8 Labour Women You Should Know About

Ella Staddon, Treasurer TT22

Originally written for Women’s History Month (although in my world, every month is women’s history month), I wanted to put to good use my knowledge of Labour women’s history to highlight eight Labour women MPs of the 20th century who should be better known. Despite making massive contributions, these women rarely if ever get mentioned by the Labour party or historians. It’s high time they get written back into our history, and I am pleased to say that there are historians like Nan Sloane and Paula Bartley who are making massive contributions in this field. I would happily have written pages on each of these women, and I recognise that I have only just scratched the surface of their achievements here.

Dame Leah Manning (Islington East, 1931; Epping, 1945-50)

After gaining and losing her Parliamentary seat in 1931, Manning turned her attention to fighting fascism. Going against Labour policy, and even facing the threat of expulsion, she became Secretary of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. On the 27th April 1937, she travelled to Guernica to organise the evacuation of 4,000 children and 200 adults to Britain. That same day, Hitler sent the Luftwaffe to carpet bomb the city. She narrowly survived the massacre. Undeterred by the threat to her life, she continued to travel to Spain to aid the republicans. In 2002, Bilbao Square was renamed ‘Plaza de Mrs Leah Manning’ in her honour. Closer to home, Manning was known for loudly singing The Red Flag while walking the corridors of Parliament. She had no time for women who did not support other women and despised Jean Mann for undermining her socialist sisters. Like many Labour feminists, she had a soft spot for Ellen Wilkinson and Barbara Castle. Her unfaltering support for her female comrades, rather than her bravery in Spain, is what she is often remembered for.

Lena Jeger (St Pancras and Holborn, 1953-59; 1964-79)

Once dubbed “the most influential politician to never become a minister”, Lena Jeger turned St Pancras and Holborn into a Labour safe seat. Having vocally opposed Macmillan’s plans to partition Cyprus, it was her speech at the 1957 party conference that forced the NEC to adopt a policy of self-determination for the island. Following the Turkish invasion in 1974, Jeger travelled to Cyprus regularly to support the Greek Cypriot majority and joined the Women Walk Home marches into the occupied North in 1975, 1987 and 1989. Her finest moment, however, was on equal pay. In 1968, Jeger tabled an equal pay amendment to Roy Jenkins’ prices and incomes bill and threatened to lead a backbench revolt of Labour women MPs unless Jenkins agreed to Barbara Castle’s equal pay bill or the amendment. Castle, sat next to Jenkins on the front bench, gleefully threatened to join the revolt. The threat worked, and two years later the Equal Pay Act became law. There is no doubt that had Jeger not tabled that amendment, we would not have had the 1970 Equal Pay Act. She also gets extra brownie points for being from the South West.

Dame Judith Hart (Lanark, 1959-87)

From a single-parent working-class household to cabinet minister, it’s always a shock that Judith Hart was so quickly forgotten. A fighter for a world free of nuclear weapons, Hart never shied from being controversial or opposing her own government. An incredibly quotable MP, she once called a Tory minister a “male chauvinist pig” and informed the nation on Question Time that she took the future of the Labour movement “rather more seriously than what horses you want to bet on.” Her appointment to Cabinet in 1968 was a triple first- the first woman Paymaster General, the first mother appointed to Cabinet, and the first time more than one woman was appointed to the Cabinet. While her speciality was foreign aid, her lasting legacy is Chile. She dedicated her last 15 years in Parliament to demanding Chile be subject to sanctions, and immediately following the 1973 coup co-founded organisations that promoted human rights in Chile. At the same time, she organised and funded escape routes for refugees, hosting many of them in her own home. One such family was Allende’s widow and children. When Labour returned to government, she used her department to create official escape routes to the U.K. for Chilean refugees, saving thousands of lives. Her final speech in Parliament was dedicated to the plight of Chilean refugees, who had been treated like economic migrants by the Tory government. In 1991, she was the first non-Chilean to receive the Chilean Order of Merit, awarded posthumously- she had died days before she could receive it in person.

Renée Short (Wolverhampton North East, 1964-87)

If an issue was unpopular and vaguely left-wing, it’s highly likely that Renée Short was somehow involved. Having been an MP for less than a year, she introduced a private members bill to decriminalise abortions. The bill failed, but a year later she drafted the Abortion Act, which became law in 1967. She was one of the first people to use the Race Relations Act when she (rightfully) accused Enoch Powell and his campaign of putting up racist and antisemitic posters about her in her constituency. Believing the lack of women MPs to be “scandalous”, Short campaigned for family-friendly working hours for MPs and universal childcare in the hopes it would make politics, and the world of work, more accessible to mothers. She was the first Chair of the Social Services committee where she challenged the government on medical research, abortion, HIV/AIDS, prisons, cancer treatment, nursery provision and pensions. She retired in 1987 following threats from her CLP to deselect her on the basis of being ‘too left-wing’, and turned to breeding poodles.

Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough 1966-83; Eccles 1987-97)

Known as ‘the Darling of the Labour Conference’, Joan Lestor was a lifelong campaigner for education and against racial discrimination. Active in the anti-apartheid movement, she used her role as an Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office to pursue anti-apartheid causes, including refusing embassy receptions and facilities abroad for sports teams that agreed to compete in or against South Africa. Education was another passion, and in 1987, she was made shadow minister for children and families where she spoke out against the impacts of Thatcherism on young people. At the 1993 conference, she pointed out that Thatcher’s ‘success’ was judged by the number of yuppies rather than the number of children whose life opportunities had been snatched away from them. Ill health forced her to stand down in 1997, and both sides of the Commons was packed to listen to her final speech.

Joan Maynard (Sheffield Brightside, 1974-87)

Joan Maynard was the first Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, and most well known for her advice to newly elected MPs in 1983. “If both front benches agree, the workers are losing out. And if a minister ever gets up and says ‘we’re going to have to take some tough choices and some tough decisions’, it’s a disaster for the working class.” In 1950, she became the youngest Justice of the Peace in Yorkshire, where she shocked colleagues for criticising the law rather than upholding it. A keen supporter of land nationalisation, Maynard believed that ‘socialism could not be achieved as long as private ownership of the land remains’. Despite representing a city constituency, Maynard continued to focus on agricultural issues and in 1976 secured the passage of the Rent (Agriculture) Act which regulated tied cottages.

Jo Richardson (Barking, 1974-94)

A typist by training and left-winger by nature, Richardson was the first MP’s secretary to be elected to Parliament. Supportive of nuclear disarmament, Richardson was a founding member of CND and stalwart supporter of the Greenham common women, regularly visiting their camp. In the 1980s, she became Labour’s spokesperson on women’s rights, becoming the first chair of the NEC’s women’s committee. It was Richardson who ensured that motions passed at the women’s conference were accepted as party policy, and ensured that all parliamentary and government shortlists included a woman. She introduced a minimum quota for women on the Labour frontbench and created the Minister for Women, a post she held in the shadow cabinet at a time there was no Minister for Women! Her concentration on women’s issues resulted in her being voted off the NEC for not focusing on so-say ‘true’ left-wing issues. In spite of this, Richardson forced Labour to change for women and recognise its systemic misogyny. Despite suffering from ill health at what was to be her final party conference, in 1993 Jo Richardson introduced All Women’s Shortlists, without which countless Labour women would never have stepped foot in parliament. As Dame Margaret Beckett said of her, “All of the women of this generation owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Jo Richardson who was the first person to devote all her political endeavours to transform the position of women and laid the foundations for everything that followed.”

Dawn Primarolo (Bristol South, 1987-2015)

When Primarolo was elected in 1987, she was the only Labour MP in the South West and the youngest woman MP. Her maiden speech focused on Bristolian school leavers, whose only post-18 option was exploitation as cheap labour in ‘low-skilled’ and low paid jobs. This was particularly relevant to Bristol, whose main industries had been decimated by Thatcherism. Later, she would send her civil servants to her constituency to prove that even cities considered ‘affluent’ and ‘vibrant’ could suffer from extreme poverty. An unapologetic feminist, Primarolo launched the ‘Off the Shelf’ campaign with Clare Short and once asked Thatcher at PMQs if the only hope for young, low-paid women was ‘to follow her example and find a wealthy husband’. Primarolo’s main successes in Cabinet was the reduction of the Tampon Tax from 17.5% to 5%, and the introduction of tax credits, which contributed to the 26% drop in childhood poverty between 1997-2010. Later, she changed the law to give same-sex couples parental rights and reworded the law to state that children did not legally require a father. After 5 years as Deputy Speaker, she retired in 2015.

Bibliography:

Dale, I. & Smith, J., 2018. The honourable ladies. Volume 1, Profiles of women MPs 1918-1996, London.

Castle, B., 1993. Fighting all the way, London: Macmillan.

Bartley, P., 2019. Labour women in power: cabinet ministers in the twentieth century, Basingstoke.

Joyce, G., 2018. No Ordinary Woman: A Memoir of Jo Richardson, London

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2007/mar/03/pressandpublishing.obituaries (accessed 25/03/22)

http://www.thecnj.com/camden/030807/obit030807_01.html (accessed 25/03/22)

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1982/dec/08/the-economy-impact-on-women#S6CV0033P0_19821208_HOC_359 (accessed 26/03/22)

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1987/mar/26/liability-of-carriers-for-passengers#S6CV0113P0_19870326_HOC_262 (accessed 26/03/22)

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