On the centenary of women being able to stand for parliament, Stylist looks back at a timeline of ‘firsts’ for women in politics – and asks how far we still have to go.
This week marks 100 years since women were first given the right to stand for election. The passing of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act on 21 November 1918 made it possible for all women to run for political office once they turned 21, regardless of their economic status. In this way, it was a much more liberal law than the Representation of the People Act 1918, which had given property-owning women over the age of 30 the right to vote earlier that year – while continuing to deny suffrage to younger, working-class women.
Over the last century, there have been a total of 491 women MPs – fewer than 50 more than the number of male MPs currently sitting in the Commons. It’s clear that the UK urgently needs more women to consider getting involved in politics, a subject discussed by several leading female MPs during a recent Stylist roundtable.
On the centenary of women being able to stand for parliament, we wanted to pay tribute to the female politicians of the last 100 years by highlighting some of those who came ‘first’ – from Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat in Westminster, to Diane Abbott, the UK’s first black female MP.
Shockingly, some of these ‘firsts’ are incredibly recent. It wasn’t until 2010 that the first women of Asian descent were elected to the UK parliament, something that should be seen as nothing short of embarrassing.
But we hope that spotlighting the stories of these history-making, boundary-breaking women will inspire future generations of women MPs – and remind us of all the ‘firsts’ that are still to come.
Constance Markievicz becomes first woman MP to be elected to the House of Commons
It was not her first time in prison. She had previously been incarcerated for taking part in the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion against British rule in Ireland, during which she was alleged to have shot a police officer. She was released from prison in 1917 but found herself in jail again in 1918, where she ran for election with a platform that advocated for equality among the genders and an Irish republic liberated from Britain.
Despite winning her seat, Markievicz refused to enter the British parliament. Her alternative was to join forces with 72 other Irish MPs to create the First Dáil in January 1919. She died less than a decade later in 1927 at the age of 59 in Dublin.
Nancy Astor becomes first female MP to take her seat in Westminster
Born into a wealthy American railroad family, Nancy Astor moved to the UK when she was 26. There, she married Waldorf Astor, and the two lived in splendour at Cliveden, the Buckinghamshire manor house that was a wedding gift from Nancy’s father-in-law.
Waldorf was already a career politician when he became the second Viscount Astor in 1919. His ascension to the House of Lords forced him to relinquish his seat of Plymouth Sutton in the House of Commons, and Nancy decided to stand in his place. When she won, she became the first woman to sit in the House of Commons, Mankievicz having refused to take her seat the previous year.
Nancy’s political career was controversial. Markievicz was one of her most vocal critics, branding her “out of touch” because of her aristocratic background. Nevertheless, Nancy made her mark as a subtle breaker of parliamentary rules, and when she was joined by other female MPs in the House of Commons two years later, she became a pillar of support and friendship for her fellow female politicians.
Margaret Bondfield becomes first female cabinet minister
As her involvement with the Labour movement deepened, she was elected to parliament in 1923 as one of the first female Labour MPs alongside Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson. Her supporters were so elated at her victory that they erupted in cheers at her win and paraded her around in a bus. Six years later, she was named secretary of state by Labour Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald and officially became the first female cabinet minister in British history.
Harriet Slater becomes first female parliamentary whip in the Commons
As whip for the Labour party between 1964 and her retirement in 1966, and the first female parliamentary whip in the UK, Harriet Slater ran a tight ship. Highly respected and dedicated to her job, she was first elected to parliament in 1953 in the seat of Stoke-on-Trent and served continuously for the next 13 years until her retirement in 1966.
Prior to that, Slater was the national organiser for the Co-operative party, and as such her contribution to British politics is celebrated by her former party in the Harriet Slater memorial lecture series, delivered annually in July.
Maureen Colquhoun becomes first openly lesbian female MP
From the moment Maureen Colquhoun was elected as a Labour MP in 1974, she made waves. Vocal on subjects of abortion, gender equality, childcare for female MPs and the rights of sex workers, Colquhoun’s platforms still resonate today. In 1976, she became the first female MP to request to be referred to as ‘Ms’ in the House of Commons. (Previously, the options were either ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’.)
But it is Colquhoun’s other first that is worth noting. In 1976, she became the first openly lesbian MP when she was outed by the Daily Mail as having left her husband, Sunday Times columnist Keith Colquhoun, for Barbara Todd, the publisher of Sappho magazine.
The revelation devastated Colquhoun’s political career. The Labour party attempted to deselect her twice, first in 1977 and then again in 1978, because of her sexuality and her “obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights”. Both times, Colquhoun managed to hold onto her seat, stressing the irrelevance of her personal life when it came to her career. “My sexuality has nothing whatever to do with my ability to do my job as an MP,” she told Gay News in 1979. That same year, however, she lost her seat in the general election to a Conservative MP. She went onto a successful eight-year tenure as a councillor for Hackney Borough, and turned 90 in August.
