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Part 2: The First Women MPs
In February 1918 the Representation of the People Bill received Royal Assent. This Act gave most women over the age of 30 the right to vote.
A separate Act, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, allowed women to stand for Parliament regardless of age.
transcript of this extract of the Representation of the People Act ( PDF 69 KB)
It is ironic that after the long and hard campaign of the suffragettes, the first woman returned as a Member of Parliament had not been involved in their struggle.
The first woman to be elected to Parliament was the Countess de Markievicz (1868-1927). Of Anglo-Irish origin, she was married to a Polish Count. A member of Sinn Fein, she had played a part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and stood for election for a seat in Dublin whilst in Holloway prison in London in December 1918. She was successfully elected and became the first woman to be returned to the House of Commons, but she did not take her seat.
Nancy, Viscountess Astor (1879-1964) was the first woman to take a seat in Parliament. Born in Virginia, she moved to England following her divorce from her first husband and subsequently married Waldorf Astor in 1906. In 1919 her husband, who was MP for Plymouth Sutton, succeeded to the peerage and she was elected in his stead for the Conservative party. She held the seat until she retired in June 1945.
Lady Astor Campaign Leaflet, 1919 (BRO/1).
Full text of Lady Astor Campaign Leaflet ( PDF 81 KB)
In Parliament, Nancy Astor devoted herself to the causes of women and children, temperance, education and nursery schools. She also became associated with appeasement in the years before the Second World War. Outspoken and possessed of a quick wit she became well known for the weekend gatherings at Cliveden, the Astor family home.
In her maiden speech to Parliament on 24 February 1920, Lady Astor strongly advocated the return of the strict drinking hours which had prevailed during the War.
Extract of Lady Astor's maiden speech in Parliament ( PDF 88 KB)
Photograph of Ellen Wilkinson with Durham County MPs and George Lansbury c1930 (PIC/P/328).
Ellen Wilkinson is standing next to George Lansbury who is on the far left of the picture.
Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) had been an organiser for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies NUWSS) between 1913 and 1914, and was a member of the Communist Party.
In the 1924 General Election she was elected as a Labour MP for Middlesbrough East. She became known as Red Ellen (both for the colour of her hair and her politics).
Wilkinson lost her seat in 1931 but in 1935 she re-entered Parliament as MP for Jarrow. She gained a reputation for her concern for the unemployed and in 1936 she famously led the march of 200 unemployed workers from Jarrow to London.
Following the 1945 General Election, the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, appointed Ellen Wilkinson as Minister of Education. Whilst in office she was responsible for the introduction of free milk for school children.
Photograph of Jennie Lee when elected as MP for the North Lanarkshire constituency on 21 March 1929 (PHO/9/1/44).
Janet 'Jennie' Lee (1904-1988) was elected to Parliament as Labour MP for North Lanarkshire at a by-election in March 1929 when she was twenty-four years old. Ironically, she was unable to vote for herself as she was too young: the Equal Franchise Act, which had lifted the 30 year age restriction for women to vote, had not yet come into force.
She sat for North Lanarkshire until 1931 when she was defeated. She unsuccessfully contested the seat again in 1935 as an I.L.P. candidate and stood for Bristol Central in Feb 1943 as an Independent Labour candidate. In July 1945 she was elected for the Cannock division of Staffordshire for Labour and represented the constituency until 1970 when she was defeated. She subsequently received a life peerage.
After the 1964 General Election she was appointed Minister for the Arts. She also served as Minister of State in the Department of Education and Science. Her main achievement was the founding of the Open University.
She was the wife of Aneurin Bevan, MP (1897-1960), the Minister of Health and Housing in the post war Labour government who was responsible for the introduction of the National Health Service.
House of Commons Factsheet No. 4 (Members/Election Series)Part 1: The SuffragettesA Changing House: the Life Peerages Act 1958
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