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Honourable Ladies Volume 1

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

The first volume covers the years 1918 to 1996 and contains 168 profiles of women elected to represent constituencies from Aberdeen to Bodmin, each written by a woman.

Outstanding amongst these is the 25 years’ service of the first woman to take her seat in parliament Viscountess Nancy Astor MP. “As with many who are firsts in their field Nancy Astor was an outsider who took an independent and individual line. She had courage, flair and intelligence…Although now as then, some of Astor’s views and actions make her a controversial and sometimes unsympathetic figure, she remains a powerful, remarkable and significant parliamentary pioneer” says Nan Sloane the author of the piece on Lady Astor who represented Plymouth Sutton from 1919 to 1945. Of course, with only 2000 words to sum up this remarkable experience something is bound to be a casualty and for me I would like to have seen a bit more about how well rooted and admired she was in the constituency and how well she represented Plymouth Sutton. She herself said that it may have been women who put her in parliament – but it was the people of Plymouth who kept her there! She was, as Sloane points out, spectacularly good at dealing with hecklers and revelled in the challenges of debate. Her wit was legendary, including the quote on the back cover of the book “Women have got to make the world safer for men since men have made it so darned unsafe for women”.

Eight other women were elected to represent seats in Devon and Cornwall between 1919 and 1996. From 1945 to 1951 Lucy Middleton represented Plymouth Sutton. The profile I wrote about Lucy appears elsewhere on this blog.

Dame Janet Fookes represented Plymouth Drake from 1974-1997. She writes about Dame Joan Vickers, Devonport’s MP from 1955-1974. “I nearly fell into the Thames when I first beheld Dame Joan Vickers…She was elegantly dressed in navy blue with a massive choker of pearls around her neck but sporting hair an amazing shade of deep blue!” Dame Janet does full justice to the fight Vickers had to become selected and elected and the formidable contribution which she made during the two decades she was in Westminster campaigning on equal pay and equal guardianship of children. Inevitably as a dockyard constituency MP, but unusually for a woman during those years, she spoke regularly in defence debates and with a deep understanding that was widely admired.

The essay on Dame Janet herself is written by journalist Bridie Pearson-Jones. It covers her early years at Westminster as MP for Merton and Morden from 1970-74 as well as her thirteen years serving the Plymouth Drake constituency. Fookes was only the second woman to hold the role of Second deputy Chairman Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker. Chosen by her fellow MP’s for this role in the final term of her service, Pearson-Jones describes how Dame Janet used her experience as a teacher to deal with MP’s in a ‘firm but fair’ way and her immense enjoyment of this role, albeit regretting the way it meant giving up select committee work. Pearson-Jones also pays tribute to the work Fookes did on three significant private members Bills including that which became the landmark Sexual Offences Act 1985 addressing the ‘menace of what is usually called kerb crawling’ but also increasing the maximum sentence for attempted rape from seven years to life.

Other women MP’s who represented seats in Devon and Cornwall include Hilda Runciman St Ives 1928-29; Beatrice Wright who represented Bodmin from 1941-45, Gwyneth Dunwoody, Exeter 1966-1970; Emma Nicholson, Torridge and West Devon 1987-1997; and Angela Browning who represented Tiverton (Tiverton & Honiton) from 1992- 2010.

Hon. Ladies Vol 1 was published during the hundredth anniversary year of the legislation which gave some women over 30 the vote for the first time - and the second Act later the same year which allowed women over 21 to stand at elections. It is a book you can pick up and put down and come back to, a great gift for anyone interested in the history of parliament or indeed the changing lives of women in the 20th century

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