The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Dorothy Jewson (1884-1964) and Susan Lawrence (1871-1947) became the first women Labour MPs, along with Margaret Bondfield, at the general election of 1923. Both women built their reputations on local government service, having come from middle-class backgrounds and been educated at Cambridge, and had long careers in Labour and trade union politics. They were especially important in raising concerns about working-class poverty, and they each made significant contributions in local government.
Dorothy Jewson was from Norfolk, and was the daughter of a wealthy timber merchant. She studied classics at Cambridge, where she joined the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party. After returning to Norwich to become a schoolteacher, she became an active women’s suffrage campaigner and socialist. She researched the impact of poverty, and wrote a pamphlet with her brother entitled “The Destitute of Norwich and How They Live”. In 1916, she moved to London to work for the National Federation of Women Workers, which aimed to promote trade union membership among women.
Jewson was elected for Norwich in 1923. In her maiden speech on 29 February 1924, she argued that the voting age for women should be lowered to 21 so that it was equal to that for men: “All these disabilities are relics of a by-gone age, and ought to be swept away.” She lost her seat at the general election the following year. She stood in the elections of 1929 and 1931, but never returned to the Commons. In Parliament, Jewson campaigned to make advice about contraception freely available, and in 1924 she co-founded the Labour-affiliated Workers’ Birth Control Group with Dora Russell. She was on the left of the party, and remained with the ILP (Independent Labour Party) when it split from Labour in 1930s.
Serving on Norwich County Council between 1927 and 1936, Jewson worked on unemployment and children’s welfare issues. In 1936, she married a tea merchant, Richard Tanner-Smith, who died three years later, and in 1945, she married the Glasgow Labour MP Campbell Stephen.
Susan Lawrence began her political life as a Conservative, but because of her concern about the low pay of school cleaners, she switched to Labour by 1912. She joined the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, got involved in the women’s trade union movement and became a close friend of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Her election in 1918 to the Labour Party national executive, on which she served until 1941, made her one of the most senior women in the party. In 1930, she became the first woman to chair the Labour Party national conference. She was a notable social reformer.
In 1913, Lawrence became a Labour councillor for Poplar, and took part in the rates rebellion. She and other Poplar councillors were imprisoned for five weeks in 1921 for withholding payments to London County Council. Because most of the people who lived there were so poor, Poplar had to set a much higher rate to produce the same amount produced by low rates in a wealthy borough. Each borough was also required to pay an equal precept for pan-London services such as police and fire. Poplar’s councillors refused to do so, and were imprisoned. “We go cheerfully determined to see this thing through,” said Lawrence. “I hope our example will not be lost on all local authorities throughout the country.” It was not, and the councillors were soon released. Legislation was rushed through Parliament to cross-subsidise pan-London contributions from poorer boroughs.
After unsuccessfully contesting parliamentary elections in 1920 and 1922, Lawrence became Labour MP for East Ham North in 1923, making her the first woman to represent a London constituency. She was made a Parliamentary Private Secretary in 1924 but lost her seat the same year. After regaining it in a by-election in 1926, she became junior Minister at the Ministry of Health from 1929, answering a question and responding to a debate for the first time as a Health Minister on 15 July. She lost her seat at the election of 1931.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Jewson making her maiden speech in Hansard, 29 February 1924; Vol. 170, c. 865: http://bit.ly/2VNPm4w
Entry on Jewson on the Norfolk Women in History website: https://norfolkwomeninhistory.com/1851-1899/dorothy-jewson/
Short film about “Dorothy Jewson, Suffragette & Socialist” (Norfolk Record Office, 2014): https://youtu.be/eD-_avMF5cY
Lawrence’s role in the Poplar rates rebellion, on the Isle of Dogs—Past Life, Past Lives website: https://islandhistory.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/poplarism-aka-the-poplar-rates-rebellion/
Lawrence’s blue plaque in London: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/susan-lawrence/