Revealed: past women parliamentarians most admired by current MPs and peers
2018 marks 100 years since Parliament passed a law which allowed the first women, and all men, to vote for the first time.
A century after the first women gained the right to vote, we asked some of the current crop of leading politicians to tell us about the female parliamentarian they most admire from the last 100 years....
Andrea Leadsom – Nancy Astor
In this centenary year of women’s suffrage the female parliamentarian I would like to highlight is Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in Parliament.
Her story is an extraordinary one. She was born in poverty in Virginia, and raised in very difficult circumstances in the United States, before making a remarkable transition to living the life of a socialite in Britain. When her husband was made Viscount Astor, she stood for his seat in Plymouth in 1919 and won. Talk about self-assuredness and determination - this was a truly amazing triumph only one year after women were first entitled to stand. At a time when women were nowhere to be seen in politics she was rightly feted as a formidable force.
Once in the Commons she didn’t sit back for a moment - she pressed forward to campaign for the things she cared about. When I look back at her career in the Commons that’s the lesson I draw most strongly: that in politics you have to stand for what you believe in and never forget that to really succeed you have to stick at it, against all odds.
Nancy Astor was a real advocate for women’s rights. She supported lowering the voting age of women and increasing the legal age for purchasing alcohol from 14 to 18. I don’t agree with all of her views - anyone who has watched the film Darkest Hour will wonder just how anyone could have thought appeasement was the right approach. She showed true determination, declaring in her maiden speech that the country was “ripe for drastic drink reforms”. Hansard shows hon members shouting “No!” in response, but she eventually got her way.
In Nancy’s day there was a mountain to climb for women who wanted to achieve any form of equality. The year after she resigned, following 26 years as a Member of Parliament, just 24 women became MPs and took their seats in Parliament. Today a third of MPs are women. It just shows that while there has been progress, there is so much more to do. I’m determined to change the culture in Parliament to make Westminster a better place for everyone who works here.
As she declared in her maiden speech: “Women have got a vote now and we mean to use it.” I most admire Nancy Astor as the MP who set an inspiring marker down for the rest of us female MPs to follow.
Andrea Leadsom is Tory MP for South Northamptonshire and Leader of the House of Commons
John Bercow – Eleanor Rathbone
Eleanor Rathbone was an outstanding backbencher, who never thought twice about voicing uncomfortable truths to the government.
One of the many fantastic elements of the House’s celebration of Vote 100 was the reminder of all the truly inspirational women who tirelessly and passionately campaigned for universal suffrage. Choosing just one from the many formidable and impressive individuals we commemorated this month, was a monumentally difficult decision.
However, as Speaker, I have made it my mission to be the champion of backbenchers: I try to afford them every opportunity to analyse, to amend and to argue. Better representation for women and BAME people in Parliament is not only important for their sakes, but more diverse perspectives make for better scrutiny which, in turn, yields better legislation. One of the first woman backbenchers, Eleanor Rathbone, is living proof of this theory. Rathbone was elected as MP for the Combined English Universities seat in 1929. A feminist thinker and social reformer, she had witnessed first-hand the plight of impoverished women in her native Liverpool and, following her election, made sure that their voices were heard at the highest level. Publishing ‘The Case for Family Allowances’ in 1940, she argued that the poverty experienced by women and children could be substantially alleviated by a cash payment directly to the mother. William Beveridge was rather taken with the idea and, in 1945 as a direct result of her campaigning, the Family Allowances Bill was passed.
Both inside and outside Parliament she was not just a committed advocate of women’s rights, she was also a passionate advocate for human rights. Clearly an advocate of the view that it is better to act now and ask for permission later, she responded to the government’s refusal to protect the dissident Republicans involved in the Spanish Civil War from fascist reprisal by simply chartering a series of boats herself, saving many lives.
An early voice to raise the alarm about the emerging threat of Nazi Germany, she was an outspoken critic of appeasement, telling the House in 1933 that the NSDAP were “inflicting cruelties and crushing disabilities on large numbers of law-abiding peaceful German citizens, whose only offence is that they belong to a particular race or religion or profess certain political beliefs.” She later became noted for the pressure she exerted on the government to publish details of the horror of the Holocaust.
