The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Labour MP Elaine Burton (1904-1991) and Conservative MP Edith Pitt (1906-1966) both represented Midlands seats and served together on the first western parliamentary delegation to the Soviet Union in 1954. Burton and Pitt were the only two women on the delegation of four Peers and 12 MPs, led by Lord Coleraine, who visited the USSR on a tour between 30 September and 17 October 1954 to strengthen British-Soviet relations (The Times, 1 October 1954).
After an early career encompassing teaching, social work, keep-fit instruction and writing, Burton first stood for Parliament for the socialist party Common Wealth, before switching to Labour, and won the newly created seat of Coventry South in 1950. In the Commons, she pushed both Conservative and Labour Governments hard on equal pay. She spoke regularly about trading standards and the need for honest labelling, so that, as she said in a debate on consumer goods on 8 December 1952, “rayon would be rayon, fish cakes would be fish cakes, and words would mean what they said.” Her successful private Member’s Bill, the Disposal of Uncollected Goods Act 1952, allowed traders to dispose of goods left for repair but not collected.
A regional sprint champion in her youth, Burton’s contributions often reflected her lifelong sporting interest. She argued for better school sports provision and the establishment of a national sports council, and pointed out sport’s potential as a tool of soft power in a debate on 17 April 1956: “a British team abroad is a team of ambassadors”.
Burton became the first woman to serve as chair of an Estimates sub-committee—a predecessor of Select Committees—in 1957. She lost her seat in 1959, but joined the House of Lords in 1962 as Baroness Burton of Coventry. She continued to press for the establishment of the Sports Council, to which she was appointed on its formation in 1965. In 1981, she joined the Social Democratic Party, acting as spokesman on civil aviation and consumer affairs.
Pitt, daughter of a die-stamper, worked first as a clerk and later an industrial welfare officer and joined the Conservative party in 1929. In the 1940s and 1950s, she was a member of Birmingham city council, specialising in health and welfare.
Pitt stood for the seats of Birmingham Stechford and Birmingham Small Heath before she won the safe Conservative seat of Edgbaston in a by-election in July 1953. She was the first woman to represent the seat, which has been represented by female MPs ever since. She was a proud Brummie, and sang the city’s praises in her maiden speech on 3 November 1953: “It is not just a city of machines, although there are plenty of them, but of hardworking, warm-hearted men and women. I know, because all my life—all my working life until the last few months—I have been one of the thousands of weekly wage earners in the city of Birmingham.”
Pitt served as a junior minister, first at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and then at the Ministry of Health, often working till 3 am, but was sacked over the phone in Harold Macmillan’s “night of the long knives”. She was subsequently made a DBE and remained active on the back benches, including as chair of the Committee on the Air Corporations Act 1966, until her death from a brain haemorrhage in 1966.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Anglo-Soviet Parliamentary Delegations https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1954-10-25/debates/bd0f94c2-fce5-4330-b9e9-325b928a7ff7/Anglo-SovietParliamentaryDelegations
Debate on the labelling of consumer goods: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1952-12-08/debates/27e58987-d8a0-48e0-b434-ede1249fe7eb/OrdersOfTheDay
Elaine Burton’s speech on sport and national life: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1956-04-17/debates/ac4b5b1d-2059-4ca7-9492-4952583f9461/General
Edith Pitt’s maiden speech, 3 November 1953: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1953/nov/03/debate-on-the-address-first-day#S5CV0520P0_19531103_HOC_53