The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Ethel Bentham (1861-1931) and Marion Phillips (1881-1932) were the first medically qualified women to sit in the Commons. They were active throughout their lives in campaigns to improve the health and welfare of women, as well as for women’s suffrage, and in Labour politics. They shared a house in Kensington, where they were both councillors, and came into Parliament together at the 1929 general election.
Ethel Bentham grew up in Dublin, where she visited the slums of the city on charitable missions with her mother. That inspired her to become a doctor, and she trained at the London School of Medicine for Women from 1890 to 1893. She undertook further training in Dublin, Paris and Brussels, where she qualified as an MD in 1895. From 1896 she worked as a GP in Newcastle upon Tyne, where she joined the North East Society for Women’s Suffrage. From 1909 she practised in London, and worked with fellow Fabian, Maud Pember Reeves, on the Lambeth mothers project, which recommended child benefit, free health checks and school meals. Bentham served on the National Executive Committee of the Labour party, and was councillor for Golborne ward (1912-25), as well as a JP, working primarily as a member of the Children’s Court. From 1911 she was organiser and consultant medical officer of a new baby clinic for mothers and pre-school children in north Kensington.
After three attempts—in 1922, 1923 and 1924—Bentham won Islington, East aged 68, the oldest woman to take a Westminster seat for the first time. She was also the first Quaker woman to enter Parliament. Most of her parliamentary speeches, such as on the Mental Treatment Bill on 17 February 1930 and on shop workers’ working hours on 21 March 1930, drew on her experience as doctor and magistrate. On 31 October 1930 she introduced the Nationality of Women Bill, one of many attempts to prevent women losing UK nationality if they married a foreign citizen. Bentham died of heart failure on 19 January 1931—the first woman to die while a serving MP. Her constituency was subsequently represented by Leah Manning—the first instance of one female MP succeeding another.
Marion Phillips was the first woman of Jewish origin to become an MP, and she was the first Australian woman MP in any national Parliament. She left Australia in 1904 to undertake a doctorate at the LSE, and went on to do social research for Beatrice Webb, joining the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party in 1907, and the Women’s Labour League in 1908. She helped to set up 2,000 Labour women’s sections in 14 years. In 1918, she became secretary of the Conference of Labour Women, and thus the most senior female officer in the party. She edited Labour Woman from 1912 until 1932.
As a councillor from 1912, Phillips argued for publicly funded baby clinics, school meals, improved council housing, employment schemes, and a ban on sweated labour. After her election as Sunderland’s first female MP, she spoke up for working-class women. On 15 November 1929, she told the House that the Annual Holiday Bill, which proposed paid leave as part of normal industrial conditions, would benefit “the vast army of women who manage the homes of the workers” and for whom there was “always something calamitous in the approach of holidays, because for a very large number of people that means the automatic stopping of wages.” She attacked benefit cuts in the 1931 Budget, saying: “The working class women will have to suffer a very heavy loss in the money with which she has to buy her household goods.” She lost her seat at the 1931 general election, and died early the following year from stomach cancer.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Persephone Books, Maud Pember Reeves: https://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/maud-pember-reeves/
Bentham’s baby clinic in north Kensington: https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/ladbrokesq.html
Bentham speaking on the Mental Treatment Bill on 17 February 1930, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/2XMJEgK
Bentham speaking on shop workers’ working hours on 21 March 1930, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/2IOdBqO
Phillips remembered as the first female MP for Sunderland: https://www.sunderlandecho.com/retro/who-was-dr-marion-phillips-story-sunderlands-first-female-mp-blue-plaque-honours-her-achievements-637781
Phillips speaking on the Annual Holiday Bill on 15 November 1929, from Historic Hansard: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1929/nov/15/annual-holiday-bill#S5CV0231P0_19291115_HOC_63
Phillips speaking on the Budget on 23 September 1931, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/2XOosHs