The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Labour MP Lena Jeger (1915-2007) and Ulster Unionist MP Patricia Ford (1921-1995) both won their seats in by-elections in 1953. In a sign perhaps that women were becoming more accustomed to taking on the big issues of the day, Jeger chose for her first speech in the House on 25 February 1954 to step away from what were deemed to be “women’s matters” and to focus instead on the threat of nuclear war, which, as she said, was as big an issue for women as it was for men. She talked about the impact of what such a war would have on the people of her already heavily bombed constituency, concluding that “there is borne in upon me the deep conviction that the things humanity has in common are far more numerous and important than those which divide it.” Likewise, Ford, clearly under a similar pressure, told the House in her maiden speech on 29 July 1953 that “it may perhaps be thought unusual for a woman to speak in a defence debate, but…this is a subject which vitally affects every citizen of these islands, for we are all now in a potential front line”.
Ford, Northern Ireland’s first woman MP, was elected unopposed in North Down following the death of the sitting MP, her father, Sir Walter Dorling Smiles, in a ferry disaster. Her great-grandfather, Samuel Smiles, campaigned for radical causes including women’s suffrage. She was a keen sportswoman and, at nearly six feet tall, cut an impressive figure. Her contributions in the House focused most notably on pensions for widows of members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. She campaigned strongly on equal pay, joining a group of women MPs who travelled to Parliament in horse-drawn carriages decorated in suffragette green and white rosettes to present a petition on the subject. In 1955 she decided to stand down as MP, attributed in part to the fact that, in attending a Roman Catholic wedding at Brompton Oratory, she had upset her constituents and was expelled from the women’s branch of the Orange Order. She subsequently devoted herself to charitable and peace-making work in Northern Ireland, helping women and children affected by violence. Following the dissolution of her first marriage to Neville Ford in 1956, she married Nigel Fisher, then Tory MP for Surbiton, becoming stepmother to Mark Fisher, later a Labour MP.
A civil servant and fluent Russian speaker who had worked in Moscow as deputy editor of the Foreign Office publication “British Ally”, Jeger began her political career began in 1945 as a Labour councillor in St Pancras, London. She chaired the borough housing committee and also served on London County Council. Her husband, Dr Santo Jeger, was the MP for Holborn and St Pancras South. When he died in 1953, she was selected to fight the by-election for what was a very marginal seat. Against all expectations, she won and held the seat until the 1959 election. She won it back in 1964 and held it until she retired from the Commons in 1979. An assiduous constituency MP, she left behind a safe Labour seat that has since been represented by Frank Dobson and Keir Starmer.
From 1951-54, Jeger worked on the Manchester Guardian, resuming her work—by then it was The Guardian—in 1964, writing portraits of political figures with whom she had worked and, later, their obituaries. In Parliament, she campaigned to end capital punishment; legalise homosexuality and abortion—she was a sponsor of the Abortion Law Reform Act 1967—secure the Equal Pay Act 1970; abolish rules reducing widows’ pension for those who worked; introduce separate taxation for married women; and to promote Cyprus’s right to self-determination. She served on the Speaker’s panel of chairmen. Barbara Castle said that she “typified the best of the then powerful left; constructive, good-humoured but indomitable.” Jeger also took up the cause of female porters and bar staff in the Commons refreshment department; finding they were paid 30 shillings less a week than men, she pressed for change.
Following her retirement from the Commons in 1979, Jeger was made a life peer, serving as Opposition spokesman on Health in 1983-6 and on Social Security in 1983-90. Frank Dobson remembered her as “one of the most influential politicians never to serve as a minister and more influential than most who have.”
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Patricia Ford, Defence debate, 29 July 1953
Oonagh Gay, “Patricia Ford MP—first woman to sit for a Northern Ireland constituency”
Hansard Writing Team, “Women Demand Equal Pay”
Patricia Ford, obituary in The Independent
Lena Jeger, obituary in The Guardian
Lena Jeger, obituary in Camden New Journal
Source: The Honourable Ladies vol 1, ed Iain Dale and Jacqui Smith, p213.