This next post in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team gives an overview of the early women MPs. Follow the blog for future posts on the individual women!
This was a decade of parliamentary firsts for women in Parliament. Constance Markievicz (1868-1927) was the first woman to be elected an MP, representing Dublin, St Patrick’s; Katherine Stewart-Murray (1874-1960), better known as the Duchess of Atholl, was the first woman to represent a Scottish constituency (Kinross and West Perthshire) and Megan Lloyd George (1902-1966) the first to represent a Welsh one (Anglesey). Nancy Astor (1879-1964), the first woman to take her seat in the Commons, was the first to represent an English constituency (Plymouth, Sutton). Astor was the first female Conservative MP; Margaret Wintringham (1879-1955) was the first Liberal; and Susan Lawrence (1871-1947), Dorothy Jewson (1884-1964) and Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953), elected in 1923, were the first women to serve as Labour MPs. Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946), who sat for the Combined English Universities and was elected in 1929, was the first woman independent. The 1920s saw the arrival of the first working-class women MPs, including Jennie Lee (1904-1988), the daughter of a miner.
Women were a tiny minority in the House—only 2% of the total number of MPs—and they worked hard to make their mark. Labour MP Leah Manning (1886-1977) said that entering the Commons was like being “stung by a cold lash” of hostility. Her fellow Labour MP Edith Picton-Turbervill (1872-1960) admired Rathbone as a powerful speaker who knew her subject and drove “her points home with a sledge-hammer.”
All women MPs had to share a single office—the Lady Members’ Room—which was so small and dingy that it was known as the Tomb. The difficult conditions helped to foster solidarity among the MPs, and they supported one another on campaigns and legislation, despite occasional party differences. Wintringham was an informal co-ordinator, and led the campaign for equal guardianship, giving wives who had separated from their husbands equal rights over their children. Her Guardianship, &c., of Infants Bill failed, but the cause was later taken up by the Government and became the Guardianship of Infants Act 1925. The Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Act 1923 and the Nursing Homes Registration Act 1927 were the first two private Members’ Bills to be introduced by women—the former by Astor and the second by her fellow Conservative Mabel Philipson (1887-1951).
Most female MPs were united on the issue of equal voting rights. When the 24-year-old Lee became the Labour candidate for Lanarkshire, Northern, ahead of the 1929 election, she was old enough to stand for Parliament, but was not eligible to vote. Two women first acted together as Tellers—counting the votes cast by MPs—after a debate on 29 February 1924 to amend the Representation of the People Act 1918. The Duchess of Atholl counted the Noes and Jewson the Ayes. Although the measure was defeated, it was another step on the road to equality, and the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which came into force at the 1929 general election, reduced the voting age for women to 21, the same as for men.
Women candidates won an increased share of the vote in the 1929 election, and the number of female MPs in the House rose to 14, including nine Labour Members. Bondfield became the first female Cabinet Minister when she was appointed Minister of Labour by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. When Ethel Bentham (b. 1861), Labour MP for Islington, East, died in 1931, Leah Manning won the subsequent by-election—the first time one woman had succeeded another. Nine of the 23 women elected before the 1931 general election were re-elected in subsequent elections. Lee, who became Baroness Lee of Asheridge in 1970, was the only woman MP in this decade to go on to sit in the Lords. All the women who were elected in this period were pioneers, their struggles and achievements informing and inspiring the work of future generations.
Hansard Writing Team, House of Commons
“New artwork on loan: Portrait of the Duchess of Atholl”, Art in Parliament, Parliament website, 1 February 2019: https://www.parliament.uk/about/art-in-parliament/news/2019/february1/new-artwork-on-loan-portrait-of-the-duchess-of-atholl/
Palace of Westminster, Voice and Vote exhibition 2018, virtual tour (section on the Tomb at 16:00 minutes in): https://www.facebook.com/ukparliament/videos/were-live-at-the-free-voice-and-vote-exhibition-at-the-houses-of-parliament-book/268831923965078/
Hansard report of the debate on the Representation of the People Act (1918) Amendment Bill, 29 February 1924: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1924-02-29/debates/cd72c9d1-015b-4ed5-a879-b66d169eaf58/CommonsChamber
Ramsay MacDonald introduces his Labour Cabinet 1929 (section with Bondfield at 4:00 minutes in): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMyv6vFVd5w