Written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer
The general election of December 1923 saw the first three women MPs elected for the Labour Party. The three women were Margaret Bondfield, Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson. These three joined a total of eight women MPs in Parliament, the other five being Nancy Astor, the first women MP to take her seat in 1919; Duchess of Atholl; Lady Terrington; Margaret Wintringham; and Mrs Hilton Philipson.
Margaret Bondfield (1879-1953) was heavily involved with the trade union movement, often focused on women worker’s rights. In 1906 she established the first women’s general union, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), with Mary Macarthur. She also helped found the Women’s Labour League with several other women, and became the leader of the Adult Suffrage Society. In 1918 she was the first woman elected to the general council of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and in 1923 the first woman to chair the TUC council.
Bondfield was first elected as MP for Northampton in the 1923 election, holding her seat from 6 December 1923 to 9 October 1924. In January 1924 she became first female junior minister as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, and with this role was the first women to be invited to the House of Commons Speaker’s dinner – a great honour.
She lost the next general election but was re-elected for Wallsend in a by-election on 21 July 1926. Following the 1929 general election, Bondfield was appointed as Minister of Labour, becoming the first woman cabinet minister and privy counsellor. She can be seen in this photograph of the 1929 Labour Party cabinet, more than a head shorter than the surrounding men.
During her term as Minister of Labour, the largest issue was rising unemployment. As Minister of Labour from 1929 to 1931, during the peak of the Great Depression, Bondfield had to try and reduce unemployment and provide benefits for the rising number of unemployed people - an impossible task. This led to a collapse in her political reputation, and she lost her seat in the 1931 election.
Susan Lawrence (1871-1947) had been actively involved in local politics much earlier, as a member of the London County Council. Initially a Conservative member on the Council 1910-1912, she re-joined as a Labour member from 1913 to 1927 and became the deputy chairman of the Council in 1925-1926. From 1919-1924 she was also a member of the Poplar Local Council and was involved in the Poplar rates rebellion. Find out more about this event on our blog Parliament and the 1921 Poplar Rates Rebellion. As a result of this, those involved were sent to prison. Lawrence and four other women were sent to Holloway prison for 5 weeks.
A few years later, Lawrence was elected as an MP for East North in the 1923 election, holding her seat from 6 December 1923 to 28 October 1924. She was the first woman MP elected for a London constituency. On 9 January 1924, the same day she was sworn in as an MP, Lawrence was included in the ‘Fetters and Roses’ Dinner, a dinner held in the House of Commons for Ex-Prisoner MPs.
Lawrence lost her seat in the 1924 election but regained her seat for East Ham North in 1926 and remained in that seat from 21 July 1926 to 27 October 1931. In 1929, she was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health and in 1930 she was the first woman to chair the Labour Party Conference. The conference was held in Llandudno, North Wales. This newspaper article covers the conference, including Lawrence’s opening address speech.
Dorothy Jewson (1884-1964) was active within the suffrage campaign as a member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). In 1912, Dorothy and her brother researched poverty and poor relief in Norwich and published a pamphlet, ‘The Destitute of Norwich and how they Live: A Report into the Administration of out Relief’. During the First World War she used her teaching certificate to help run a training centre for unemployed girls under 17. Also, in 1916 she was invited by Mary Macarthur to be an organiser for the NFWW and worked closely alongside Margaret Bondfield.
Jewson was elected as MP for Norwich in the 1923 election, holding her seat from 6 December 1923 to 28 October 1924, and was the first of the three Labour women to be sworn in as MPs on 9 January 1924. She gave her maiden speech in the House of Commons on 29 February 1924, on the issue of equalising the age at which women could vote, seconding the motion by William Adamson proposing the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill. Both Dorothy Jewson and Susan Lawrence were on the Standing Committee for this Bill. Equal franchise was later achieved by the Equal Franchise Act 1928.
After losing her seat in the 1924 election, Jewson was never re-elected as an MP. Although her career as an MP was short, she continued in local politics, serving on the Norwich County Council from 1929 to 1936.
Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer
Some archive documents featured in this blog can be seen in a Parliamentary Archives display on Parliament’s line of route tour. The First Labour Women MPs is on display in the Royal Gallery, House of Lords, from December 2023 to March 2024. The display was curated by Katherine Emery. Graphic Design by the House of Commons Design Team.