Shirley Williams, Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle

Women MPs 1964-1974

The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.

The election of 1964 ushered in a period of political to and fro between the Labour and Conservative parties and, more specifically, between the two party leaders, Ted Heath and Harold Wilson. Labour won the election by a narrow margin—just four seats—forming a Government for the first time since 1951. Of the 90 female candidates who stood at that election, 29 were elected—11 for the Conservatives and 18 for Labour—representing just 4.5% of Members in the House. There were five new women MPs in total, all of whom represented Labour: Shirley Williams (1930-2021), Shirley Summerskill, Margaret Mackay (1907-1996), Renée Short (1919-2003) and Anne Kerr (1925-1973).

Labour’s four-seat majority was not sustainable for a full Parliament, and Wilson called another general election in 1966. The result was a landslide victory for Labour of 98 seats. This time, 26 women, out of a total of 81 women candidates, were elected to Parliament, representing 4.1% of the House, of whom seven were Conservatives and 19 Labour.

Winifred Ewing arriving at the House of Commons
Mrs. Winifred Ewing, Scottish Nationalist M.P., takes her seat in the House of Commons, 11 Nov 1967. (Credit Image: Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS)

Four women won by-elections between 1964 and 1974 : Winifred Ewing, the first woman to serve as a Scottish National Party MP, secured Hamilton on 2 November 1967 and arrived at Parliament in a Scottish-built Hillman Imp to the music of a pipe band;;  Bernadette Devlin (later McAliskey) from the Unity party took Mid Ulster on 17 April 1969 and became the youngest Member in the House; Betty Boothroyd, who became the first female Speaker in the Commons in 1992, secured West Bromwich in May 1973; and the SNP’s Margo MacDonald (1943-2014) won Glasgow Govan in November 1973.

Feelings on Europe ran high over this period, creating divisions between and within both main parties. The battle over the European Communities Act 1972 was bitterly contested, with the Government achieving a narrow victory of 309 to 301 in favour of the Bill on Second Reading. Shirley Williams passionately supported European integration, and, in 1971, was one of 69 Labour MPs who defied a three-line Whip on the Government’s decision of principle to join the European Communities. Anne Kerr, by contrast, founded Women Against the Common Market and sparred with MPs who supported membership in a debate in February 1970.

As the number of women MPs grew, so too did the number of significant positions that they achieved: in 1964, Labour’s Harriet Slater (1903-1976) became the first woman to become a Government Whip; in 1970, Betty Harvie Anderson (1913-1979) became the first woman to sit in the Speaker’s Chair as Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means; Labour’s Judith Hart (1924-1991) became the first woman to serve as Paymaster-General in 1968 and the first mother—she had two sons—to serve in Cabinet.  Three women served as Cabinet Ministers in this period: Barbara Castle (1910-2002), from 1964 to 1970, and from 1974 to 1976; Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), from 1970 to 1974; and Shirley Williams,  from 1974 to 1979.  

A milestone in the fight for gender equality was achieved with the Equal Pay Act 1970.  The battle for pay parity had been a long one, developing from the 1880s with increased unionisation and the rise of the women’s suffrage movement. However, it was not until 1968 that a strike by female sewing machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham put equal pay on the Government agenda. Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle intervened on behalf of the machinists and introduced the Equal Pay Bill two years later.  She acknowledged that the measure was “far from perfect” but was proud that it “broke through”.  She also introduced the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which tackled sex discrimination by employers, landlords, finance companies, schools and restaurants.

Janet Fookes MP
Janet Fookes, Conservative MP for Merton and Morden, . 30 June 1970. (Image credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

The 1970 general election saw a surprise win for the Conservatives. Twenty-six female MPs were elected: 15 Conservatives, 10 Labour members, and Bernadette Devlin for the Unity party.  The new Conservative Members were Peggy Fenner (1922-2014), MP for Rochester and Chatham; Elaine Kellett-Bowman (1923-2014), MP for Lancaster; Constance Monks (1911-1989), MP for Chorley;  Janet Fookes, MP for Merton and Morden, who became Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means; Joan Hall, MP for Keighley; Mary Holt (1924-2021), MP for Preston, North; and Sally Oppenheim, MP for Gloucester, who became Minister of State for Consumer Affairs in the Department of Trade between 1979 and 1982. Doris Fisher (1919-2005), who was the only new Labour MP, took the seat of Birmingham, Ladywood.

The election in February 1974 resulted in a narrow Labour win of 14 seats, but the party was 17 seats short of an overall majority. The percentage of women MPs in the House dropped from 4.1% to 3.6%–or from 26 to 23, of whom nine were Conservatives, 13 Labour, and one SNP. Lynda Chalker, MP for Wallasey, was the only female Conservative to join the House for the first time; Labour’s new Members were Maureen Colquhoun (1928-2021), MP for Northampton, North and the first openly gay MP; Jo Richardson (1923-94), MP for Barking, and Audrey Wise (1932-2000), who represented Coventry, South-West and Preston.

Shirley Williams, Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle
Prime Minister Harold Wilson with members of his new Labour Cabinet, Shirley Williams, left, and Barbara Castle, right, in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street, 4, April 1974. (Credit Image: Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS)

Wilson called a snap election in October the same year.  Labour gained a net total of 18 seats, and a more secure mandate.  The number of women MPs grew to 27, or 4.3%, of whom seven were Conservative, 18 Labour and two SNP.  Women joining the House for the first time were from the SNP and the Labour Party: Margaret Bain (later Ewing) (1945-2006), the SNP Member for East Dunbartonshire and later Moray; and Labour Members Helene Hayman, MP for Welwyn and Hatfield; Margaret Jackson (later Beckett), MP for Lincoln and later Derby South, and the first woman to serve as Foreign Secretary; Joan Maynard (1921-98), MP for Sheffield Brightside; Millie Miller (1922-77), MP for Ilford North; and Ann Taylor, who represented Bolton, West and later Dewsbury, and was the first woman to serve as Chief Whip.

In this decade the number of women MPs hardly increased at all, but in fact the women who were in the Commons in this period, such as Shirley Williams. Barbara Castle, Betty Boothroyd and Margaret Thatcher went on to achieve high office and for the first time women MPs were considered as potential Prime Ministers. Other women in the SNP and as nationalist Northern Ireland parties also achieved national prominence.

House of Commons Hansard Writing Team


Debate on Britain and the European Communities (White Paper), 24 February 1970: Britain And The European Communities (White Paper) – Hansard – UK Parliament

Background to the Equal Pay Act: The Long Road to the Equal Pay Act 1970 | Parliamentary Archives: Inside the Act Room

Barbara Castle audio recording: Barbara Castle on the reforms her government made for women – The British Library (