The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Labour and Co-operative MP Joyce Butler (1910-1992) and Conservative MP Evelyn Emmet (1899-1980) both served in local government before their election in 1955 and shared an interest in housing.
Butler, the fifth of six five children, grew up in Birmingham, and joined the Labour party at 20. The family home was bombed during the Second World War, and her experience of that “restless time” informed a commitment to post-war housing and town planning. She married her husband, Vic, during the war, and the couple had two children. Butler was elected to Wood Green Council in 1947 and worked to implement housing initiatives before becoming council leader in 1954. She continued to serve in local government after her election to Parliament in 1955 as MP for Wood Green and was the first chair of the new London Borough of Haringey from 1964 to 1968. She was supported in her career by her husband, who stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in three parliamentary elections and became Haringey’s first Mayor in 1965.
In Parliament, Butler took a strong interest in the environment. In 1965, she became parliamentary private secretary to the Minister of Land and Natural Resources and helped to secure the passage of the Farm and Garden Chemicals Act 1967 on the labelling of pesticides. She was also concerned about drug safety, and asked the first parliamentary questions about thalidomide on 5 March 1962. A Quaker until the outbreak of war in 1939, she remained a pacifist and took part in the Aldermaston marches in the 1950s and ’60s. She introduced four Bills to outlaw employment discrimination against women, which helped to pave the way for the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. She campaigned for married women to be taxed separately from their husbands, and served as a Committee Chair from 1964 to 1979, when she retired from Parliament. She continued to play an active role in political, community and pressure groups, including the Fawcett Society, the Hornsey Housing Trust and London Passenger Action.
Emmet became the first woman to represent a Sussex seat when she won East Grinstead in 1955. After attending Oxford University, she served on London County Council from 1925 to 1934 and on West Sussex County Council from 1946 to 1967. She had four children with her husband, Thomas, but was widowed in 1934 and did not remarry.
Emmet chaired the Conservative party’s Women’s National Advisory Committee from 1951 to 1954, and the party conference in 1955. In her maiden speech on 21 November 1955, she raised the issue of housing provision for service widows. Such a woman, she said, “not only loses her husband and her home but also her friends and neighbours when she moves out of married quarters, and she becomes an outcast in her own country.” On the left of the Conservative party, she supported the legalisation of homosexuality, as well as reform of prostitution laws, which she addressed in a debate on the Wolfenden report in November 1958.
Emmet supported equal pay, separate taxation for married women, and improved widows’ pensions. She also pressed for the inclusion of more matters of interest to women in the party manifesto and for more women in Parliament, including through their admission to the Lords. She was the first female vice-chairman of the Conservative back-bench foreign affairs committee and an early supporter of the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community. She joined the House of Lords in 1965 as Baroness Emmet of Amberly and became the first Conservative woman to serve as Deputy Speaker from 1968 to 1977.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Joyce Butler, oral question on thalidomide, 5 March 1962
Joyce Butler, Second Reading of the Medicines Bill, 15 February 1968
Joyce Butler in Treasury Questions, 22 February 1973
Joyce Butler, National Life Story Collection: Fawcett Collection
Butler Archive, Bishopsgate Institute Special Collections and Archives
Evelyn Emmet, maiden speech, 21 November 1955
Evelyn Emmet, Debate on Wolfenden report
Papers of Evelyn Emmet, Bodleian Archives