, and glamorous outfits, as on her intellect. Lady Tweedsmuir attracted similar attention, since at 31 she was the youngest woman MP. Women MPs progressed within party and parliamentary structures. In 1948 Viscountess Davidson became the first woman MP to be elected to the Conservative 1922 Committee Executive and Florence Paton became the first woman to join the Speaker’s Panel to chair committees. Megan Lloyd George was a member of the 1944 Speaker’s Committee on Electoral Reform, and in 1949 became Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. The Lady Members’ Room helped to promote cross-party friendships. In June 1949 Lloyd George held a tea party for all women MPs to celebrate her twenty years in the House. In her autobiography, A Life for Education, Manning described going to cinema matinees with Megan, as light relief from the Commons.

Bessie Braddock and Marlene Dietrich, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/100.
Bessie Braddock and Marlene Dietrich on the House of Commons Terrace, 13 July 1955. Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/100.

Women MPs hit the headlines for other reasons. Bessie Braddock lost a long-running libel case against the Bolton Evening News which had claimed she danced a jig on the floor of the House during the Transport Bill guillotine debates in 1947. Special legislation was passed in October 1945 to allow Jean Mann to retain her seat, when it emerged that her membership of a Scottish rent tribunal had inadvertently disqualified her as an MP.
Nine women first elected in 1945 only served for up to six years, until 1951. But half a dozen served for at least 20 years. The career of Castle’s career was exceptional, as she held several Cabinet posts in the 1960s and 1970s. However Bacon, Herbison, Lee, Braddock and Lloyd George continued to demonstrate the ability of women to perform as successful senior politicians on a national stage.

Oonagh Gay

Read Oonagh’s post on women elected in the 1997 general election: When meeting a new woman MP was no longer a rarity for us staff! Recollections of the impact of the May 1997 election


Do you recognise this picture? We think it dates from c. 1949 based on similarities with the Megan Lloyd George celebration photo above, and it appears to include a number of women MPs – but we only been able to make very tentative identifications as to who some of them might be, and we can’t identify others at all.

Parliamentary Archives, PUD/19/1/1
Group of women in Parliament, including Viscountess Davidson and Bessie Braddock, c. 1949. Parliamentary Archives, PUD/19/1/1

This is our best guess as follows:
Standing left to right: unidentified, Mabel Ridealgh?, unidentified, unidentified, unidentified staff, Leah Manning?, Edith Wills?, Caroline Ganley?, Jean Mann?.
Seated left to right: unidentified, Viscountess Davidson, Baroness Tweedsmuir?, Bessie Braddock.
What do you think? Please email us if you can help us identify anyone, or if you know what event this is!

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