The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Janet (“Jennie”) Lee (1904-88) and Mary Agnes (“Molly”) Hamilton (1882-1966) were both Labour MPs who were first elected in 1929. They were both associated with the arts: Hamilton was a broadcaster and writer, including of political biographies, and Lee, who was also a journalist and lecturer, was the first ever Minister for the Arts (1964).
Lee, the daughter of a Scottish miner and Independent Labour Party activist, was raised a radical socialist who early on earned a reputation as an exceptional platform speaker. She studied teaching and law at Edinburgh University, and worked briefly as a teacher. Elected Independent Labour Party MP for Lanarkshire, Northern in 1929 at the age of 24—below the voting age for women, set at 30—she became a fierce critic of Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour Government, whom she accused of betraying the working class. She held the record for being the youngest woman Member elected until Bernadette Devlin became an MP in 1969.
After losing her seat in 1931, Lee spent 13 years writing, travelling, lecturing and campaigning; she was also involved in the launch of Tribune. In 1934, she married Aneurin Bevan, who represented Ebbw Vale for Labour. Lee was the first woman who had already served as an MP to marry a male MP. She contested Bristol Central unsuccessfully in February 1943, but returned to the Commons as Member for Staffordshire, Cannock in 1945. She served as an MP with her husband, who in 1947 oversaw the creation of the NHS, until his death in 1960.
In 1964, Harold Wilson gave Lee ministerial responsibility for the arts, first at the Ministry of Public Building and Works (1964-65) and then at the Department of Education and Science. Her aim was to make the arts accessible to all, without lowering standards, to which end she trebled the grant to the Arts Council. She also established the Open University—the University of the Air—which she argued “is not a dream, is not a luxury: it has become an urgent necessity.” Lee became a Privy Counsellor in 1966 and Labour Party chair in 1967. In 1970, after losing her seat, she was given a life peerage.
Hamilton was the daughter of a Scottish professor of logic and she took a first in economics at Cambridge. After university, and following her separation from her husband, she needed to support herself and became an author and journalist. Her books included “Murder in the House of Commons” (1931). She joined the Independent Labour Party in 1914, helping to draft its constitution. From 1924 to 1929 she was on the Balfour committee on industry and trade, which considered the UK’s economic decline since world war one.
After unsuccessfully contesting Chatham in 1923 and Blackburn in 1924, Hamilton was elected for Blackburn at the general election of 1929. That year she was the presenter of the first broadcast of “The Week in Westminster”, a radio programme hosted by women MPs and aimed at women voters. She was a member of the parliamentary delegation to the League of Nations in 1929 and 1930. Clement Attlee, whose Parliamentary Private Secretary she became in 1930, described her as “one of the ablest women who entered the House of Commons”. Her parliamentary speeches expressed her pacifism, socialism and belief in global co-operation, as well as her concern for female cotton workers in her Lancashire constituency. In 1931, she spoke for the Opposition on Budget issues, saying “everyone in this House knows that capitalism is in dissolution,” after the formation of the National Government in August. She famously always wore red shoes in the House.
On losing her seat in 1931, Hamilton worked in broadcasting, including as a member of the BBC’s “Brains Trust”. She was a governor of the BBC and an alderman on the London County Council. She joined the civil service in 1940, becoming head of the United States section in the Ministry of Information, and was awarded the CBE in 1949.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
“Jennie Lee and the University of the Air”, Living Heritage website: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/collections1/parliament-and-the-1960s/jennie-lee/
Lee responding to questions on the University of the Air (from Historic Hansard): https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1966/jul/28/university-of-the-air
“The Week in Westminster”, 07/11/2009 (80th anniversary programme): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b00nmz83
Hamilton speaking on the Finance (No. 2) Bill in Hansard: http://bit.ly/2WaQPOg