Women MPs, 1955-1964
The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Twenty of the 21 women who were serving as MPs when a general election was called in 1955 were re-elected, with only Patricia Ford, who had taken over her father’s former seat of Down, North unopposed two years earlier, standing down. Patricia McLaughlin (1916-97), also an Ulster Unionist, came in for Belfast, West, at the general election—the first woman to be elected to the Westminster Parliament after a contest in a Northern Ireland constituency.
There were three other new women MPs in 1955 and four more came in at by-elections during that Parliament, including Mervyn Pike (1918-2004), who had a pioneering background in business and industry, and Megan Lloyd George (1902-66), who had represented Anglesey as a Liberal MP, but joined Labour in 1955 and won Carmarthen for the party in 1957. A record of 28 women MPs was reached in 1958, although this was a tiny proportion—just under 5%—of the 630 MPs. A total of only 76 individual women MPs sat in Parliament in the 45 years after 1919, leading The Times to state on 28 February 1962 that it was “Still a Man’s World for Women Politicians”. However, those sitting after the Second World War were in more secure seats and enjoyed longer parliamentary careers than women who were elected before the war.
Women Members led the opposition to the 1955 “Pots and Pans” Budget, which increased taxes on household items, with Labour MP Jean Mann (1889-1964) asking that “the humble implements of hard-working women shall have taxation removed from them altogether”. They took a prominent role in debates on women’s issues, particularly Lena Jeger (1915-2007) on the Street Offences Bill in 1959 and Alice Bacon (1909-93) on the Children and Young Persons Bill in 1963.
On 23 November 1960, Conservative back bencher Irene Ward (1895-1980) sat on the front bench during Question Time in silent protest about the need for retirement pensions for the fighting services. Barbara Castle (1910-2002) kept up the campaign to improve Members’ working conditions in the Palace of Westminster, and when a new “retiring room” for women MPs was provided near the Chamber, it was nicknamed “Barbara’s Castle”.
Florence Horsbrugh (1889-1969), who retired at the 1959 general election, was made a life peer later that year, becoming the first woman to sit in both Houses of Parliament. Elaine Burton (1904-91), who lost her Coventry seat in 1959, became Baroness Burton in 1962, and Joan Davidson (1894-1985), who also stood down in 1959, became Baroness Northchurch in 1963—joining her husband to become the first married couple in the Lords—while Edith Summerskill (1901-80) left the Commons to join the Lords in 1961.
These women were among the first appointed under the Life Peerages Act 1958, which owed much to the pioneering work of Lady Rhondda, who died before she was able to benefit from the Act’s provisions. The first women peers took their seats in time for the Queen’s Speech in November 1958, the first time this ceremony was televised. Women who were hereditary peers in their own right—holding peerages that could be inherited in the female line—were able to enter the Lords after the passage of the Peerage Act 1963.
Following the 1959 election, the Conservatives remained in office under the leadership of Harold Macmillan. The number of Labour women was reduced from 16 to 13, only just ahead of the Conservative group, which still numbered 11. The new Members included Judith Hart (1924-91) and Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), the first two women MPs to have been born after women became eligible to sit in the Commons in 1918. In 1960, they were joined by another, Joan Quennell (1923-2006), who was the only woman to join the Commons before the next general election four years later.
Margaret Thatcher made her mark with her maiden speech, departing from the convention that such speeches should be non-political, by discussing her private Member’s Bill to allow the press to attend council meetings. This Bill was the first to be taken through each House by a woman—Thatcher and Baroness Elliot of Harwood, who as Barbara Elliot had been defeated by Mary McAlister (1896-1976) in the 1958 Glasgow, Kelvingrove by-election—and it became the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960. McAlister lost her seat in the 1959 election. Mann stood down, but Hart and Betty Harvie Anderson (1913-79) joined a strong contingent of Scottish women, which included Jennie Lee (1904-88), Margaret Herbison (1907-96) and Alice Cullen (1891-1969).
Summerskill, Castle, Herbison and Eirene White (1909-99) held shadow ministerial roles, while Edith Pitt (1906-66) and Priscilla Tweedsmuir (1915-78) filled junior ministerial positions. There were justified complaints that these Members were still mostly limited to roles traditionally allocated to women, such as in Health and Education. On being made an Under-Secretary at the Home Office in 1957, Patricia Hornsby-Smith (1914-85) spoke of her pride in becoming the first woman to serve in one of the three most senior Departments of Government, and Mervyn Pike soon followed her in the post.
Thatcher was appointed to her first front-bench role, as a Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, in 1961 and served until the dissolution in 1964. Fifteen years later—and 60 years after the first woman to take her seat in the Commons—she became the first woman to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Richard Froggatt, “Patricia McLaughlin”, Dictionary of Ulster Biography
Jean Mann in the House of Commons, 23 November 1955, from Hansard
Debate on the Street Offences Bill on 29 January 1959, from Hansard
Barbara Castle in the House of Commons, 31 March 1960, from Hansard
“Viscountess Rhondda, Women & the House of Lords: Achieving equality for women in the House of Lords” (Vote 100)
British Pathé, “Queen Opens Parliament” (28 October 1958) [first televised Queen’s Speech, with new women life peers at 4:40 minutes in]
Margaret Thatcher Interview [after her maiden speech on 5 February 1960] (audio only)
Patricia Hornsby-Smith interviewed, ITN, 18 January 1957