I was very excited last week to be interviewed by Jenni Murray about the early female MPs on Woman’s Hour! I was appearing with historian Dr Paula Bartley, who has published a new biography of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister. Paula talked about Ellen, her background, her role in initiating the Jarrow March and how she became a minister during the Second World War.
I talked about what it was like for the small group of women MPs in Parliament in the 1920s, and how Ellen got on with some of the others, including Nancy Astor. It was nerve-racking being on live radio, but great fun too, and fantastic to have the opportunity to share a little bit of information about things like the Lady Members’ Room and how Ellen worked with Astor on issues such as equal franchise. I particularly enjoyed talking about Ellen’s work on the Kitchen Committee, a domestic committee in charge of the refreshment rooms in the House of Commons. In 1928, when Ellen and Mabel Philipson were on the Kitchen Committee, the Committee proposed that Ladies should be admitted to the Dining Room (Strangers) Upstairs.
The female MPs were split – Ellen voted for it and Mabel Philipson against – but the motion passed, that the room be available during dinner for lady guests when accompanied by a member. The Serjeant-at-Arms recommended to the Speaker that this change should not be allowed because the Dining Room was very busy, there was no Ladies’ Cloakroom nearby, and:
‘Undoubtedly many Members of Parliament approve of there being one Dining Room in which male guests only (very often on business connected with the House) can be entertained by them.’
Despite this, the Speaker duly ruled that women could be entertained at dinner. Nancy Astor protested in the House of Commons, ‘Why ladies for dinner only? Do not women need luncheon too?’ Nevertheless it was a victory, and Ellen was again on the Committee in 1930, when the battle resumed over admitting women for lunch.
You can hear our whole interview on the Woman’s Hour website: it’s about 9 minutes long.
You can also watch Paula’s talk about Ellen Wilkinson in Parliament for International Women’s Day 2014 on YouTube: The Mighty Atom.