Irene Ward and Edith Summerskill

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

Dame Irene Ward (1895-1980) and Dr Edith Summerskill (1901-1980) were two of their parties’ longest-serving MPs. Both fought for equal pay and equality for women in the workplace, including in the House of Commons itself.

Irene Ward by Bassano
Irene Mary Bewick Ward, Baroness Ward of North Tyneside by Bassano Ltd. Half-plate glass negative, 25 November 1931. NPG x31247 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Irene Ward

Forthright and often combative in debate, Ward’s public speaking ability led to her selection as a parliamentary candidate, but she had to run for Parliament twice before being elected Conservative Member for Wallsend in 1931, which she represented until 1945. She returned to Parliament in 1950 as MP for Tynemouth and retired from the House of Commons in 1974.

Ward was at home on topics from welfare to heavy industry – her maiden speech was on the Coal Mines Bill in 1932. In 1961, she became the first woman to ask a Prime Minister’s question. Her zeal to defend Parliament’s authority against the Executive earned her a five-day exclusion in 1968 after she protested in front of the Maceabout a guillotine motion on the Finance Bill. 

Ward was an active parliamentarian and had four private Member’s Bills passed, which is a record number, on matters including the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954 and a 1937 measure to give pocket money to elderly residents of poor-law institutions. She also served on the Public Accounts Committee in the mid-1960s.

Ward was a great campaigner for equal pay, raising the topic in a debate in 1950. She also took up the case of Hansard’s sole woman reporter, Jean Winder, and dubbed the Chancellor of the Exchequer a “little dictator” for blocking a move to pay her same as the men. That campaign was won in 1953 and paved the way for Ward, alongside Labour MPs Edith Summerskill and Barbara Castle and the Ulster Unionist Patricia Ford, to present a petition of more than 80,000 signatures in favour of equal pay. Ward became a dame in 1955 and a life peer in 1975.

Edith Summerskill, Baroness Summerskill, by Bassano Ltd. Half-plate film negative, 16 August 1940. Given by Bassano & Vandyk Studios, 1974. NPG x19469 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Edith Summerskill

Summerskill was drawn to socialist politics by witnessing poverty and ill health during her time as a young medical practitioner, which she described in a 1948 BBC party political broadcast. She was an early campaigner for socialised healthcare and a member of the Labour-affiliated Socialist Medical Association. She was elected in 1938 as MP for Fulham West, but after that constituency was abolished, she became MP for Warrington in 1955.

From early in her parliamentary career, Summerskill took a particular interest in issues affecting women, including equal pay and women’s employment, and medical issues in particular, such as the use of anaesthetics in childbirth. In her maiden speech, she famously said, “There is a saying that women are no good at figures, that they have no head for figures; but I am reminded that throughout this country in thousands of homes the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a woman”.

Summerskill founded the Married Women’s Association, of which she became president, in 1938, and was also instrumental in establishing the non-party Women for Westminster group, which aimed at encouraging more women into politics. In the early 1940s, she spoke vividly of the consequences of the war for gender equality and the “social upheaval” that would follow from women’s wider participation in the workplace. As a Pathé film shows, she was proud to carry out the “three man-sized jobs” of wife, doctor and MP.

Summerskill was appointed Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Food in 1945 and used her medical training to encourage better nutrition despite rationing. She was made national insurance Minister in 1951. After entering the House of Lords in 1961, becoming the fifth woman life peer to be appointed, she remained politically active and campaigned for the liberalisation of homosexuality laws and the legalisation of abortion, among other things. Her daughter, Shirley Summerskill, was elected as an MP in 1964.

House of Commons Hansard Writing Team


Irene Ward MP in Hansard: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/people/miss-irene-ward/index.html

Ward’s maiden speech in Hansard: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1932/may/30/coal-mines-bill#S5CV0266P0_19320530_HOC_313

Ward’s question to the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1961-11-09/debates/f983646c-8817-4dd9-92ca-d1c6b491ad5c/SecurityServices(RadcliffeCommitteeReport)

Photo of Ward, Parliamentary Archives: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/tradeindustry/industrycommunity/collections/equal-pay/irene-ward/

“The World This Weekend”, Women in the Conservative Party, BBC,16 May 1971: https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/the-world-this-weekend–women-in-the-conservative-party/zkx3xyc

Image of Ward and women Conservative MPs with Sir Edward Heath: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp161374/dame-irene-ward

Vote 100 blog on the fight for equal pay: https://ukvote100.org/2017/11/09/women-demand-equal-pay/

Lecture on Ward by Helen Langley:

Haessly, Katie (2010) British Conservative women MPs and “women’s issues” 1950-1979. PhD Thesis: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/11513/1/KHaessly_Thesis_-_Final.pdf

Edith Summerskill MP in Hansard: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/people/dr-edith-summerskill/index.html

Summerskill’s maiden speech in Hansard: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1938/apr/28/ways-and-means#S5CV0335P0_19380428_HOC_369

Summerskill question to the Minister of Information: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1941-05-07/debates/8297352e-62c8-4414-ad5b-78362685dd96/Poster

Photo of Summerskill, Parliamentary Archives: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/houseoflords/house-of-lords-reform/from-the-collections/from-the-parliamentary-collections-lords-reform/the-work-of-the-life-peers/edithsummerskill1901-1980/

Pictures of and blog about Summerskill, LSE Archives:

Britannica biography of Summerskill: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edith-Summerskill

Women’s History Month blog on Summerskill: https://womenshistorymonth.wordpress.com/resources/women-and-series/women-and-activism/women-and-politics/history-of-labour-women/edith-summerskill/

Summerskill broadcast on the NHS, BBC, 3 April 1948:https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/doctor-edith-summerskill/z7y4scw