Women in Parliament: Key Speeches






By Renate Haas

For a very long time and for good reasons, political speeches have played quite an important role in English Studies, both in research and in teaching. The usual anthologies focus on great men and hardly ever include women or groups that are still marginalised. Therefore, Women in Parliament. Key Speeches: Past and Present, which the UK Parliament has published as part of its Vote 100 project, is all the more welcome. https://www.parliament.uk/documents/outreach/Women-in-Parliament-Key-Speeches-PROOF-v7.pdf

The booklet highlights nineteen women from Suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett and Viscountess Rhondda to the present, providing a basic survey of the developments as well. The following four represent the pioneers in the Commons: Nancy, Lady Astor, the first female MP to take her seat (1919) and Margaret Wintringham, number 2 and first female Liberal MP (1921), who both fought for equal guardianship of children; Ellen Wilkinson, Labour MP from 1924 onwards and “best known for her high profile work on behalf of her unemployed constituents in the North East town of Jarrow” (p. 12); and Eleanor Rathbone, elected as an Independent as one of two MPs for the Combined English Universities seat in 1929, who campaigned for decades for family allowances. Rathbone’s argument that children and their mothers together constituted between one third and one half of the entire population and that they therefore had a claim to payment from the State may mutatis mutandis be useful even today (p. 15).

Baroness Wootton of Abinger and Katherine Elliot, Baroness Elliot of Harwood, were pioneers in the Lords, the former the first woman to be created Life Peer (1958) and the latter the first woman to speak in the Lords as a member of the House (also 1958). Elliot expressed a keen awareness of what great innovation this meant: “I am very conscious that, except for Her Majesty’s gracious Opening of Parliament, probably this is the first occasion in 900 years that the voice of a woman has been heard in the deliberations of this House.” (P. 16)

Three MPs are singled out as campaigners for social change: Bessie Braddock with regard to her commitment to her native Liverpool and, in particular, its terrible housing conditions in 1945; Jennie Lee with regard to her crucial role in the founding of the Open University (an apt reminder of the importance of the OU for widening access to higher education for women and other underprivileged people); and Barbara Castle with regard to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. In her speech, Castle pointed out that as far back as 1888 the TUC had first endorsed the principle of the same wages for the same work, and she briefly sketched further stages of the fight (p. 22).

As women office holders Margaret Thatcher and Baroness Hayman are presented: the first female Prime Minister (1979-1990) and the first Lord Speaker (2006-11).

The next and final section, “Contemporary Voices”, is the longest. It features the following five: Clare Short, who in the 1980s campaigned against the Sun’s page 3 of topless girls; Stella Creasy with her attempts to regulate payday loans, a major source of debt; Diane Abbot, the first black woman MP (1987) with her award-winning speech on civil liberties of 2008; Caroline Nokes, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image (targeting eating disorders); and Baroness Helic, who in 1992 fled war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and in 2012 helped launch the UK’s Global Sexual Violence Initiative.

Since the speeches are contextualised and illustrated with portraits, only short excerpts are given, but the bibliographical data allow easy access to the full texts, many of them on the internet. [1] The anonymous editors hope to expand the collection in a future publication and welcome further suggestions. Discussion of the selection criteria recommends itself in use for teaching as well. It may, for instance, be asked why the first female cabinet minister has not been included. Margaret Bondfield was Minister of Labour in 1929-31 and, even before, her career had been punctuated by “firsts”: co-founder of the Women’s Labour League (WLL) in 1906, first female TUC chair and one of the first three female Labour MPs in 1923. She continues, however, to be a controversial figure (not least for the Labour Party).

Despite its limitations, Women in Parliament. Key Speeches is a very helpful collection and shows how much of what is now taken for granted had to be fought hard for. Quite often the terminology still tells its own tale, e.g., maiden speaker or female Lord Speaker. The booklet also shows that due to their broad ramifications, women’s concerns have for a long time been linked with anti-discrimination in general and paved the way to such policies.

[1] Esp. at the Parliament site. Castle’s speech is also available in the internet collection Political Speeches by Women of the Centre for Women and Democracy, together with important further examples, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s and Benazir Bhutto’s speeches at the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. http://www.cfwd.org.uk/inourownwords/political-speeches-by-women