Thelma Cazalet-Keir by Elliott & Fry

Mavis Tate and Thelma Cazalet-Kier

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

Conservative MPs Mavis Tate (1893-1947) and Thelma Cazalet-Kier (1899-1989) played a key role in shifting the issue of equal pay up the political agenda. They both chaired the Equal Pay Campaign Committee, which started out as a cross-party group fighting for equal compensation for female and male civilians injured in the second world war, but which was later reformed with a remit to cover equal pay more generally. Tate’s words of 1935 – that “work should be done by the man or woman best qualified to do it, and that the pay should be commensurate with what the work is worth” – neatly tally with those of Cazalet-Kier who said, several years later, that, “the basic rate of pay shall not be decided on sex, but on the worth of the job”. She went on: “It is difficult to see any grounds why women teachers should receive less pay for their responsibilities and work in schools than men.” Both were instrumental in inflicting the only defeat suffered by Churchill’s Coalition Government – on the topic of equal pay for teachers.

Before being elected in 1931, Tate had contested a council seat in Islington and pursued keen interests in motoring and in aviation; she was the first woman MP to be a qualified pilot. As MP for Willesden West, and, in 1935, for Frome, she put her impressive speaking powers to good use on subjects such as civil aviation, trade, motoring and defence, and she was regarded by the press as “one who knows what she is talking about.” In addition to equal pay, she also campaigned for the removal of the ban on married female civil servants and teachers. She set up a place in which she could regularly meet her constituents in Willesden— holding constituency surgeries is now a routine part of an MP’s work, but that was not the case in the 1930s. Some MPs offered help with problem solving for their constituents, but Tate provided “a combination of a labour exchange, house agency and centre for pension and accident claims.”

Mavis Tate by Bassano Ltd.
Mavis Tate by Bassano Ltd. Whole-plate film negative, 17 May 1935. Given by Bassano & Vandyk Studios, 1974. Photographs Collection NPG x151335 © National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1934, Tate secured the release from Rosslau concentration camp of the wife and daughter of Gerhart Seger, a political opponent of Adolf Hitler. In 1940, she advocated arming women to resist a German invasion, and in April 1945 she was the only woman member of a parliamentary delegation to the recently liberated Buchenwald concentration camp. Video footage of the visit, introduced and narrated by Tate, was shown in a Pathé newsreel. She lost her seat in the July 1945 general election. Shortly afterwards, her health began to deteriorate, and she took her own life in June 1947.

Thelma Cazalet came from a well-connected family, and her feminist mother introduced her to the Pankhursts. She was friends with Megan Lloyd George, daughter of Prime Minister David Lloyd George and later an MP herself. In 1931, Cazalet came third in the Islington East by-election, but she improved her position to win in the general election later that same year and held on to the seat until 1945. Her brother, Victor, was MP for Chippenham (1924-43), and when she wed Lobby correspondent David Keir in 1939, she became Thelma Cazalet-Keir, the first woman MP to marry in office.

Thelma Cazalet-Keir by Elliott & Fry
Thelma Cazalet-Keir by Elliott & Fry. Half-plate negative. Purchased, 1996. NPG x 81844. © National Portrait Gallery, London

 Cazalet-Keir served as an Education PPS from 1937 to 1940, and she was also a member of the progressive Tory Reform Committee. She moved an equal pay amendment to the 1944 Education Bill, noting that men and women teachers were “confronted by the same problems, responsibilities and conditions of work”. It passed by one vote—the wartime coalition’s only defeat. Churchill revisited it as a confidence vote in the wartime Government. Fearing another Government defeat, Cazalet-Keir felt unable to force the issue. None the less, the issue had been put on the agenda and Churchill set up an equal pay commission in 1944.  Although her amendment to raise the school-leaving age to 16 was defeated by 16 votes, she succeeded in abolishing the marriage bar for women teachers. She was Parliamentary Secretary for Education in the 1945 caretaker Government, suggesting that Churchill bore her no grudge. After losing her seat, she became a member of the Arts Council, a BBC Governor, and a president of the Fawcett Society. In 1952 she was made a CBE.

House of Commons Hansard Writing Team