Eleanor Rathbone National Portrait Gallery,

Women MPs, 1931-1945

The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.

By 1931, women had sat in the Commons for more than a decade but, as Edith Summerskill MP (1901-80) recalled in her autobiography, “Parliament, with its conventions and protocol, seemed a little like a boys’ school which had decided to take a few girls.” Women made up only 2% of the total number of Members. They made their voice heard by speaking up for women—notably in the long campaign for equal pay—during the great depression of the 1930s, and especially under wartime conditions in the 1940s. They consolidated their place in Parliament and by working together, both within and across their parties, they secured change and political success.

Conservative women MPs on the terrace of the House of Commons, 1931. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/RO/1/188.
Conservative women MPs on the terrace of the House of Commons, 1931. Front: Norah Runge, Lady Iveagh, Duchess of Atholl, Irene Ward, Mary Pickford. Back: Nancy Astor, Helen Shaw, Mavis Tate, Thelma Cazalet, Sarah Ward, Ida Copeland, Florence Horsburgh. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/RO/1/188.

In the 1931 election, a record number of women Conservative MPs were elected, and the party’s three serving female MPs—Nancy Astor, Katharine Stewart-Murray (better known as the Duchess of Atholl), and Gwendolen Guinness—were joined by 10 new Members. One of them, Norah Runge (1884-1978), won Rotherhithe in the east end of London by only 130 votes. For the first time, women candidates defeated sitting women MPs, with Irene Ward (1895-1980) winning Wallsend from Margaret Bondfield, and Thelma Cazalet-Keir (1899-1989) winning Islington, East from Leah Manning. The Conservative MP Florence Horsbrugh (1889-1969), made history on 3 November 1936 by becoming the first woman to move the Address in reply to the King’s Speech—as Hansard records, “in evening dress”—a fact that she said was “appreciated as a compliment not only to the women Members of this House but to the vast number of women electors throughout the country.” [Official Report, 3 November 1936; Vol. 317, c. 14.] Also elected for the first time, Megan Lloyd George (1902-1966) was to become the longest serving Liberal woman MP, holding her Anglesey seat until 1951.

Florence Horsbrugh - Churchill Archives Centre
Florence Horsbrugh (in evening dress), November 1936. Churchill Archives Centre, HSBR 3/1


There were no Labour women MPs in the 1931-35 Parliament. However, in 1935, the energetic campaigner for social justice Ellen Wilkinson returned to the House, now representing Jarrow. She accompanied her unemployed constituents on the Jarrow march to London in 1936, and presented their petition, pleading “the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without delay”, after their arrival at the House of Commons. Wilkinson was joined by three more Labour women in by-elections in the late 1930s: Agnes Hardie (1874-1951), Edith Summerskill and Jennie Adamson (1882-1962). Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946), who continued to hold her seat as the independent Member for the Combined English Universities, fought a long campaign for family allowances—a precursor of child benefit, paid to the mother—achieving success in 1945.

Women MPs twice achieved victories in their long-running struggle for equal pay, although on each occasion those victories were overturned by the Government. In 1936, Wilkinson moved an amendment to Government spending plans to determine “whether women in…the Civil Service should be paid an equal rate of wages with men for what is admitted to be equal work.” [Official Report, 1 April 1936; Vol. 310, c. 2017.] Her amendment was passed by eight votes, but the decision was reversed in a subsequent vote. In 1944, Cazalet-Keir moved an amendment to the Education Bill to ensure that teachers’ “basic rate of pay shall not be decided on sex, but on the worth of the job”. [Official Report, 28 March 1944; Vol. 398, c. 1357.] She was one of the Tellers, and as she wrote in her memoirs, “The ayes were 117 and the noes 116, and my usually steady voice was under some strain when announcing the figures.” This was the only Commons defeat for the wartime Government, which later passed an amendment that nullified Cazalet-Keir’s proposal.

Eleanor Rathbone National Portrait Gallery,
Eleanor Florence Rathbone by Elliott & Fry, bromide print, NPG x91082 © National Portrait Gallery, London

With the rise of fascism in the late 1930s, the Duchess of Atholl joined forces with Wilkinson and Rathbone to travel to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and to campaign on the issue of refugees. Atholl, who had visited Germany with Rathbone in the late 1930s, was so strongly against the Government’s policy of appeasement that she lost the party Whip in 1938 and resigned her Scottish seat; she lost the subsequent by-election. Three women Members served as junior Ministers in the coalition Government established by Winston Churchill in 1940 after the outbreak of the second world war and made a vital contribution to the war effort.  Horsbrugh and Wilkinson were responsible for civilian defence, particularly evacuation and air raid shelters, while Adamson dealt with widows’ and orphans’ pensions.

Liberal Megan Lloyd George observed, “During the war women Members concerned themselves as a united body in all questions relating to the most effective use of woman power”. Through their Woman-Power Committee, women MPs co-operated closely across parties to advance opportunities for women’s employment, as shown in the woman-power debate in 1941, and their continuous pressure produced practical results. When the Deputy Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, announced the appointment of an all-male committee on the women’s armed services, Cazalet-Keir asked if “it would be a good thing to set up an all-women committee to inquire into conditions in the male Services?” [Official Report, 3 February 1942; Vol. 377, c. 1042.] There was a rapid change of approach. Mavis Tate (1893-1947) secured equal compensation for civilian injuries in 1943. She was the only woman MP on the parliamentary delegation that visited Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945.

House of Commons Hansard Writing Team



Pathé newsreel, “Mrs Dr MP Pathé Close-Up of Dr Edith Summerskill 1945”: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/mrs-dr-mp-pathe-close-up-of-dr-edith-summerskill

UK Vote 100 blog, “Norah Runge MP: An exceptional woman”: https://ukvote100.org/2018/09/27/norah-runge-mp-an-exceptional-woman/

Florence Horsbrugh moving the address in reply to the King’s Speech, 3 November 1936, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/2yssw4Q

History of Parliament blog, “Ellen Wilkinson’s search for social justice in 1936”: https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2019/03/28/ellen-wilkinsons-search-for-social-justice-in-1936/

Pathé newsreel, “Jarrow Marchers Arrive at the House of Commons 1936”, showing Ellen Wilkinson with the petition: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVAC9PKF0ABTO1GWBDSVG23816P3-JARROW-MARCHERS-ARRIVE-AT-THE-HOUSE-OF-COMMONS/query/Jarrow

Parliament Living Heritage, “Eleanor Rathbone: A Most Independent Member”: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/parliamentary-collections/eleanor-rathbone/

Ellen Wilkinson moving her amendment on equal pay for women civil servants, 1 April 1936, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/2O5Et9P

Thelma Cazalet-Keir moving her amendment on equal pay for women teachers, 28 March 1944, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/306rjQhBBC Scotland, “From political maverick to historical footnote” (about the Duchess of Atholl): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/8544970.stm

Women-power debate on 20 March 1941, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/2MwpNjm

Thelma Cazalet-Keir’s question on 3 February 1942, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/3168J7R

Pathé newsreel, “German Atrocities 1945”, presented by Mavis Tate: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/german-atrocities/query/mavis+tate