The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
In 1964, Labour candidates Anne Kerr (1925-1973), Margaret McKay (1907-1996) and Renée Short (1919-2003) secured the seats of Rochester and Chatham, Clapham, and Wolverhampton North-East, and went on to make their mark as campaigning Back Benchers on the left of the party.
Anne Kerr served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the Second World War. She married James Doran, a lieutenant in the Royal Marines, in 1944, and they had a son. Kerr joined the Labour party in 1953, and stood unsuccessfully as its candidate for Twickenham in the 1959 election. After divorce from Doran, she married the Labour MP Russell Kerr in 1960, and went on to become the Labour candidate for Rochester and Chatham in 1964, defeating the Conservative MP Julian Critchley to become the constituency’s first female MP. She held the seat, which was a Labour-Conservative marginal, in the 1966 election.
Kerr was born into a Methodist family, and her upbringing, along with her wartime service, informed her involvement in the peace movement and in the campaign to abolish the death penalty. She used her maiden speech in November 1964 to focus on the “horrors of the last war”, and called on the Government to consider renaming the Foreign Secretary the “Minister for Peace” to denote an intention to take “an entirely fresh step forward in our international relationships.”
Kerr was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, established in 1958, and took part in the protest marches against the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. She protested against the executions of three black Rhodesians in 1968—the first capital punishments in Rhodesia since its unilateral declaration of independence in 1965—and campaigned in 1969 for an end to arms sales to Nigeria. She became best known for her opposition to the Vietnam war, particularly after she was attacked and arrested by police in Chicago in August 1968.
Kerr established and chaired Women against the Common Market in 1970. Following a series of passionate exchanges in a debate in February 1970 on the common market, in which she took on Labour and Conservative Members alike, the Speaker called on her to control herself, to which she replied, “She is trying to.” Following her sudden death from alcohol poisoning, her inquest heard she had never recovered from the trauma of her mistreatment in America five years earlier.
Margaret McKay grew up in Lancashire, and said of her family: “Politics ran in our bloodstream from my grandfather through my mother and on to her children, likewise from my paternal grandfather, a Sinn Feiner, through his son, an Irish home ruler, and so to us”. Her father died when she was four, and she remembered the struggles of her mother, “left husbandless with three small children to bring…up alone in the world with no help.”
In 1927, McKay joined the Accrington Weavers, Winders and Warpers Association and travelled to Moscow as part of a delegation to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 1917 revolution. She joined the Communist party, but left in 1932 to join the Labour party. She was active in trade union politics, and in 1929, she led Bradford textile workers on a hunger march to London. During the Second World War she was an organiser for the Civil Service Clerical Association in Lancashire. She married around the start of the war and had a daughter, but she and her husband had separated by 1943. After the war, she worked for the Transport and General Workers Union, and became was the chief women’s officer at the TUC from 1951 to 1962.
McKay stood unsuccessfully for Walthamstow in 1959, but went on to win Clapham in 1964 from the Conservative MP, Alan Glyn, with a majority of 556, which she increased to over 4,000 in the 1966 election. She was the only woman ever to represent the constituency, which was abolished in 1974. She made her maiden speech at 2.30 am on 27 November 1964 on industrial diseases, particularly “the dangers of pulmonary diseases from the inhalation of dangerous dusts”, paying tribute to her father, “who was dead at the age of 29 from contracting tuberculosis from working in the spinning mills.”
McKay was a strong supporter of Arab causes, founding the Anglo-Saudi Parliamentary Association and arranging MPs’ visits to the Palestinian Territories. She established a replica of a Palestinian refugee camp in Trafalgar Square, and led a delegation of British and Jordanian MPs to the Foreign Office in 1968. Dubbed “the woman on the Abu Dhabi omnibus” by the local press, she was accused of neglecting her constituents. Deselection threats led her to retire in 1970, and in 1971 she emigrated to the United Arab Emirates, where she died in 1996.
