The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Agnes Hardie and Jennie Adamson were Scottish working-class women who fought poverty, campaigned for women and advocated peace. They became Labour MPs in middle age, with years of activism behind them. In a debate on Woman-Power in 1941, both opposed conscripting women to factories. Hardie argued: “Women thereby have been robbed of the only weapon they possess to obtain good conditions.” Adamson said: “I know what it is to work in a factory for long hours and very inadequate wages.” Both fought for equal compensation for war injuries, which the Ministry of Pensions accepted in 1943. Both married MPs.
Hardie (1874-1951), daughter of a Glasgow poorhouse assistant governor, had little formal education and worked as a shop assistant in her teens. She recalled that “we worked 80, 90 and 100 hours a week. I never had a half-holiday or a Saturday afternoon until I was married.” She was the first female full-time organiser of the National Union of Shop Assistants and the first female member of the Glasgow Trades Council in 1909.
In 1909, Agnes married George Hardie, Keir Hardie’s half-brother, who became MP for Glasgow Springburn. They had a son who predeceased them. When George died in 1937, Agnes won the ensuing by-election—the first woman to secure a Glasgow seat – aged 63.
Hardie’s maiden speech urged paid holidays for “the productive worker”. On maternal mortality, she said that “the Secretary of State said it had gone up from 4.8 to 4.9—‘nothing to mention’. What occurred to me was, ‘just a few more women’s lives’… we are apt to…forget there are human beings behind” statistics. As a pacifist, she described her feeling of hopelessness at the prospect of conscription. She worried, “My little Glasgow undersized, underfed boys are to be pushed into all these horrors.”
Hardie did not stand for re-election in 1945.
Adamson (1882-1962) was born in Kirkcudbright, daughter of a railway porter. She recalled, “My mother was left a widow with six young children and the impressions left on me by my young life have never been removed by the passage of time. I feel it my duty to plead the cause of the widows… for adequate pensions.” Adamson had some secondary education and was a dressmaker, factory worker and teacher. In 1902, she married William Adamson, a trade union organiser, later MP for Cannock. They had four children.
Adamson was a member of the National Strike Committee in 1926 and Labour’s National Executive Committee from 1927, chairing it in 1935-36. She chaired the Standing Joint Committee for Industrial Organisations from 1928. She represented Lambeth North on London County Council in 1928-31. In 1935, she unsuccessfully contested Dartford, but won it at a by-election in 1938, after which the Adamsons were the only husband and wife team in the Commons. After boundary changes, she won the new seat of Bexley in 1945.
While not a pacifist, Adamson was opposed to conscription, arguing, “I rise to oppose the Military Training Bill and the principle of conscription” because, as women go into “the jaws of death” to bring life into the world, they place “a higher value upon it than the politicians, the statesmen and the war-mongers… when hostilities break out our sons are expected to go forth and destroy the sons of other mothers in other countries, who love their children just as much as we love ours”. On conscripting women to factories, she further demanded “equal pay for equal work”. She supported paying family allowances to mothers.
In 1941, Adamson became an additional Parliamentary Private Secretary, with responsibility for war orphans. When the Attlee Government was formed in 1945 she was one of three women to achieve ministerial positions, as Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Pensions in 1945-46. Adamson’s younger son died on active service with the RAF in 1944. Her husband died suddenly in 1945. She resigned her seat in 1946, taking on the important role of Deputy Chairman of the National Assistance Board from 1946 to 1953.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Hansard report of the Woman-Power debate, featuring Hardie and Adamson, 20 March 1941: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1941-03-20/debates/217973b0-285d-4e8f-9a46-c743d81a05ff/Woman-Power
Hansard report of Hardie’s speech in the debate on the National Service Bill, 10 December 1941: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1941-12-10/debates/57963740-4171-48c1-bbd8-5313f3bfd38a/Clause1%E2%80%94(GeneralObligationToServe)
Hansard report of Hardie’s maiden speech, in the debate on the Annual Holiday Bill, 12 November 1937: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1937-11-12/debates/6d0aab3e-4d62-41fc-ae21-e45ffc2c4385/AnnualHolidayBill
Hansard report of Hardie’s speech in the debate on the Department of Health for Scotland, 4 July 1939: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1939-07-04/debates/2cdad17f-fb6b-4c90-ac6a-6f23b5ac40f9/OrdersOfTheDay
Hansard report of Hardie’s speech in the debate on the National Service Bill, 8 December 1942: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1942-12-08/debates/13c4dead-0a67-4218-90f5-eb7b1fa42979/NationalServiceBill
Report of Adamson’s first speech in Hansard, on Navy (Excess) 1939, 14 March 1940: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1940-03-14/debates/c211dd65-ebdc-4333-8f83-ea6f04686131/OrdersOfTheDay
Hansard report of Adamson’s speech in the debate on Old Age and Widows’ Pensions, 17 June 1942: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1942-06-17/debates/e1a7dee7-0ad3-4911-9889-f43b3327be06/OldAgeAndWidowsPensions
Hansard report of Adamson’s speech in the debate on the Military Training Bill, 8 May 1939: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1939/may/08/military-training-bill
“All Change! Women and the 1945 General Election”, blog by Oonagh Gay, 26 July 2017:https://ukvote100.org/2017/07/26/all-change-women-and-the-1945-general-election/