The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Mildred Gordon (1923-2016) and Maria Fyfe (1938-2020) were elected as Labour MPs in 1987 and campaigned for greater representation for women. On the left of the Labour party, they both came from working-class backgrounds and began their working lives with secretarial training.
Mildred Gordon was born in Stepney. Her family was Jewish and she grew up in the heart of the east end; at 13, she witnessed the Battle of Cable Street a few streets from her home. Childhood memories of the poverty in her community informed her work as an MP. In a debate on housing in July 1991, she said that a civilised society was one in which people could “expect to be decently housed and clothed, to have enough to eat and to have access to health care and to education for their children.” Gordon’s father, Judah, a market trader, was a Labour councillor in Stepney; her mother, Dora, who had left school at 13, raised Mildred and her sister and helped Judah at the market. Gordon helped her father to deliver political leaflets as a child before joining Labour aged 16. During World War Two, Gordon worked as a secretary at a solicitor’s office. Unable to secure release for Army service, she volunteered as an air raid warden instead.
Gordon married Sam Gordon in 1948. He was an American social activist, trade unionist and member of the Fourth International. The couple had one son, David. Sam died in 1982, and in 1985 Mildred married Nils Kaare Dahl, a Norwegian left-wing activist who was credited with saving Trotsky’s life in a blizzard. Gordon was widowed for a second time in 1996.
Gordon worked as a teacher from 1945 to 1985, and was active in trade unionism and London politics from the 1960s to 1980s. She stood in several elections, including for the Greater London Council—to represent Hendon in 1973, and St Pancras North in 1981—and to represent North-West London in the first elections for the European Parliament in 1979. A passionate believer in women’s involvement in politics, she moved a resolution at the 1982 Labour conference to have at least one woman on every shortlist which began the movement towards all-women shortlists.
Gordon was selected as the Labour candidate for Bow and Poplar in 1985, and won the seat in 1987 with a majority of 4,631. She continued to work on issues affecting women, children and her community, speaking against the 1987 Abortion (Amendment) Bill, which sought to curtail women’s access to abortion, and opposing the introduction of the poll tax, refusing to pay it herself until summonsed to do so. In 1989, she introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to require the Government to quantify women’s unremunerated work, stating: “When all the work that women do is finally made visible…no one will be able to continue to ignore the extent of dependence of the mighty institutions of the state, industry, commerce and every social organisation throughout the United Kingdom on women’s voluntary and unvoluntary unwaged work.”
During Gordon’s time in Parliament, the development of Canary Wharf and the Docklands caused dramatic upheaval for many of her constituents, including the immigrant communities she represented. She spoke passionately about the effects this disruption had on her constituency, and in a debate in March 1994 she said that the Government and the London Docklands Development Corporation “bear a direct responsibility…for the racial antagonism and hatred that have developed in the area. Racial violence has grown while desperate people fight for the few resources in the area and the few houses that have been built.”
Gordon’s seat was subject to boundary changes at the 1997 general election, and she was not selected for either of the new constituencies. Leaving Parliament at 73, she remained active both in Hendon, where she lived, and in the east end, where she worked with local organisations such as Tower Hamlets Community Housing. In 1999, she was made a freeman of Tower Hamlets.
Maria Fyfe was the only female Labour MP in Scotland when she was first elected in 1987 and, as a result, she vowed to do everything in her power to get more Labour women into Westminster. She was the MP for Glasgow Maryhill from 1987 to 2001. She served as deputy shadow Minister for women from 1988 to 1991, before resigning over the Gulf War, and as Scottish Front-Bench spokesperson from 1992 to 1995. Her proudest achievement was working to ensure equal representation for women when the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999.
Fyfe was born in the Gorbals, Glasgow. Her mother, Margaret Lacey, was a shop assistant and her father, James O’Neill, was a tram driver. Her first foray into politics took place during her time at the Gas Board where she campaigned for equal pay for female secretaries and male clerks. When the clerks said they deserved their higher pay for composing the letters, she encouraged the other women to type the letters exactly how they were, with spelling errors and wrong addresses. The protest was successful after just one day and, after Fyfe worked with colleagues around the country, the Gas Board changed its policy.
Fyfe studied economic history as a mature student at the University of Strathclyde. She lectured on trade union studies at Central College of Commerce in Glasgow, before being elected to Glasgow City Council in 1980. She married James Joseph Fyfe in 1964 and they had two sons. Her husband died in 1986, shortly after her selection as a parliamentary candidate. She acknowledged that “there was no time for grieving”, but continued to campaign for election.
In Westminster, Fyfe campaigned on issues such as the blacklisting of activists by the Economic League and enjoyed the “largely unsung hard slog” of Standing Bill Committees, including on the legislation introducing the poll tax. In her memoir, “A Problem Like Maria” (2014), Fyfe provides her perspective on being a female MP in Parliament. She said, “I thought it would be good for women to see the kinds of problems you had and the progress we have made since then.”
Fyfe stepped down from the Commons in 2001 after an illness. She continued to stay active in politics, including editing a book of essays arguing against Scottish independence, called “Women Saying No: Making a Positive Case Against Independence”. She also successfully campaigned for a statue of Mary Barbour, who led thousands of women in a rent strike in Glasgow in 1915.
[Images provided by the Parliamentary Recording Unit; for more parliamentary footage, visit https://www.parliamentlive.tv/]
Hansard Writing Team
British Library, History of Parliament Oral History Project, Mildred Gordon, 21/01/14 & 07/03/14
Time, The Enduring Lessons of the Battle of Cable Street, 80 Years On, 03/10/16
Mildred Gordon, 2 July 1991: Housing – Hansard – UK Parliament
The Guardian, Mildred Gordon obituary, 18/04/16
Mildred Gordon, 22 January 1988: Abortion (Amendment) Bill – Hansard – UK Parliament
The Times, Mildred Gordon obituary, 05/05/16 [Article accessed via News Bank]
Mildred Gordon, 11 April 1989: Counting Women’s Unremunerated Work – Hansard – UK Parliament
Ten Minute Rule Bills – UK Parliament
Mildred Gordon, 14 March 1994: London Docklands Development Corporation Bill Lords – Hansard – UK Parliament
British Library, History of Parliament Oral History Project, Maria Fyfe, 10/08/12
Maria Fyfe, A Problem Like Maria: A Woman’s Eye View of Life as an MP, 2014
Maria Fyfe, Women Saying No: Making a Positive Case Against Independence, 2014
Scottish Labour History Society, Maria Fyfe (1938 – 2020)
The Guardian, Maria Fyfe obituary, 07/12/20