Eleanor Rathbone used her voice to elevate the voices of others, used whatever influence she had to help those less fortunate, and never thought twice about voicing truths to governments that they would have preferred not to hear. She was an outstanding backbencher and a champion for humanity who should be recognised as a feminist icon.
John Bercow is the Speaker of the House of Commons
Cheryl Gillan – Margaret Thatcher
This lady was ‘not for turning’ when asked to write about the woman parliamentarian whom I most admire from the last 100 years. For me, it has to be Margaret Thatcher, our first woman Prime Minister.
There was about 60 years between Lady Astor becoming the first woman to take her seat in Parliament to Mrs Thatcher’s election in May 1979. Perhaps there is something about both events coming towards the end of a decade. People tend naturally to think of what will happen over the next ten years and the direction that their lives will take. However, I was surprised to find a reported quote from the early 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher was said to have remarked that she could not envisage there being a female Prime Minister. By the end of the decade, there she was, the First Lady of the Treasury.
Margaret Thatcher inspired me to enter politics and did the same for many other women. It was because she challenged so many entrenched ways of thinking from the perspective of the right, rather than thinking that change was the prerogative and entitlement of the left. She did not think that politics was the preserve of the male rather than the female participant. She was always conscious that she was often dealing with people who thought a woman’s place was in the home and tried to show that she could do both roles!
Women do need role models. The visibility of a Prime Minister means that there is unquestioned recognition that there is equality, that women can succeed. Imagination is a powerful force and I would never undermine the possibilities that it brings, yet the sight of a woman doing a particular job for the first time grounds this in reality, making it achievable for others.
In the international sphere, Margaret Thatcher sought to strengthen and restore pride in the United Kingdom, a country which had been derided as the ‘sick man of Europe’. In her youth she had seen this country defending democracy and it was out of the question that we would not do the same when the Falklands were invaded. It is a brave politician that leads a country into war and she had no hesitation in “defending the realm” despite its distance from home.
In the same way that patriotism was regarded as a dirty word, the ideas of deregulation, of enterprise and of wealth creation were sneered upon. Did successive Thatcher administrations go too far in replicating the model of the global markets, of failing to support domestic industry? Yet what was the greater burden on industrial enterprise – the failure to adapt to external competition or the hidebound structures that had resulted in the Winter of Discontent? This was a Prime Minister who, after all, began her career as an industrial chemist, developing products. A Prime Ministry who was well-acquainted with the realities of the marketplace, as indeed she had been from her childhood. Was it all coldly utilitarian, as opponents would have others believe? People sneered at the ‘grocer’s daughter’, but in her heart I think Margaret Thatcher may have grown up to be a merchant adventurer.
For me, Margaret Thatcher possessed vision, strength and determination and her inspiration continues to this day. She was a pioneer in a political world which sadly still harbours prejudices against women but which we are continually overcoming, not least thanks to her example.
Dame Cheryl Gillan is Conservative MP for Chesham & Amersham
Emma Little-Pengelly – Margaret Thatcher
I am a child of the 80s and 90s and, as such, I had the privilege of having my first political experiences framed at a time of unprecedently female leadership in the UK.
It was a very politicised time in Northern Ireland. Like in almost all families, the television news programmes were almost never missed in my strongly Unionist and British home.
Prime Minister Thatcher spoke, it seemed daily, on the evening news on one issue or another – strong, unflinching and always impeccably presented. She was the dominant public figure of my childhood.
My earliest childhood memories of current affairs included frequent coverage of Margaret Thatcher, the Speaker Betty Boothroyd and, of course, Her Majesty the Queen! Strong women, in strong leadership roles.
I therefore grew up in the assumption of the role of women in the highest roles, offering leadership and being the strong ones – listening to their, often male opponents, being dismissed and ridiculed as weak in comparison.
My first distinct political recollection was the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. I remember watching the Prime Minister sitting, the flashing bulbs of the cameras, surrounded by men in suits, signing the document. I also remember the palpable grief, despair and anger that surrounded me, in my family and in our small South Armagh Unionist community. We had been “sold out”! And by someone so admired and respected by Unionists. That was how so many felt across Northern Ireland. It was an event and betrayal that was to shape the next decades of my life and undoubtedly influenced my lifelong interest in politics. I was five-years old.
