The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
The expectation of change among working-class women weighed heavily on the Labour women who were elected in 1945. Never had so many women stood for election and won a seat. While much of the focus of the new Labour Government was on nationalisation, full employment and a national health service, MPs such as Mabel Ridealgh (1898-1989) and Edith Wills (1892-1970) were keen to put the needs of women high on the political agenda, whether championing the rights of housewives, dealing with the struggles of impoverished families or utilising the skills of part-time female workers. In a debate on consumer shortages in June 1947, Wills said that “the women of this country are having a raw deal at present.” She called on the House to “urge the women to come forward… tell them how good they are, and how much they can do, and I am sure they will not disappoint us.”
Ridealgh became a member of the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1920 and the Labour party in 1921. The WCG’s absolute pacifism and its refusal to modify it in the 1930s at a time when the Co-operative and Labour parties were reluctantly moving towards supporting the war effort meant that she and other guildswomen were barred from the lists of parliamentary candidates. That bar was removed in 1944. During the second world war, she worked on several national committees dealing with welfare and social services and was elected as WCG national president for 1941-42.
Ridealgh was the first woman to be elected to the seat of Ilford North. Her contributions in the Chamber often reflected the concerns of her constituents, particularly women, who endured hardship in the wake of the second world war. She supported housewives who had “had six or seven years of hard toil and it is about time that their work was appreciated.” She also said: “the splendid job of the housewife is not being fully recognised…We depend too much on their job of keeping their families healthy, content and happy.” She is credited with persuading the Chancellor to revoke the purchase tax on electrical and gas apparatus, on the grounds that it was unfair to working-class women.
In 1949, Ridealgh served as a deputy delegate to the Council of Europe and went to Belgium and Luxembourg as a member of parliamentary delegations. She lost her seat in the 1950 general election and did not win it back when she stood at the 1951 election. She devoted the rest of her political life to the Women’s Cooperative Guild and the cause of disarmament, dying in 1989.
Like Ridealgh, Edith Wills political life was forged in the Co-operative Movement. Wills was educated at Workers Education Association and Co-operative summer schools and classes, as well as at Birmingham University. She went on to lecture for the Co-op and the trade union movement and serve on the university’s board of governors.
In 1922, aged 20, Wills began her working life as a tailor and, in 1913, became secretary and organiser of the Birmingham branch of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses. She was a Labour councillor on Birmingham City Council for 15 years and a director of the Birmingham Co-operative Society.
In 1945, Wills was elected to the inner-city seat of Birmingham Duddeston, becoming Birmingham’s first woman MP. As a Back Bencher, her considerable council experience informed her speeches in support of working-class people, particularly on housing—she was president of the Tenants Protection Association for 15 years. Her maiden speech in November 1945 related the case of a pregnant woman who was told by her landlady that children could not live in the property: “When the ambulance came to take her to the hospital to have her baby, the week’s notice was put into her hand”.
In 1950, her constituency was abolished due to boundary changes. The Co-operative party nominated Wills for another parliamentary seat, but she was not selected. She returned to Birmingham City Council in 1956.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Images courtesy of Parliamentary Archives
Women’s Co-operative Guild https://www.co-operativeheritage.coop/blog/the-story-of-the-co-operative-womens-guild
Consumer Goods (Shortages): https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1947/jun/26/consumer-goods-shortages
Purchase Tax (Intermediate and Higher Rates): https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1947/apr/22/purchase-tax-intermediate-and-higher-1
State of the Nation Address: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1947/aug/06/state-of-the-nation-1
Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Bill: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1945/nov/13/furnished-houses-rent-control-bill