Renée Short was brought up by her paternal grandparents, spending weekends with her mother, the daughter of Russian Jewish emigrés. She studied languages at Manchester University, where she met her husband, Andre Short, a Hungarian Jewish engineer who fled Vienna shortly before the arrival of the Nazis in 1937, and with whom she had two daughters. She worked as a freelance journalist and theatrical costumier, and served on Watford Rural District Council from 1952 to 1964, and on Hertfordshire County Council between 1952 and 1967. She stood for Labour in the parliamentary constituency of St Albans in 1955 and in Watford in 1959, before becoming the first woman to represent Wolverhampton North-East in 1964 . She retained her seat in the next six elections, retiring just before the 1987 election.
“I suppose that everyone knows the name of my constituency,” she told the House in February 1968, “at least, they know the name Wolverhampton.” That was because the neighbouring constituency of Wolverhampton South-West was represented by Enoch Powell, whose “pernicious and malicious stuff” Short fought hard to overcome. She helped to overturn a ban on the wearing of turbans by Sikh staff on Wolverhampton’s buses, and asked the Attorney General whether Powell could be prosecuted under the Race Relations Act 1965.
Short was acutely aware of the challenges facing female MPs, and was an early critic, both of the long sitting hours of the House of Commons, which she argued held women back, and of the “scandalous” lack of female representation. She campaigned for the legalisation in certain circumstances of abortion, and introduced a private Member’s Bill to that effect in 1965. The measure did not become law, but it paved the way for the Abortion Act 1967.
Short chaired the Social Services Committee from its inception in 1979 until her retirement, and was a highly regarded advocate on issues such as AIDS, prison conditions and nursery education. She built on her previous service as chair of Expenditure Committee sub-committees since 1969. Short was the first and only woman chair of a select committee in 1979, until Marion Roe became chair of the Health committee in 1992. She was the first female Chair of the all-party Scientific Committee and the first woman to chair a departmental Select Committee. Like Kerr, she campaigned against British membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, believing that the country should have a closer trading relationship with eastern European countries. She served on the National Executive of the Labour party from 1970 to 81, and from 1983 to 87.
Faced with deselection as a result of Labour factionalism in the 1980s, Short announced her retirement in 1985. She dedicated herself to other interests such as poodle breeding—she showed one of her dogs at Cruft’s—returned to her theatrical roots by acting as an adviser to the Roundhouse theatre in London and to the ITV political comedy, “The New Statesman”.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Anne Kerr, maiden speech, 10 November 1964: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1964-11-10/debates/03114844-ef5d-4097-a1c8-c09f1adbc97a/DebateOnTheAddressSixthDay
Anne Kerr talking about her assault by the Chicago police: Usa: Anne Kerr, British Woman M.P. Victim Of Chicago Violence 400′ 16mm Lib – British Pathé (britishpathe.com)
Anne Kerr, speech opposing membership of the common market: Britain And The European Communities (White Paper) – Tuesday 24 February 1970 – Hansard – UK Parliament
Margaret McKay, maiden speech, 26 November 1964: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1964-11-26/debates/5fe92f7b-ab76-44aa-aec8-78543727fb4f/OccupationalHygieneService
Margaret McCarthy, “Generation in Revolt” (1953)
Renée Short, speech in debate on Commonwealth Immigrants Bill: COMMONWEALTH IMMIGRANTS BILL (Hansard, 27 February 1968) (parliament.uk)
Renée Short, Private Member’s Bill on abortion law reform: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1965-06-15/debates/a0af8d2c-3699-44ba-94b0-50d85fd2d66f/Abortion
Richard Ward, “Flaming Renée! How Renée Short MP Blazed a Trail”: https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2021/05/14/flaming-renee-how-renee-short-mp-blazed-a-trail/
Oonagh Gay, ‘1957 – A glass ceiling shattered! Women MPs and House of Commons Select Committees’ https://ukvote100.org/2017/11/07/1957-a-glass-ceiling-shattered/