Colquhoun undoubtedly paved the way for other lesbian MPs, including Angela Eagle, the Labour MP who came out in office in 1997 and Margot James, the first out lesbian woman elected to the House of Commons in 2010. While Colquhoun was treated with contempt by her peers and watched as her private life was raked over by the tabloid press, both Eagle and James joined politics in an era when homosexuality was no longer taboo.
James, when filling out the application form to stand for election as Tory candidate for the seat of Holborn and St Pancras, was asked ‘Is there anything in your past or present life, that if it came out, could cause the party embarassment?’
She responded: “No, but I live in a same-sex relationship, which I don’t feel would be an embarrassing matter for the party at all.”
Margaret Thatcher becomes first woman prime minister
The debate around Margaret Thatcher’s feminist credentials is likely to rage forever. Yes, the Conservative MP was prime minister, a position she held from 1979 until 1990, when she was replaced by Chancellor John Major. Prior to this, she was the first female opposition leader. All up, she led the Conservative party for a total of 15 years.
However, as many have pointed out, during this time Thatcher did little to prioritise the position of other female politicians both inside and outside of her party. She only promoted one female cabinet minister during her term as prime minister. She disliked the word ‘feminist’ and would never have considered herself one. (“I hate feminism,” she once said. “It is poison.”)
Still, she was Britain’s first female prime minister, a glass ceiling-smashing achievement in 1979 that is still yet to be mirrored across the pond. That counts for something.
Shirley Williams becomes first woman to found a major political party
They were known as the “gang of four”, a quartet of senior MPs and cabinet ministers who decried the state of the Labour party and decided to form their own political party in January, 1981. They were David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. Their new party? The Social Democratic Party (SDP), and soon after its creation the gang of four were joined by 28 other Labour MPs and one Conservative. Later that year, Williams was elected to parliament and became the SDP’s first MP.
Prior to 1981, Williams had already served as the Shadow Home Secretary, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Services and the Minister for Home Affairs and for Education and Science. She later became a life peer in 1993 and, when the SDP merged with the Liberal party to become the Liberal Democrats, served as the party’s first leader until her retirement in 2004.
Political activism is quite literally in her blood: Williams is the daughter of Vera Brittain, the pacifist nurse whose bestselling memoir Testament of Youth was one of the first pieces of work to detail the futility of war, in particular World War 1, from the perspective of women.
Diane Abbott becomes first black female MP
The breakthrough came 30 years after Diane Abbott, born to Jamaican parents in Paddington in 1953, was first elected to the House of Commons as the member for Hackney and Stoke Newington. Since she was elected in 1987 as the first black female MP, Abbott has held her seat continually, rising through the ranks of the Labour party where she currently serves as Shadow Home Secretary.
In recent years, Abbott has been an outspoken critic of the vile abuse that female MPs and, in particular, female MPs of colour are victims of on social media. “I’ve had rape threats, [been] described as a pathetic, useless fat black, piece of s**t, ugly fat black bitch and n*****,” she told Channel 4 News. When tallied up, Abbott was on the receiving end of almost half of all abusive tweets in the lead up to the 2017 general election.
But online abuse won’t stop Abbott from speaking out. The 65-year-old remains an inspiring figure for other female MPs of colour who have joined her in the halls of Westminster. Today, there are 11 black female MPs in parliament.
First female MPs of Asian descent are elected to the Commons
Better late than never. That’s how we feel about the 2010 general election, which finally saw the first MPs of Asian descent voted into the House of Commons. Six of them, in fact: Rushanara Ali (Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow), Shabana Mahmood (Labour, Birmingham Ladywood), Lisa Nandy (Labour, Wigan), Priti Patel (Conservatives, Witham), Yasmin Qureshi (Labour, Bolton South East) and Valerie Vaz (Labour, Walsall South).
Behind the scenes, Asian women were agitating for their place in the parliamentary process. A record number of Asian women contested seats in 2010, with 22 putting themselves forward for election. In 2017 Labour’s Preet Gill of Birmingham Edgbaston became the first female Sikh MP.
Nicola Sturgeon becomes first woman First Minister of Scotland
Nicola Sturgeon’s political career is riddled with firsts. She is literally a first – the First Minister of Scotland - and she is also the first woman to hold the role. On top of that, she is the first female leader of the Scottish National Party, a position she has held since 2014.
During her leadership of Scotland, Sturgeon has advocated for women’s rights. She has overseen the instigation of policies including subsidised childcare and the distribution of free sanitary products in schools. In February, she inaugurated a £500,000 fund encouraging women to get involved in politics in commemoration of the centenary of the suffragette movement.
“I hope my election does indeed open the gate to greater opportunity for all women,” Sturgeon said in a speech in 2014. “I hope it sends a strong, positive message to all girls and young women across our land: there should be no limit to your ambition for what you can achieve, if you are good enough and you work hard enough, the sky is the limit to what you can achieve, and no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams.”