Of course, there have been so many incredible women MPs from across all parties and across all parts of the United Kingdom.
Knowing the challenges and barriers that women still face to ensure fair and full participation in politics, like in so many different areas and sectors, I am filled with admiration of the women MPs of the past. To overcome that very different, and much more difficult social and cultural environment, must have taken significant strength and determination.
Many were, of course, relatively privileged, having access to the necessary education and opportunity, unlikely as it was – yet there were still established societal conventions, undoubted disapproval and prejudice to be faced for choosing to serve constituents as an elected representative.
I admire strong and capable women. I will also continue to admire Margaret Thatcher (despite the Anglo-Irish Agreement which I consider an aberration!), as a woman who knew her own mind and fought hard on the many issues and the principles that mattered to her – and doing so in what was still very much a ‘man’s world’.
From Lady Astor to our newest batch of female MPs from all parties, regardless of political views and differences of opinions, I am glad that so many more women are pushing through, fighting hard and serving on those green benches.
Emma Little Pengelly is MP for Belfast South and DUP Spokesperson for Equality, Justice and International Trade
Baroness Smith - Ellen Wilkinson
Ellen Wilkinson, was a remarkable woman. Petite, with fiery red hair and a colourful sense of fashion, her combination of serious left-wing politics with personal warmth earned admiration across the political divide.
From a poor, yet ambitious working-class family, education scholarships took Ellen to Manchester University. Whilst there, involvement in the Fabian Society and the Socialist Federation set her on the path that would eventually lead to Parliament.
Having rejected a career in teaching, Ellen became the organiser for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. At just 24, she was appointed as the National Organiser of the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative employees – today part of USDAW.
Elected to Manchester City Council in 1923, Ellen was unsuccessful in the general election that year but in 1924 won Middlesbrough East to become the sole Labour woman MP.
Her impressive maiden speech just days after being elected shows Ellen’s oratorical and political skill. With no Government proposals for votes for women under 30, she didn’t make just the obvious political and principled points but detailed the practical and financial implications to seek broader support.
Regular Parliamentary contributions show her meticulous and assiduous attention to detail on a wide range of issues. In 1926, using the high esteem in which she was held to good effect, Ellen persuaded the reluctant Minister of Pensions to accept important amendments to his Bill.
As well as her eloquence, Ellen was a prolific and enjoyable writer. She wrote not only political works and the well-known ‘Clash’, but a crime novel set in Parliament and an entertaining and illustrated book of pen portraits of her Parliamentary colleagues, ‘Peeps at Politicians’.
Having lost her seat in Labour’s terrible 1931 election, Ellen used time out of Parliament to continue to support causes at home and abroad undertaking political visits to Germany, Spain and India.
She returned to Parliament as MP for Jarrow in 1935, becoming not just a key player in the famous march but both passionate and practical in the fight against poverty.
During the war, Ellen’s ministerial work saw her driving around blitzed sites, supporting local communities and raising morale. Bombed out twice herself, she was dubbed ‘The Shelter Queen’ because of a high-profile responsibility for air-raid shelters
Ellen’s final ministerial job as Minister of Education was cut short by her untimely death in 1947 but not before, against strong opposition, initiating the raising of the school leaving age to 15.
Clement Attlee’s tribute in Parliament catches the essence of this pioneering woman. After they visited Republican troops during the Spanish Civil War, Ellen’s return plane had been hit by lightning but she arrived back to the Commons just in time to move her Hire Purchase Bill, to protect the poorest in society. A Bill that subsequently became law.
Genuine tributes came from the Conservative, Liberals and Communist Party Leaders in Parliament, with the memorable comment: “She was small in body but great in heart.”
Baroness Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords
Angela Rayner – Ellen Wilkinson
The labour movement has no shortage of inspirational women, and I’ve been lucky to know some of them. Whether it’s a colleague like Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, or the activists and campaigners I’ve met since becoming an MP, I’m continually encouraged by the Labour sisterhood.
But even now, as the Shadow Education Secretary, I occasionally feel like someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘the joke’s over’; however, the solidarity and support from Labour women dispels those anxieties and doubts.
