The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Conservative MP Peggy Fenner (1922-2014) and Labour MP Doris Fisher (1919-2005) were first elected in 1970. Both were strong speakers, effectively deploying plain language to get their message across when defending constituency and national interests.
Fenner was brought up by her grandmother after her parents divorced when she was three. She left school at 14 to become a mother’s help and later, during the Second World War, a factory worker. In 1940, she married architect Bernard Fenner, with whom she had a daughter. From 1957, she served as a Conservative councillor in Sevenoaks, including briefly as chairman, before being shortlisted in 1964 to succeed Harold Macmillan as MP for Bromley. She missed out in the final selection and, in 1966, was adopted to fight Newcastle-under-Lyme, but failed to win the seat. She made her breakthrough in 1970, defeating Labour’s Anne Kerr at Rochester and Chatham. She lost her Westminster seat in 1974, but regained it in 1979. In 1983, her seat was abolished and she was elected MP for the new constituency of Medway, which she held until 1997 when she was defeated by Labour’s Bob Marshall-Andrews.
An instinctive social conservative, Fenner supported the death penalty and opposed pornography, abortion and Sunday shopping. She was, however, in favour of women’s ordination, saying in October 1993 that if women are “called to be priests, they should be priests.” . She was a vigorous opponent of the closure of Chatham dockyard, calling it a “diabolical decision”, and, later, of the building of the High Speed 1 rail link.
In 1972, Fenner, dubbed “Prices Peg” by the tabloids, was made a junior Minister with responsibility for prices by Ted Heath at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and oversaw the introduction of food sell-by dates. From July 1974 to February 1975, she served a delegate to the European Parliament; in 1987, she began 10 years’ service as a delegate to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. In 1981 she returned to MAFF , where she focused on issues of food quality and safety and animal welfare. She lost her job as a Minister in 1986 but was made a Dame of the British Empire in the same year.
Doris Fisher was the daughter of a First World War veteran, and worked at Cadbury’s and other factories in Birmingham in the Second World War. She married sheet metal worker Joseph Fisher in 1940, and they had two daughters. She joined the Labour party in 1945 and became a Birmingham city councillor in 1952, where she chaired the housing committee and won respect for her hard work on behalf of residents. She was also active in the Co-operative movement and became a JP. She was unsuccessful in the Birmingham Ladywood by-election in 1969, losing out to Wallace Lawler from the Liberal Democrats, but took the seat in the general election a year later.
In Parliament, Fisher devoted herself to the needs of her local area, making speeches on poverty, the cost of living, affordable housing and other issues of concern to her constituents. In a debate on poverty in March 1971, she counselled against the use of “emotive words” such as scroungers, to describe those on benefits. She said that, too often, they were thought of as people “trying to get something for nothing,” while someone who avoids paying income tax is regarded as being “very clever”.
Fisher stood down at the election in February 1974, following changes to the boundaries of her constituency, but joined the House of Lords the same year as Baroness Fisher of Rednal. She was a delegate to the European Parliament from 1975 to 1979, and had an active 30-year career in the Lords, becoming a shadow environment Whip. She remained an energetic campaigner, and in her 70s spent a night sleeping in a cardboard box outside St Philip’s Cathedral in Birmingham to raise awareness of homelessness.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Peggy Fenner, speech on the ordination of women: Priests (Ordination of Women) (Hansard, 29 October 1993) (parliament.uk)
Peggy Fenner, question on Defence Programme, 25 June 1981:
Doris Fisher, speech in a debate on poverty, 5 March 1971: