The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Conservative Muriel Gammans (1898-1989) and Ulster Unionist Patricia McLaughlin (1916-1997) served as MPs from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s. They had different political interests, but they both had the distinction of being the first women to represent their constituencies in Parliament.
Lady Muriel Gammans won her husband’s seat of Hornsey in the by-election following his death in 1957, albeit by a vastly reduced majority caused by voters’ unhappiness with the Government’s Rent Act, which had removed restrictions on the amounts that could be charged for privately rented properties. She had already assumed many of his constituency duties while he was serving as Assistant Postmaster-General in Winston Churchill’s 1951-1955 Government, and was reportedly more popular among constituents than her husband. In the 1959 general election, she matched her husband’s majority.
In Parliament, Gammans focused on foreign affairs, maintaining an interest that originated in overseas postings during her husband’s career with the colonial service. In her maiden speech on 8 November 1957, on the subject of Malaya, she remarked on her “mixed feelings” about rising to speak in the same Chamber where her husband first spoke 16 years ago. She was also active in the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Gammans advocated for the creation of the Women’s Voluntary Service Medal, having served in the hospital supply service in the early days of the Second World War.
Gammans’ domestic concerns were primarily local, including the wellbeing of pensioners and traffic problems in her constituency, and she was unafraid to oppose the Government when she felt it was in the interests of her constituents. She fought against proposals in 1963 to create Haringey Council by amalgamating the areas of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham, and repeatedly raised the subject of road safety on Highgate Hill in her constituency in the 1960s, advocating for an alternative approach to the one favoured by the Government. She was an infrequent contributor to parliamentary debates, and at election time, preferred to campaign face to face than make speeches at public meetings.
Patricia McLaughlin, the daughter of a clergyman, became the first woman in Northern Ireland to successfully contest a parliamentary election called by the Government when she won Belfast, West in 1955 for the Ulster Unionists. Patricia Ford had been elected as MP for North Down in 1953 but the election had been unopposed. She debuted on “Any Questions?” in the same year, with her performance causing one newspaper to remark that she had “dominated the male panel”. Her work on behalf of her constituents led Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home to refer to her as “a tireless advocate of the claims of Northern Ireland”. Proud of her region, she was known to boast that all of her clothing was made in Ulster.
In her maiden speech on 22 November 1957, on the Finance Bill, McLaughlin cautiously defended an increase in purchase tax as a temporary necessity, emphasising the importance of self-sacrifice among the population in the interests of economic stability. However, she urged the Government to consider the position of housewives who would be affected by a rise in the price of household utensils, and during Committee consideration of the Bill, she spoke in favour of an amendment designed to alleviate this cost increase.
An advocate for consumer protection, McLaughlin campaigned on subjects including hire-purchase agreements, fireworks, flammable household materials, the safety of household appliances; she also took a stand against the importation of obscene literature. In 1975, she was given an OBE for her work in the home safety and consumer field. Alongside Barbara Castle, McLaughlin successfully lobbied the Government for the removal of turnstiles from public toilets. “Anyone who has looked at these turnstiles…will realise just how stupid they are,” she told the House in July 1961. “They could only have been designed by a man with no idea of the needs and number of women who would use these turnstiles and the amount of difficulty which they would cause.” Turnstiles, and the charges levied for using them, were finally abolished in the Public Lavatories (Turnstiles) Act 1963. McLaughlin later remarked: “The fact that I helped decide the kind of jet plane for the future defence of our country will be forgotten. I’ll be known for making the phrase ‘Spend a penny’ obsolete.”
McLaughlin was instrumental in establishing a women’s Orange lodge at Westminster, but her final years in Parliament were marred by her involvement with a local zip manufacturer, Seenozip, which was found guilty of defrauding the Northern Ireland Government. She chose not to contest Belfast, West in 1964, although she would make subsequent attempts to return to politics: in 1966, she was a candidate for the North Down Unionist nomination, and in 1969, she ran unsuccessfully as the Conservative candidate for the seat of Wandsworth Central. Although not involved in parliamentary politics, , she remained active following her departure from Parliament, advocating for the cause of the common market and engaging in talks with Jordan and Israel.
She was survived by two children and her husband, one daughter having predeceased her.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Muriel Gammans, maiden speech, 8 November 1957: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1957/nov/08/debate-on-the-address#S5CV0577P0_19571108_HOC_86
Obituary for Patricia McLaughlin in the Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-patricia-mclaughlin-1284792.html
Patricia McLaughlin, maiden speech, 27 October 1955: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1955/oct/27/budget-proposals-and-economic-situation#S5CV0545P0_19551027_HOC_381
Debate on turnstiles in public conveniences, 28 July 1961: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1961/jul/28/new-clause-turnstiles-in-public-sanitary