For me, looking back on sisters of the past is a source of inspiration. There’s one Labour woman who has a special place in my politics: Ellen Wilkinson MP. The reasons why, perhaps, are obvious: a working-class socialist from Manchester with ginger hair.
‘Red Ellen’, as she was called, is best known for serving as Minister of Education in the Attlee Government of 1945. As the first ever female Education Secretary, she isn’t spoken about in the same vein as the other giants of the Attlee Government – Bevan, Bevin, Cripps – but she should be.
Wilkinson first stood for Parliament in the 1923 General Election, where she lost to a Tory. The seat she stood in wouldn’t be represented by a woman until I won it for Labour, 92 years later.
Among her interests and passions one common theme emerges: she was outraged by injustice and by the transgression of power. Whether it was at home or abroad, she sought to do right. As a young trade-unionist, she helped organise the Suffrage Pilgrimage in 1913, where more than 50,000 women marched to a mass rally in Hyde Park.
She played an integral role in organising the Jarrow March, an iconic protest against the unemployment and poverty in Tyneside. As an internationalist, she condemned General Franco and supported the Spanish Republicans, while denouncing Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany.
When she became Education Secretary, Wilkinson had the monumental task of rebuilding Britain’s schools after six years of war. She raised the school-leave age from 14 to 15 and introduced the School Milk Act of 1946, which gave free milk to school children. Wilkinson fought hard against the titans of the Cabinet to ensure that schools were built and teachers’ were trained.
Wilkinson died a year before her Government’s greatest achievement, the National Health Service, came into force. Appropriately, Nye Bevan chose to launch the NHS in the city of Wilkinson’s birth: Manchester.
One of the distinctive qualities of the working-class movement is the importance of history. Our endeavour is to build on the achievements of those who preceded us. A phrase that’s written across many miners’ banners encapsulates it: ‘the past we inherit, the future we build’.
Angela Rayner is Shadow Education Secretary
Sir Vince Cable – Shirley Williams
Shirley Williams is still one of the most recognisable and influential figures on the political landscape, even though she first became a minister half-a-century ago and her political life stretches over almost the whole of the post-War period.
Together with Margaret Thatcher and Barbara Castle, she was one of the dominant women politicians of that era with a long list of accomplishments. These included being the co-founder of a new party, the SDP, and, then, the Liberal Democrats, which I now have the honour to lead.
And the party has proved a lasting political force - this month marks the 30th anniversary the formation of the Lib Dems, which has become a party of both local and central government.
Shirley was also, with Roy Jenkins and Ted Heath, one of the most significant and committed Europeans in British politics and I know she feels personally the hurt of seeing that ideal under an existential threat. Shirley started her political life on the left as a teenager, in the Labour Party, and the egalitarian, social democratic ideas she espoused – and put into practice as Education Secretary in the late 1970s - remain essentially intact. She translated these principles into her personal life: she has always been unassuming and down to earth, but with a modern lifestyle.
She is a true liberal and this was reflected in the stands she took on race and immigration in the 1960s, capital punishment, prison reform and, later, the civil libertarian values of the Liberal Democrats.
Shirley managed to be a liberal but also a committed Catholic, as was Charles Kennedy, and saw no contradiction between the two.
And she has an international perspective - not just about Europe. In both her personal and academic lives she has been fully trans-Atlantic in outlook.
Shirley battled against the prevailing, casual misogyny that was used to put down her generation of women. One of her legacies was to have paved the way for the many women who are now entering politics.
Some of the skills that made her so admired are no longer so prized: she has been a powerful speaker in what has become the age of the autocue. Her personal trust and warmth as a stump campaigner no longer count for so much when social media platforms are replacing personal engagement.
But she remains a well known political figure and one much loved by the public as well as those close to her.
Sir Vince Cable is MP for Twickenham and Leader of the Liberal Democrats
Kirsty Blackman – Winnie Ewing
As we celebrate the centenary of the first women being given the right to vote, it is a time to reflect on the remarkable contributions of those who have carved a path for female parliamentarians to follow.
There is one woman who stands out more than any other in my eyes: the woman who put the SNP on the map; the woman who worked relentlessly for Scotland and its people; and the woman who reconvened the Scottish parliament in 1999. That woman is Winnie Ewing.
