The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
At the end of the second world war, the United Kingdom turned to the challenge of improving people’s lives, but there were several years of economic exhaustion before prosperity returned in the 1950s. The women elected in 1945 played a prominent role in this period of reconstruction, and it was at this time that the leading Labour women of the post-war years, notably Barbara Castle (1910-2002), first became MPs.
The scale of the Labour landslide in 1945 was reflected in the fact that of the 24 women Members—a record high, up by 10 since before the general election—no fewer than 21 were Labour MPs. Three of these, including Jennie Lee (1904-88), were returning to the Commons after losing their seats in 1931, but 15 were entirely new to Parliament. As Scottish MP Jean Mann (1889-1964), recalled in her book, Woman in Parliament (1962), they “had borne the brunt of long battles, many defeats, much victimization and bitterness towards us”. They brought with them their experience of the Labour movement, trade unions and local government, as well as their knowledge of the hardships of the war. Providing strong support for the Attlee Government’s social reforms, such as the establishment of the national health service in 1948, they often spoke on housing, welfare and domestic issues. They also worked cross-party to promote women’s rights, as on the private Member’s Bill introduced by the Conservative Eveline Hill (1898-1973), the Deserted Wives Bill, which proposed to give abandoned wives the right to continue living in a property held in the husband’s name.
In 1945, the Conservatives had only one woman MP, Joan Davidson (1894-1985), but she was joined in November 1946 by Priscilla Tweedsmuir (1915-78), a war widow. In a letter in The Times, 7 March 1952, the four Conservative women Back-Benchers—Davidson, Hill, Tweedsmuir and Irene Ward (1895-1980)—made “a plea to Conservative and Unionist associations…to consider adopting women candidates who have proved their worth”. The party increased its tally to seven women Members by 1955, including Edith Pitt (1906-66), who won Birmingham, Edgbaston; since her election in 1953, the seat has always been held by a woman. Labour had several Scottish women MPs, as well as its first two female MPs from Wales: Dorothy Rees (1898-1987) in Glamorgan, Barry, and Eirene White (1909-99) in Flintshire, East were elected in 1950. Megan Lloyd George (1902-66) celebrated her 20th anniversary as the Liberal Member for Anglesey in 1949, but lost her seat at the 1951 general election.
As Minister for Education from 1945, Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) became the second woman Cabinet Minister, implementing the provisions of the Education Act 1944 and raising the school-leaving age to 15 before her untimely death. Women had challenging roles to fill as junior Ministers. For example, Dr Edith Summerskill (1901-80) had to defend the Government’s policy on food shortages and rationing. In the Conservative Government that was elected in 1951, Florence Horsbrugh (1889-1969) held the same post as Wilkinson as Minister for Education, although Churchill kept her out of the Cabinet until 1953 and she stepped down the following year. Patricia Hornsby-Smith (1914-85) was appointed Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Health in November 1951, at the age of 37, thus becoming the youngest woman to hold national political office.
Women became more prominent in the Commons in other ways. On 18 November 1946, Florence Paton (1891-1976) joined the Speaker’s panel of Members who chair Committees, and on 31 May 1948 she was the first woman to chair a debate in the Chamber. Margaret Herbison (1907-96) in 1947 and Alice Bacon (1909-93) in 1950 were the first Labour women to second the Address—speaking in support of the motion on the Government’s legislative programme after the King’s Speech—and Pitt was the first Conservative to do so, following the Queen’s Speech in 1953. Parliamentary life could bring honour, but it could also be a brutal experience. On 29 November 1951, Liverpool MP Bessie Braddock (1899-1970) told the Speaker that that she had been punched in the Division Lobby, and in March 1952 she became the first woman to be suspended after she remained standing in protest at not being called to speak before the Minister wound up an all-night debate on the textile industry, despite having been present in the Chamber for over eight hours.
During these years, women MPs continued their long campaign for equal pay. Prominent among them was Irene Ward, who on 2 August 1951 raised an example close to home when she complained that the first woman Hansard reporter, Jean Winder, was not paid the same as her male colleagues. In a major debate on Equal Pay (Public Services) in May 1952, Bacon said that although she was paid the same as a male MP, when she was a teacher she received only four fifths of the pay of men doing exactly the same work. On 9 March 1954, Castle, Ward, Summerskill and Ulster Unionist MP Patricia Ford (1921-95), the first woman from Northern Ireland to serve in the UK House of Commons, came to Parliament to present an equal pay petition. It was part of a widespread campaign that forced the Government to concede the principle of equal pay in the civil service, although the implementation of equal pay for all women remained a battleground.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
All Change! Women and the 1945 election https://ukvote100.org/2017/07/26/all-change-women-and-the-1945-general-election/
Commons debate on the Deserted Wives Bill on 26 January 1951, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/2RjK4cB
Bessie Braddock’s point of order on 29 November 1951, from Hansard: https://bit.ly/3oFCpoQ
Irene Ward’s speech on 2 August 1951, from Hansard: https://bit.ly/2nymDkH
Portia Dadley, “The Battle of Mrs Winder”, Commons Hansard blog, 12 September 2018: https://commonshansard.blog.parliament.uk/2018/09/12/the-battle-of-mrs-winder/
Commons debate on Equal Pay (Public Services) on 16 May 1952, from Hansard: http://bit.ly/35UbN9c
UK Vote 100 blog, “Women Demand Equal Pay”: https://ukvote100.org/2017/11/09/women-demand-equal-pay/