Life Peerages Act 1958: First Women Life Peers

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the announcement of the first life peers after the passing of the Life Peerages Act, 1958. This Act also allowed women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time so this blog is July’s installment of the Women and Parliament series. We are delighted to hear from guest blogger Dr Duncan Sutherland, a historian who has worked on women in Parliament for several years. Today he considers the experiences and contributions of the first four women life peers…

Life Peerages Act 1958

When the government announced the creation of life peers in 1958 to help revitalise the moribund Second Chamber, there was particular interest in who the first women appointed would be. Among those suggested but not chosen were Nancy Astor, former Suffragist Marjory Corbett Ashby and the elderly former Conservative Party activist Caroline Bridgeman. Three women passed over in 1958 would receive peerages in the 1960s: Clementine Churchill, MP Frances Davidson and Violet Bonham-Carter. Churchill was suggested by lawyer Edward Iwi, who had agitated for women’s admission to the Lords in the 1940s and also – curiously – proposed a life peerage for Princess Margaret.

The four women among the first fourteen life peers were described as ‘making history without unduly disturbing it’ and three were following husbands or fathers into Parliament (Oakley, A Critical Woman, p. 21). They were Stella Isaacs (1894-1971), the dowager Lady Reading who became Baroness Swanborough; Katharine Elliot (1903-1994), who had recently stood in the by-election to succeed her late husband Walter Elliot; Irene Curzon (1896-1966), daughter of anti-Suffragist Lord Curzon and already the second Baroness Ravensdale; and sociologist and magistrate Barbara Wootton (1897-1988).

Ravensdale had inherited her father’s barony in 1925 and was told by anti-feminist Lord Chancellor Birkenhead that he would be delighted to meet her anywhere but in the Lords. But by 1958, from all known accounts, women peers met with a warmer welcome than early women MPs had received. Baroness Elliott described the peers as extremely kind and felt at home, having known a number of members for many years. This would also have been true for Baronesses Swanborough and Ravensdale.

Wootton detected occasional condescension, such as over-effusive praise for her speeches. But she’d been nowhere else that women were treated more equally and said they had no cause for complaint, especially in terms of eventual front bench representation. She herself became deputy speaker in 1965, five years before any woman MP attained this position. The only recorded sour note came from Lord Glasgow, who had opposed women’s entry. When a colleague stated that Ravensdale was doing a good job, he replied ‘When I see that long neck…I wish I had my chopper and I would go ‘chop, chop, chop’.”(Longford, Intent, pp.138-9)

After waiting thirty-three years to enter Parliament, and having campaigned for women peers’ rights, Crossbencher Baroness Ravensdale was anxious for women to make an auspicious debut. She felt they had to be dignified, cautious and wise and only speak on issues they knew well. Unfortunately in January 1959 she was indisposed and missed the debate on admitting her fellow hereditary women peers. Ravensdale spoke infrequently but drew upon her forty years of East End voluntary work, taking a special interest in youth services.

Her memorable speech on the 1960 Street Offences Act caused a stir by describing girls in seedy clubs charging ‘a “fiver” (your Lordships will forgive my being so sordid and vulgar) for a long spell and £1 for a quick bash’ (Hansard HOL, 1 June 1960). The Daily Mirror praised her ‘guts’ in both touring East End vice dens and speaking so bluntly, though most newspapers could not bring themselves to print her speech’s most vivid passage (Daily Mirror, 3 June 1960).

It had been said of her fellow Crossbencher Baroness Swanborough, the outstanding founding chairman of the Women’s Voluntary Service, that were she a man she’d have become prime minister. However as a parliamentarian she was not a frequent contributor. Thirteen months after the life peers took their seats (Swanborough was the first woman to do so), Leader of the House Lord Home mentioned her as one of those who had been less active.

Eventually Swanborough spoke on civil defence, penal matters (especially Prison After-care), and refugees and immigration, which she dealt with as chairman of the Home Office’s Commonwealth immigration advisory council. She was involved with social services and helped pass a private member’s bill enabling local authorities to provide ‘Meals on Wheels’ for pensioners. In debates on Lords reform she was anxious to ensure that a truly independent, non-party element continued in any reformed House. She also took an unusual concern in the well-being of the House’s staff.

Baronesses Wootton and Elliot had the most active parliamentary careers of the four but gave differing replies to questions about women’s role. Wootton later criticised the appointment of so many politicians’ widows in the 1960s and 1970s, stating it had ceased to be a distinction to become a peer, especially for women. Katharine Elliot, a senior Conservative Party official, former county councillor and UN delegate, asserted that such women took their own line. While her own long life with a brilliant politician had been an invaluable education, she didn’t always agree with him. Had she not married an MP she would have stood for Parliament much earlier but they did not both wish to sit in the Commons.

Elliot enjoyed the Upper House and took advantage of the independence peers were afforded, often frustrating the Whips. She believed women had added a lot, saying any discussions were better in mixed rather than single-sex groups. Elliot became the first woman peer to move the Loyal Address, initiated debates on the global refugee problem (an issue of special interest since her time at the UN) and helped enact two private members’ bills. One of these, facilitating greater openness on public bodies, had originated with first-term MP Margaret Thatcher, making it the first act sponsored in both Houses by women. Elliot brought practical common sense to the Lords and by the 1970s felt it was more progressive in some areas than the Commons.

Barbara Wootton disliked assessing women’s contributions distinctly from men’s but felt so long as the House existed, it should not be entirely Tory, Christian and male. It was on these grounds that she accepted membership of an institution whose abolition she had long urged. Recommended by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, she was described as the cleverest left-wing person he and his advisers knew. Parliamentary colleagues also recognised her brilliant mind and some spoke of wishing she had been their teacher.

Yet she was ambivalent about the institution. On accepting the appointment, Wootton later said, she had not realised how futile much of the Lords’ work was. She felt the chamber would be unnecessary if MPs revised legislation properly and suggested that its work could be done with an extra stage in the Commons. However she had a great impact on matters like crime, drugs and penal policy with which she had long dealt as a magistrate (starting even before she became able to vote in 1928). One notable achievement was shepherding the abolition of capital punishment through the House in 1965.

For all the fears about women’s impact evoked over forty years of resistance, even opponents of women’s admission acknowledged that they fitted in and helped renew the House. These pioneering women, especially Elliot and Wootton, set a standard for many women’s contributions in the sixty years since.


Further reading

  • Ann Oakley, A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century (2011)
  • Mari Takayanagi, Melanie Unwin and Paul Seaward (Eds.), Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women (2018)

Duncan also contributed to the ‘Voice and Vote: Women’s place in Parliament’ exhibition (free tickets and information available here) and the guidebook, Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women (2018) – available here.

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