The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Labour’s Maureen Colquhoun (1928-2021) and Joan Maynard (1921-1998) were both elected in 1974’s general elections. They were campaigning MPs with strong commitments to their chosen causes, and each made her own impression on British politics.
Maureen Colquhoun, Britain’s first openly lesbian MP, was born in Eastbourne and attended the London School of Economics. She joined the Labour party at the age of 17 and was first elected in 1965, becoming the only woman on Shoreham Urban District Council. In 1970, she contested the safe Conservative seat of Tonbridge, and was subsequently elected to the newly created seat of Northampton North in 1974.
In Parliament, Colquhoun campaigned on issues including the abolition of women’s prisons, the liberalisation of abortion law and the decriminalisation of prostitution. She tabled two private Member’s Bills: the Balance of Sexes Bill, which would have mandated equal representation for women on all public bodies, and the Protection of Prostitutes Bill. Although neither became law, she campaigned vigorously on both, and in the course of working on the former she met the woman who would become the love of her life, Barbara Todd.
In 1975, Colquhoun left her husband to move in with Todd. She wrote to then Speaker George Thomas to request that he refer to her as “Ms” rather than “Miss”; his reply was that he would try to slur “the audible distinction between ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’”. Colquhoun was subsequently outed in the gossip column of the Daily Mail, and her local Labour party attempted to deselect her, with her local party chairman quoted as saying, “She was elected as a working wife and mother … this business has blackened her image irredeemably”. Colquhoun’s alleged “obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights” was also cited. Although the attempt was quashed by Labour’s National Executive Committee, Colquhoun would lose her seat in 1979’s general election.
Losing her seat was not the end of Colquhoun’s involvement with politics. She became a councillor in Hackney and worked as an assistant to other Labour MPs, while also working for the charity Gingerbread, which campaigns on behalf of single-parent families. She and Todd subsequently moved to the Lake District, and married in 2015. In 2017, Colquhoun’s former constituency association sent her a letter apologising for how it had treated her and acknowledging the “very great contribution she had made” as an MP.
Joan Maynard was born in Yorkshire, the daughter of a tenant farmer, and left school at 14. In 1945, she helped found a Labour party branch in the Conservative stronghold of Thirsk that would become one of the biggest in the country. She was active in the Agricultural Workers Union and a vocal proponent of the nationalisation of the land, moving a motion to that effect at the 1958 Labour conference; Tam Dalyell recalled the “look of pained impatience on Hugh Gaitskell’s face” as Maynard proudly declared that her union’s policy statement on land reform was far superior to Labour’s official policy. In 1972, she was elected to Labour’s National Executive Committee.
In 1974, Maynard was elected as MP for Sheffield, Brightside – the city’s first female MP – and continued her crusade for land reform in Parliament. She lobbied to end the system that tied rural workers’ homes to their employment: “Where the tied cottage system exists, freedom goes out of the window.” She secured 180 signatures for an early day motion on the subject, and spoke on it at her first PLP meeting. Her persistence helped to secure the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976, which was instrumental in abolishing the tied cottage system she so reviled.
Maynard’s politics were robustly left-wing: she backed Tony Benn for leadership of her party in 1976, campaigned for British troops out of Northern Ireland in her capacity as chair of the British Peace Committee, and advocated for the cause of the Greenham Common protestors in 1984. A member of the Select Committee on Agriculture from 1975 until her retirement from Parliament in 1987, she opposed factory farming and the Common Agricultural Policy, and was also an opponent of the common market. A union colleague memorialised her as “the greatest fighter the farm workers have produced”, while Dalyell observed that “Joan Maynard had a real role in the public life of our country and we are the poorer without her like.”
Maureen Colquhoun: Trailblazer for women’s rights and Britain’s first openly lesbian MP. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/maureen-colquhoun-labour-mp-northampton-north-obituary-b1803439.html
Maureen Colquhoun obituary. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/maureen-colquhoun-obituary-rpcdb3087
Maureen Colquhoun obituary. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/feb/08/maureen-colquhoun-obituary
Pioneer Woman: Maureen Colquhoun. https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/maureen-colquhoun-pioneer-woman
Obituary: Joan Maynard. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-joan-maynard-1153448.html
Rent (Agriculture) Bill: House of Commons Debate, 4 May 1976. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1976/may/04/rent-agriculture-bill#S5CV0910P0_19760504_HOC_268
My hero: Joan Maynard. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/sep/23/my-hero-joan-maynard-mullin