The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Beatrice Wright (1910—2003) and Violet Bathurst, Lady Apsley (1895—1966) were Conservative MPs elected in by-elections during the second world war after their husbands’ death. Wright was the first sitting MP to give birth and return to parliamentary duties, and Apsley was the first female wheelchair user in Parliament. Both broadened the concept of who could be an MP and how the job could be combined with personal circumstances. They deserve to be much more widely known.
Wright was the second American-born woman to enter Parliament. She married John Rathbone, a relative of Eleanor Rathbone MP, while studying at Oxford. In 1935, he was elected Conservative MP for Bodmin. In 1941, after his death in the Battle of Britain in 1940, she was asked to be the candidate and in wartime conditions she was returned without a contest. She became the first female MP for Cornwall.
A flavour of Wright’s activities during the war was given in her oral interview to the Imperial War Museum; she related how she was an active speaker, chairing a committee on establishing home helps and day nursery schools, while also working to improve housing in Cornwall, including through the provision of a piped water supply. She was against the women’s days that were introduced in Parliament – days devoted to subjects related to women, especially equal pay – because she felt that they left men out.
In 1941, Wright went on a speaking tour of the US to encourage American entry to the war, but this visit was curtailed after the attack on Pearl Harbour. On 2 December 1942, she spoke forcefully on the subject of post-war reconstruction, remarking on the “unlimited” spirit and will of the British people and on the need to “fight for this peace as we have fought in the war”.
In May 1942, she had married diplomat Paul Wright, and in 1943 she became the first sitting MP to give birth, bringing her baby, Faith, to Parliament for a vote when she was only two weeks old. She retired from Parliament in 1945 because she opposed the end of the wartime coalition and wished to spend more time with her family. Her son, John Rathbone, known as Tim, was MP for Lewes from 1974 to 1997 and godfather to David Cameron. After Parliament she continued an active public life, including as Vice President for the Royal National Institute for the Deaf.
Lady Apsley became Conservative MP for Bristol Central after her husband, the sitting MP, was killed in action in 1942. She caused a stir when she first appeared in the House in full mourning and in a wheelchair—the result of an earlier hunting accident. She was the first female MP for a Bristol constituency.
Building on her personal experience, Lady Apsley campaigned to improve the plight of disabled people. In her maiden speech on the subject of war pensions, she was clear that, as was the custom of the ATS in which she served, “if one ventured to dogmatise or to criticise higher authority, one had to put up recommendations”. She therefore gave practical suggestions about the need for disabled people to have “opportunity to reorientate the mind; encouragement from the public; and money to relieve personal anxieties” as well as a rise in the basic disability pension and the establishment of independent appeals tribunals. Other parliamentary contributions highlighted the difficulty for ex-service men in obtaining surgical boots, the design of artificial limbs, the need for petrol allowances for disabled men, and pension ratings for sailors who lost limbs before 1914.
Lady Apsley was a qualified pilot, a group commander of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and the national chair of the British Legion, but in a debate on women in national service, she talked about “the common or garden” kind of woman and her place in the home. Eleanor Rathbone MP was quick to intervene, commenting on the cheers that came from “the men Members of the House” and the “practical serfdom” of home-making.
After being defeated in the 1945 election, Lady Apsley stood for Parliament in Bristol North East in 1950 but was not successful. She continued to play a public role in the Conservative party and the Victoria League and was awarded a CBE in 1952.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Photo of Lady Apsley (centre, in wheelchair) after winning by-election https://www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/3402411528/in/photostream/
Photo of Lady Apsley from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violet_Bathurst,_Lady_Apsley#/media/File:Violetbathurst.jpg
Tweet by Beth Rigby, Sky News, about Wright and motherhood https://twitter.com/bethrigby/status/451269247520759808
Getty Images photo of Beatrice Rathbone, 1941 https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/the-second-american-born-woman-to-enter-british-parliament-news-photo/3361428
Oral interview with Beatrice Wright, Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80011769
Oxford DNB entry for Beatrice Wright https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-89841
Reference to Beatrice Wright by Mrs Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall http://bit.ly/2H3XsNz
Reference to Beatrice Wright by Sarah Newton, MP for Truro and Falmouth, as Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work. http://bit.ly/2WVMZJJ
Recent news stories relating to MPs bringing children to the House: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/lib-dem-mp-makes-history-by-bringing-his-baby-into-commons-for-vote-9611522.html and bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-45513074
Hansard reference to women’s days (1943) https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1943/aug/03/women-in-national-service