The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Twenty-four women were elected to Parliament in 1945, 21 of whom represented Labour, including Bessie Braddock (1899-1970), for Liverpool Exchange, and Florence Paton (1891-1976), for Rushcliffe. Both embraced their party’s reform agenda, and both formed long lasting political partnerships with their husbands.
Braddock grew up helping her mother, a union organiser, to provide relief to Liverpool’s low paid and unemployed. She left school at 14 and filled seed packets for five shillings a week before becoming a Warehouse Workers Union clerk in 1918. She was involved in the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement and was for four years a leading member of the Communist party, but in 1924, she returned to Labour.
Braddock campaigned tirelessly and vociferously to improve the living conditions and welfare of Liverpool’s poor as a councillor—at one point, she resorted to using a two-foot megaphone to get her point across in the council chamber—and as the first woman MP for a Liverpool constituency. In her maiden speech on 17 October 1945, she described the housing of working-class people, particularly in industrial areas, as “flea-ridden, bug-ridden, rat-ridden, lousy hell-holes”. Her husband Jack was the leader of the Labour group on Liverpool City Council from 1946, so together they made a formidable team.
Described by the press as “capable of playing merry hell…when roused by injustice”, Braddock ran an oversubscribed surgery for her constituents, who loved her. In Parliament, she championed the NHS and campaigned to improve prison conditions. Between 1953 and 1957, she served on the Royal Commission for Mental Health, which led to the Mental Health Act 1959.
In 1952, “Battling Bessie” was the first woman to be “named”—or made to leave the Chamber—by the Speaker. When her local party, which supported the left-wing Bevanite group, tried unsuccessfully to unseat her in 1955, she declared, “I don’t give a tuppeny clout”. She declined a position in Harold Wilson’s Government, preferring to fight for her constituents from the back benches.
Paton began her political life as a Liberal, but she thought the party’s foreign policy helped to cause the first world war – she had “a burning hatred of war” – and she joined the Independent Labour Party in 1917. She became a member of Cheltenham Labour party’s first working committee, and then its first parliamentary candidate. In 1930, she married ILP general secretary and future Norwich MP, John Paton. Paton was Rushcliffe’s first female MP, and in 1946 became the first woman to be appointed to the Speaker’s Panel of temporary Chairmen of Committees of the whole House and Chairmen of Standing Committees. On 31 May 1948, she became the first woman to chair a debate on the Floor of the House of Commons – an occasion welcomed by neighbouring MP, George Lindgren, who said that it gave him “the greatest pleasure” to speak under her chairmanship.
Although a mostly loyal back bencher, Paton opposed the Attlee Government on conscription in peacetime, which was imposed in the years immediately after the second world war, and on a selective education system, which was set out in the Education Act 1944. Her focus was on the needs of children in post-war Europe. In a debate on 26 October 1945, she spoke about the suffering of “little children with legs like sword-sticks, with protruding stomachs, with large heads, many of them in plaster of Paris”. In 1947, as British delegate to the United Nations, she focused on the importance of the UN to international peace. She condemned the conditions in women’s prisons, particularly the use of solitary confinement, which she called “the greatest torture that one human being can impose on another” in a debate on 14 February 1947.
In 1950, following boundary changes, Paton stood for the new Carlton constituency. She lost by only 395 votes to the Conservative, Kenneth Pickthorn. She stood again in 1951 and 1955, but on each occasion Pickthorn increased his majority. In 1955, the Royal Commission on Common Land was established, with Paton as the only female member. Her husband John Paton had been elected for the safer seat of Norwich in 1945, then Norwich North in 1950 and he remained an MP until 1964. They were a husband and wife team in the Commons for 5 years.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Images courtesy of Parliamentary Archives
Labour manifesto for 1945:
Debate on Housing Shortage:
Second Reading of the Mental Health Bill
Debate on Conditions in Europe:
Debate on Holloway Prison