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First woman speaker of the Commons elected 20 years ago today

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Libby Ruffle
WVoN co-editor 

It’s 20 years ago today that Betty Boothroyd became the first – and to date only – female Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons.

But Boothroyd says she’s no feminist.

“I accepted my nomination,” she said, “as an experienced parliamentarian, not as a woman waving the feminist flag.”

But she concedes that “for the first 40 years of my life, I took more brickbats than bouquets.”

When she became the parliamentary candidate for South-East Leicester in 1956, the local press listed her vital statistics and commented that she was “well worth whistling at.”

Although frustrated that “nobody thought to enquire after (opposition candidate) Captain Wentworth’s measurements or to describe his appearance,” she said, “I had to accept it.”

Even women’s magazines focused not on her politics but on how Boothroyd could “stop men looking at her ankles long enough to get them interested in her party line.”

Boothroyd was born in West Yorkshire in 1929.

A talented singer and dancer, she worked at the Palladium until a foot infection put an end to that career. Dancing, she would later say, taught her “the need for rigorous preparation” which was crucial in politics.

She inherited her interest in politics from her parents, particularly her mother, who took her to rallies and meetings. In the 50s, Boothroyd worked as a campaigner and assistant for the Labour party.

She first stood for a seat in her home town of Dewsbury, in the 1952 council elections. Her platform was “to build houses to let, resist cuts in education and extend health services, especially for the elderly.”

Although she lost, she left her job at the British Road Services to work full time for the party, joining the research department.

Her “ideal introduction” to Parliament came when she worked as a secretary to Barbara Castle, MP. Castle, Boothroyd said, “did not believe in positive discrimination for women.”

She claimed that although she supported her, Castle viewed Boothroyd as a “back-room girl” and she had to rely on her abilities to persuade constituency parties to take her seriously as a candidate.

“Breaking through the gender barrier made me all the tougher,” she said.

After Leicester, she campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in Peterborough. In need of “new inspiration”, she left for America, offering her services to JF Kennedy’s team: “There was no British politician like him.”

In America, she picked up a more informal campaigning style – known as “pressing the flesh” – and so “Hi, I’m Betty Boothroyd” became her standard greeting. Later, when asked how she should be addressed, she was to say, “Call me Madam,” a line taken from a Broadway show.

Although she earned more in America than an MP ever would in the UK, “Britain was my home. More than ever, I wanted to be a Labour MP.”

After returning to England in 1961, she went on the dole. The next few years were “hard”.

She was defeated at Plymouth, Nelson and Colne, and Rossendale. “I felt qualified for the Guinness Book of Records for the number of seats I had fought and lost.”

Boothroyd finally became an MP in 1973, aged 43, for West Bromwich East.

Her mother’s death in 1982 affected her deeply and was the only time she considered giving up politics. But Parliament had “became the centre of my life in a way that I could not have managed as a wife and mother.”

Her unmarried status not only raised frustrating questions (“I find it very irritating that the questions of marriage and age more usually come up with women than with men”) but was held against her.

One woman attending a party meeting accused her of being “no good for us – unmarried, no children, never run a home…” (Her reply was, “Then I’ll have all the more time for you, dearie, won’t I?”).

Although in her early career Boothroyd told interviewers she didn’t see why she shouldn’t combine marriage and a career in politics, “I never did. I had a choice, and I exercised it.”

While feeling that her party was “perceived as old-fashioned and class-based”, Boothroyd also thought that women hadn’t “learned to use their emancipation… as long as they’ve a nice husband, a nice house, a car outside and the kids doing well at school, they don’t care who’s governing them.”

She found some women “inclined to be bitchy” and “look up more to Liz Taylor than Barbara Castle.”

By the time Boothroyd became deputy speaker in 1987, the first woman Prime Minister had been in office for eight years.

In 1992, when then Speaker Jack Wetherill retired, seven of the 11 speakers between 1900 and 1992 had been Tory. Needless to say, all had been men.

But there was no doubt “the frustrating years of being told I was too young, not in the right trade union, or the token woman were over,” said Boothroyd.

She was elected Speaker of the House on 27 April 1992. At first, she was “bewildered and disorientated”, partly because she now had to keep her distance from her colleagues.

She broke with tradition by not wearing a wig. “I merely wanted to open a few windows, not to bring the walls tumbling down”

When awarded her own coat of arms, she was given one that was lozenge-shaped (shields were for men only), with a forget-me-not bow on top to signify her status as a single woman.

Boothroyd was proud to have been appointed “on equal terms”, but “made no concessions to women Members because of their gender.”

Indeed, she was criticised for treating women MPs too severely and was accused by Labour’s women’s committee of harshly treating new MP Laura Moffatt during Commons questions.

In 2000, she declared that breastfeeding mothers shouldn’t be allowed in committee sittings. They were already banned from the chamber, division lobbies, tearoom and some parts of the library.

Her reasoning not to accept this “bizarre campaign” was that she didn’t think areas for breastfeeding provided the“calm environment” that babies needed, and that it was “not conducive to the efficient conduct of public business.”

In 2002, Boothroyd’s successor, Michael Martin, failed to lift the ban entirely, but designated areas were set up in the Commons.

Boothroyd retired in 2000, dubbed a “national treasure and institution” by then Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In 2001, she took up a seat in the Lords, where women now make up about one fifth of members.

“Women remain a minority in frontline politics,” Boothroyd said later, “but the opportunities I took are still there for those who strive for them.”

  1. This is a fantastically well written, interesting and insightful piece about a woman I knew almost nothing about until now. Many thanks and I look forward to reading more of your work.

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