The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Mary Pickford (1884-1934) and Norah Runge (1884-1978) were two of the 15 women MPs elected in 1931, and both served for just one Parliament. Both were active thinkers on the question of the franchise in India, a key issue during the early 1930s, but they had different views about its extension to women.
Pickford won the Hammersmith North constituency for the Conservatives in 1931, overturning a Labour majority of more than 3,000. In her maiden speech on “the conditions and hours of employment of women and young persons” in factories, she put her experience of being a factory inspector during the first world war to good use. During the 1920s, she had worked as a Poor Law guardian and sat on the Malcolm Committee on education and industry. She was awarded a CBE for public services in 1929.
Although Pickford did not speak often during her time in Parliament, she continued to make contributions on working conditions for women and young people, and on unemployment and education. Otherwise a loyal back bencher, she rebelled over Conservative party policy on the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board, fearing that a lack of competition would lead to unfair pricing.
Pickford was the only British woman to sit on the Indian Franchise Committee, which toured India in 1932 to gather evidence about extending the franchise there, and she subsequently sat on the Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform. As such, she played a key role in greatly extending India’s franchise from 6 million to 35 million, although she spoke in Parliament of her disappointment at not being able to extend the eligibility criteria for female voters, which was “one of the most difficult problems with which our committee had to deal”. But she did not see these reforms enacted in the Government of India Act 1935, as she died of pneumonia in March 1934.
Runge, who became MP for the East London Docklands constituency of Rotherhithe in 1931, was among the most active of the 13 Conservative women elected that year. She registered the most appearances of any woman in the division list for 1933-34 and attended many more divisions than the average male MP, as well as tabling many parliamentary questions.
Runge met her constituents regularly for what she called interviews (but would now be recognised as constituency surgeries) and represented them assiduously. She highlighted the lack of temporary accommodation for displaced residents after slum clearances and spoke of injustices in the assessment of family resources for unemployment benefit, although she supported the means-test. In her maiden speech, on Sunday cinema opening, she demonstrated her liberal thinking by asking Members to consider the meaning of “rest” in “the house of the very poor”. She admitted that she might be expected to abstain on the Bill, but “I conceive it to be the duty of a Member of Parliament to have the courage of his or her convictions, and, if necessary, to give expression to them.”
Runge took great interest in Conservative policy on India. In her diaries, she describes enjoying a debate on the subject outside of Parliament in June 1933 and refers to a “sensational” afternoon of parliamentary debate on the India Joint Select Committee involving Winston Churchill in April 1934. In 1935, she opposed an amendment to the India Bill that proposed the inclusion of more women in the electorate. Her contribution to the debate explained: “I expect I shall be called a traitor to my sex. I want to do the best I can for the women of India, and I am perfectly certain that the common sense thing to do and the best service that one can render to the women of India is to vote with the Government against the Amendment.”
Runge was defeated in the 1935 election when the Labour party’s fortunes revived, and again when she stood in the 1945 election, but she became a member of the London County Council in 1937 and remained active in it until 1961.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Pickford’s maiden speech in Hansard: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1931/nov/23/second-schedule-enactments-continued#S5CV0260P0_19311123_HOC_391
Blog about Pickford’s former home: http://www.house-historian.co.uk/tag/mary-pickford/
Another NPG image of Pickford: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw68860/Hon-Mary-Ada-Pickford?LinkID=mp64569&role=sit&rNo=1
Pickford and Norah Runge both appear in the photo of Conservative women MPs on the Terrace in the Parliamentary Archives: https://archives.parliament.uk/collections/getrecord/GB61_HL_PO_RO_1_188
Norah Runge in Hansard: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/people/mrs-norah-runge/index.html
Runge’s maiden speech in Hansard: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1932/apr/13/sunday-performances-regulation-bill#S5CV0264P0_19320413_HOC_250
Results from Parliamentary Archives about Runge: https://archives.parliament.uk/collections/search?s=norah+runge&qa%5Bkeyword_reference_type%5D=0&qa%5Btitle%5D=&qa%5Bperson%5D=&qa%5Bplace%5D=&qa%5Bsubject%5D=&qa%5Bformat%5D=&qa%5Bidentifier%5D=&qa%5Bdate_from%5D=&qa%5Bdate_to%5D=&cbav=2&cbadvsearchquery=
The Parliamentary Archives were able to borrow diaries of Mrs Runge relating to her service as an MP and two Vote 100 volunteers transcribed them in 2018. Her life is described in detail in the following blogs: https://ukvote100.org/2018/09/27/norah-runge-mp-an-exceptional-woman/
Image of Runge during the First World War: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205381128