Five women who changed politics - including Yorkshire’s Betty Boothroyd

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A century on from Britain’s first female MP taking a seat in Parliament, Luke Rix-Standing looks at the key trailblazers who smashed the political patriarchy.

This year marks a century since a female MP first took a seat in the House of Commons – which happened just a year after (certain) women gained the right to vote for the very first time.

House of Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd.

House of Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd.

There has since been a long plod towards genuine equality, and most observers will tell you we’re not there yet. However, there’s no doubt these five female firsts helped make history...

1 First female sitting MP: Nancy Astor 1919

Contrary to popular opinion, Astor was not the first ever female MP. That honour goes to Constance Markievicz, elected in 1918 – an Irish Republican and revolutionary who, in line with Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policies, did not attend parliament. Astor was, instead, the first women to take her seat.

A notoriously anti-Semitic viscountess following in the footsteps of her husband Waldorf (who vacated his seat in the Commons to ascend to the House of Lords), Astor’s victory in the Plymouth Sutton by-election in 1919 dealt her a swift lesson in institutional misogyny. “When I stood up and asked questions affecting women and children, I used to be shouted at for five or 10 minutes at a time. They thought I was rather a freak, a voice crying in the wilderness.”

2. First female Cabinet Minister: Margaret Bondfield, 1929

A working class Somerset native, who started work in a draper’s shop aged 14, Bondfield was built from the sort of stuff movies are made of. She defied convention to campaign for women of all classes, and co-founded the nation’s first female trade union. One of the first three female Labour MPs elected in 1923, she made history in 1929 when she was appointed Minister for Labour by Ramsay MacDonald.

She modestly said of her achievements. “Some woman was bound to be first. That I should be was the accident of dates and events.”

3. First female Prime Minister: Margaret Thatcher, 1979

The Iron Lady needs no introduction, but so colossal is her reputation that it’s easy to forget the size of the glass ceiling she smashed in 1979. She became Britain’s first female Prime Minister fresh from being the first female Leader of the Opposition, and took over a parliament that was 97 per cent male.

She famously declared that: “If you want something said, ask a man, if you want something done, ask a woman”.

4. First female Speaker of the House: Betty Boothroyd, 1992

Something of a legend in Westminster, and admired by both sides of the House, the redoubtable Dewsbury-born Boothroyd was elected Speaker in 1992, a Labour MP under a Conservative government.

Famously even-handed in her judgments, “Madam Speaker” didn’t just hold her own in parliament, she dominated it through will and wit, partly because it was her job, and partly, one suspects, because it was fun.

She was a vocal opponent of all-women shortlists – “if men and women are equal intellectually, they should be treated equally” – and has not always seen eye-to-eye with modern feminism, but few can doubt her contribution to the cause. Boothroyd remains the only female Speaker the UK’s ever had, alongside 157 men.

5. First woman in a Great Office of State (apart from Prime Minister): Margaret Beckett, 2006

Extraordinarily, 27 years passed between Thatcher entering Downing Street and a woman first occupying one of the other Great Offices of State – Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Beckett was promoted to Foreign Secretary in 2006. Her record-breaking career also involved being the first female deputy leader of the Labour Party, the first woman ever to run for party leader, and, as of 2017, parliament’s longest serving female MP.