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Parliamentary Pioneers

Labour Women MPs 1918-1945


Mary Honeyball


Chatham: Urbane Publications, 2015

Hardcover. xxiv+167 p. ISBN 978-1909273856. £16.99


Reviewed by Pat Thane

King’s College, London



One of the few things Labour supporters have to cheer about following the 2015 UK election result is the increased number of female Members of Parliament (MPs). They now make up one-third of members of the House of Commons and almost half of all Labour MPs. This achievement of near-gender equality in Labour Party representation has been a long time coming since the vote was first awarded to most women in UK over age 30 in 1918. As Mary Honeyball points out in this study of the first female Labour MPs, before 1939 the largest number of women in any parliament was 15 in 1931, out of a total of 615 MPs, none of the women representing Labour after the party's crushing defeat following the international economic crisis. After World War II the number crept up very slowly. Then determined action by Labour women persuaded their leadership in the 1990s to allow All-Women Shortlists (AWS) for candidate selection in a number of constituencies which greatly increased female representation in the parliament elected in 1997, overwhelmingly on the Labour side.

We should not, perhaps, be too optimistic about the likely impact of the latest influx of women to Parliament. This book concludes with a discussion with Harriet Harman, currently acting Leader of the Labour Party, who entered Parliament in 1983 as one of only 10 Labour women MPs from a total of 23 female MPS (one of them the notably unfeminist first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher) and Stella Creasey, who entered with almost 100 Labour women in 2010. As Creasey describes, they encountered male sexism which was more explicit if not necessarily more profound than their predecessors between the wars.

Labour women demanded AWS because they were tired of the hard struggle to be selected for winnable seats, which was the problem, not a shortage of women willing to stand for Parliament. This had been the case from the beginning and accounts for the small number of women MPs between the wars, though surprisingly Mary Honeyball does not discuss this selection problem. These women pioneers certainly merit a collective study, though as individuals they have been less neglected by historians than Honeyball suggests, and little in this book is unfamiliar where it is accurate. For example Patricia Hollis wrote an excellent biography of Jennie Lee, MP for North Lanark 1929-31 and MP again from 1945, but it is not referred to by Honeyball along with all too much other relevant work. Unfortunately as a result the book is too often sadly out of date, inaccurate or ill-informed. For example Honeyball refers to the 'Sex Discrimination Act of 1920' which gave women access to the legal and accounting professions [xvii]. It was the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919 which achieved this and also admitted women to service on juries and as magistrates (JPs), the important, unpaid, lower rung of the judicial system to which women then made a major contribution, as Anne Logan has excellently described in her Feminism and Criminal Justice (Palgrave Macmillan 2008). This too is unmentioned by Honeyball though a number of female MPs were JPs. Also we are told at least twice that women gained the vote equally with men, at age 21, in 1929. All women from age 21 had their first opportunity to vote in a national election in 1929, but it was in 1928 that women forced the Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin at last to keep his promise of 1924 to equalise voting rights. They had to threaten a return to militant suffragism to achieve it, but no mention of this here.

Honeyball apparently believes that serious unemployment in UK started in the 1930s, though it was severe from late 1920 to 1940. Similarly she tells us at least twice (there is much repetition in this short book) that in inter-war Britain married women were not in paid work. This was true of middle-class women, who were firmly prohibited from the labour market, though a few brave women struggled and overcame this. But very many working-class women had to work, when work was available, to support their families when so many men were unemployed, irregularly employed or low-paid, and they did not only work in textiles as Honeyball suggests. Many worked part-time in domestic service, laundry work, shops, work not always recorded in the Census. Increasingly also those who lived in areas of economic expansion in the 1930s found work with Midlands motor manufacturers, or in manufacture of electrical goods and other consumer items in West London and the South-East. We are also told that during World War I the State paid allowances just to the wives of officers in the armed services. In fact the British State, for the first time in this war, paid allowances to the families of all servicemen, including parents where their sons supported them, and to 'unmarried wives' as they were officially described when it was discovered that significant numbers of serving men were cohabiting stably but unmarried with a woman and child(ren). Early in the war the State took over this role from charities which previously performed it because the numbers of servicemen was too great for charities to cope and the payments were deemed necessary to maintain morale. In principle payments could be disallowed if a woman was perceived to be acting immorally in her husband's absence, but this was pursued less rigorously than Honeyball suggests due to the large numbers involved. There are many more errors and repetitions of tired stereotypes than can be listed here.

We are given rather superficial lists of some of the MPs' activities and a general impression that they could achieve rather little in Parliament despite their efforts in such areas as education, birth control, housing and welfare. This is perhaps not surprising given their small numbers and the fact that Labour formed only two, brief, minority governments between the wars, in 1924 and 1929-31. But local government was much stronger and more independent between the wars than now. The legislation establishing compulsory State education, from 1906 free school meals for necessitous children, from 1907 free medical inspection in schools and free treatment from 1912, from 1919 council housing, from 1918 improved maternity and child welfare services, indeed all welfare services, left implementation much to the discretion of local authorities . Between the wars Labour Party women worked hard and effectively to ensure that local councils used their powers to the full, helped by the fact that Labour won control of increasing numbers of major councils, beginning with Sheffield in 1926, until by 1934 they controlled most large cities including London (LCC) and Glasgow. The outcome was real improvements in these areas in housing, maternal and child welfare, provision of free school meals and medical care for children and major improvements in the health of people of all ages. Honeyball shows no awareness of this though it has all been well studied. Much remained to be done by 1939, but the Labour women's pressure helped pave the way for the post-1945 Welfare State.

Analysis of the achievements and failures of the first female Labour MPs is weakened by the author's inadequate grasp of the context and historiography. Honeyball is a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and a former CEO of a voluntary organisation, not a professional historian, though she studied History at Oxford in her youth. Amateurs can and do write good history, but not this time. The book is ill-served by its publisher, with a remarkable number of printing errors. The pioneering Labour women deserve better.        


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