Winnie came into a parliament dominated by men. The House of Common 50 years ago was a very different environment from the one we see today and certainly was not an easy place for a woman to work. However, Winnie was able to overcome these inherent challenges. She didn’t just quietly work in the Palace of Westminster; she thrived in it.
Winnie subsequently went on to hold offices both in the European and Scottish parliaments, the only person to be elected to all three institutions. She famously said, “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on” and provided the people of Scotland with significant successes through her unremitting drive and promotion of Scotland’s national interests. While an MEP, her ardent dedication to representing Scotland earned her the sobriquet of Madame Écosse.
Winnie Ewing was a new type of parliamentarian. She had a straightforward approach, using direct language and effective campaigning. She stood up for an inclusive, prosperous and innovative Scotland and she was able to reach out and engage a new audience in Scotland’s journey. Known by her first name, she represented a new type of parliamentarian. She managed to tread that fine line being both bold and outspoken, while remaining incredibly approachable. Winnie Ewing drew people in and helped young and old, women and men to engage in politics.
She inspired the next generation of parliamentarians, including myself, to try to emulate such qualities, which are intrinsic to the role of a member of any parliament, and she started the process of shattering the glass ceiling, providing a role model for women in politics.
Her legacy to this day is solidified as a trailblazer who gave the SNP and the people of Scotland a voice at Westminster. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of her election, the SNP is now the third party in the House of Commons and in its third term as the Government of Scotland. We owe a great deal to Winnie in kick-starting this journey.
Although Winnie has now retired from politics my admiration for her still remains. She has inspired me to stand up for my beliefs in equality and social justice. I am humbled at being afforded the opportunity to follow in Winnie’s footsteps. The SNP Westminster Group now works, as Winnie did, providing a strong, effective voice, protecting Scotland’s interests.
Kirsty Blackman is MP for Aberdeen North, SNP Deputy Leader and spokesperson for Economy
Lord Fowler - Baroness Wanborough
Everyone knows that Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, but who was the first woman Life Peer to take her seat on the red benches?
In character and appearance she was a large woman with a deep voice and a powerful personality. Her name was Stella Isaacs. She beat by a narrow head Barbara Wootton, the noted criminologist and penal reformer.
Both women were appointed in the wake of the 1958 Life Peerages Act despite the opposition of one or two peers who should have known better. In the debate on the bill, one peer said “many of us do not want women in this House … This is a House of men, a House of Lords.” Another asked where would all this emancipation end: “Shall we follow the rather vulgar example set by Americans of having female ambassadors?”
One point we can take for certain, such hostility would have had no effect on upon the redoubtable Stella Isaacs. She already had built up a formidable reputation most notably as the founder of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) in 1938. From the start she made it clear that she wanted neither a bureaucratic organisation nor an organisation entirely in the pocket of the Government. The WVS had a character entirely of its own and made a totally distinctive contribution to the war effort. In particular, it was instrumental in the evacuation of many thousands of children from London and other cities. My own family in Essex took in two evacuees themselves. But it was not just evacuees, the WVS cared for refugees and the victims of enemy bombing and provided a wide variety of welfare services for the armed forces.
By the end of the war the WVS was a national institution and Stella Isaacs led the movement to keep the organisation going. The immediate post-war era of shortages of food, fuel and housing provided their own demands. It was on this foundation that the modern-day Royal Voluntary Service was built.
During the last decade of her life she epitomised the growing influence of cross benchers in the House of Lords. When she took up her seat, one newspaper, The Observer wrote “the Women’s Voluntary Service has brought out in her the latent political talent and the strength of character that once induced someone to say of her that had she been a man she would have become Prime Minister.”
A little over 20 years later there was a woman Prime Minister and 60 years later the influence and power of women in the House of Lords is beyond doubt. Almost 30% of life peers are now women and both the Leader of the House and the Opposition Leader are women, not to mention the arrival of women bishops and the first woman Black Rod in over 650 years. No one doubts there is further to go but it is also beyond dispute that Stella Isaacs made an invaluable contribution to the transformation.
Norman Fowler is the Lord Speaker
This article first appeared in The House magazine.