The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Dorothy Rees (1898-1987) and Eirene White (1909-1999) were the first women to represent Labour in Wales, winning Glamorgan, Barry and Flintshire, East respectively in the 1950 election. Their backgrounds were different but they were both passionate Labour politicians.
Rees was born in Barry and trained as a teacher, but was forced by the marriage bar to give up the profession when she married her husband David in 1926. Having joined the Labour party in 1922, she became active in local politics. The Barry and Llandaff constituency Labour party had a strong women’s section, providing support for her election to Glamorgan County Council in 1934, and to Barry Urban District Council in 1936. Her local government experience focused her priorities as an MP. “As a member of a local authority since 1934, and chairman of a public works committee during these difficult post-war years,” she told the House of Commons on 13 March 1950, “I feel that I know something about the problem and the need of people for homes, and about the administrative end of providing those homes.”
During the Second World War, Rees worked as a liaison officer at the Ministry of Food, and went on to serve as election agent for Lynn Ungoed-Thomas, who won Llandaff and Barry for Labour in 1945. The seat was abolished at the 1950 election, and Ungoed-Thomas decided to stand for Carmarthen. Rees was selected to contest the redrawn Barry constituency, now a marginal seat. She won by 1,025 votes, becoming the first woman to represent a South Wales constituency, but lost the seat 20 months later to the Conservative candidate, Raymond Gower, in the 1951 election.
Rees, whose father was a docker and whose husband a sailor, was the first working-class woman to represent a Welsh constituency. She was proud of her community. “I married a sailor, a man who became a sea pilot,” she told the House on 5 December 1950, “and I therefore have a great regard for the people among whom I live, those who get their living in and around the seaport of Barry.” She served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Edith Summerskill in the Ministry of National Insurance. After leaving Parliament, she returned to local government, and became chairman of Glamorgan county council in 1964. A Welsh speaker, she chaired the Committee that organised the Eisteddfod in Barry in 1968. She was awarded a damehood in 1975.
White was the daughter of distinguished civil servant Thomas Jones, who worked with four Prime Ministers, and grew up in Barry and London. She studied PPE at Oxford University, and while she was there Nancy Astor, a friend of the family, arranged her 21st birthday party. During the Second World War she worked for the Women’s Voluntary Service in Cardiff and the Ministry of Labour.
After the war, White joined the Manchester Evening News as a political correspondent, and married journalist John Cameron White, whom she met at a Downing Street briefing, in 1948. She was narrowly defeated as Labour candidate for Flintshire in the 1945 election, but in 1950 won the new seat of Flintshire, East. Like Barry, it was a marginal constituency, but she held it until she stood down as an MP in 1970.
In 1951, White introduced the Matrimonial Causes Bill to reform divorce law, but faced opposition from the Government, so she withdrew it in return for an agreement to set up a Royal Commission on marriage and divorce. In the 1950s, she took up the cause of Seretse Khama, a chieftain from Bechuanaland (now Botswana) whose interracial marriage to an Englishwoman, Ruth Williams, infuriated the neighbouring Union of South Africa, which had established apartheid in 1949, and was problematic for the British Government, which did not want to jeopardise links with South Africa.
After serving as a shadow Education Minister, White became a junior Minister at the Colonial Office when Labour won the 1964 election. In 1966, she was promoted to become Minister of State at the Foreign Office—the first woman to hold such a role. In 1967, she moved to the newly created Welsh Office, and was the first woman to serve as a Minister in the Department. She was Chairman of the Labour party from 1968 to 1969.
White stood down at the 1970 election, but joined the Lords as Baroness White of Rhymney. She chaired the Select Committee on the European Communities from 1979 to 1982, and also served as a Deputy Speaker from 1979 to 1989. She maintained a strong interest in Welsh affairs as President of Coleg Harlech from 1974 to 1984; Chairman of the Land Authority for Wales from 1976 to 1980; President of the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology from 1987 to 1988; and President of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales from 1973 to 1989. “She cared about Wales and its problems,” said fellow Labour MP Lena Jeger when she died in 1999, “but her interests were worldwide”.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Dorothy Rees speech in Hansard, 13 March 1950: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1950/mar/13/housing#S5CV0472P0_19500313_HOC_329
Dorothy Rees speech in Hansard, 5 December 1950: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1950-12-05/debates/b4a95b40-1287-4267-af84-a68f5fb15292/WelshAffairs
Entry for Dorothy Rees in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography: https://biography.wales/article/s8-REES-MAR-1898
Entry for Dorothy Rees in 100 Welsh Women: https://www.100welshwomen.wales/100-women/dorothy_rees/
Welsh Political Icons: Dorothy Rees: https://audioboom.com/posts/7640931-welsh-political-icons-dorothy-rees
Entry for Eirene White in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography: https://biography.wales/article/s6-WHIT-LLO-1909
Eirene White Papers: https://archives.library.wales/index.php/eirene-white-papers
Obituary for Eirene White in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/1999/dec/27/guardianobituaries
Entry for Eirene White in 100 Welsh Women: https://www.100welshwomen.wales/100-women/eirene_lloyd-white/
Debate on Seretse Khama, 1 August 1956: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1956-08-01/debates/123affe7-e652-4358-8afd-5b3728ceb03d/SeretseKhama
Blaxland, S, 2020, “Welsh Women MPs: Exploring Their Absence”, Open Library of Humanities, 6(2): https://olh.openlibhums.org/articles/10.16995/olh.548/print/