Maureen Colquhoun: “an open lesbian-feminist woman” in the House of Commons

In our second blog for LGBTQ+ History Month our Public Engagement Manager, Sammy Sturgess, explores the parliamentary career of Maureen Colquhoun who was the first openly lesbian MP, as well as the first openly LGBTQ+ MP…

Maureen Colquhoun was elected as Labour MP for the newly formed constituency of Northampton North in February 1974. This was her second attempt at winning a seat, having lost at Tonbridge at the 1970 general election. She represented the constituency in Parliament until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party swept to power. Although her time in Parliament was short it was not uneventful. When she was first elected, Maureen Colquhoun was married to the author and journalist Keith Colquhoun and the couple lived in Sussex with their three children. But by 1976 Maureen had moved to London with her new partner Barbara Todd and found herself the first openly lesbian MP.

Maureen Colquhoun featured in Diva, June 1994

Todd, co-editor of the lesbian magazine Sappho, had been asked to take part in the committee stage of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act along with other members of the Women’s Rights Campaign and the Women in Media’s Anti Sex Discrimination Action Group. Alongside this, Colquhoun and Todd worked together on a Private Member’s bill that the former introduced to the Commons in 1975: the Balance of Sexes Bill, which aimed to achieve equal representation of women and men in public bodies. Colquhoun confessed in her autobiography that “By the time the House met to debate the second reading of the Balance of the Sexes Bill, I knew that Babs loved me and she knew that I loved her.” Shortly after this Colquhoun came out to her family and moved in with Todd and her two daughters. The couple lived openly although Colquhoun did not publicly announce the relationship. She did, however, appeal to the Speaker to alter her title (Mrs) when being referred to in Parliament and its records, wanting to be known as Ms or Maureen Colquhoun.

The couple planned a joint housewarming and birthday party for Barbara in March 1976 for which they sent out invitations illustrated by Todd’s daughter to friends, family and colleagues (including Labour party members). Shortly after, in April, a story about the couple’s relationship broke in Nigel Dempster’s gossip column in the Daily Mail. Ostensibly, one of the party guests had been blackmailed for information about the couple’s relationship. Subsequently, their Hackney residence and their offices were besieged by journalists vying for photos. Colquhoun’s family, including her husband and 78 year-old mother, were also harangued by the press. The pair’s appeals to the editor of the Daily Mail about the invasion of their privacy were met with ambivalence. Generally, opinions about Colquhoun’s sexuality after her public ‘outing’ were mixed – privately some parliamentary colleagues offered words of support and she had a few loyal friends in her local party, but largely, there was not  an appetite for public demonstrations of homosexuality or support for same-sex relationships in Parliament or politics.

In March the following year Colquhoun became aware of her local party’s plans to deselect her as the Labour candidate for the next general election. Colquhoun felt that ultimately she was deselected due to comments she made condemning the Labour party’s policy for combatting racism, rather than her sexuality. She gave an interview to the journalist Chris Moncrieff about a speech made by Enoch Powell in which she “let off a great deal of steam” about her disillusionment with the Labour party’s lack of action in tackling this issue. However, it also appeared as though she was sympathetic towards Powell, an impression she quickly tried to correct. Conversely, the feminist press deemed that her sexuality was the driving force behind the campaign for her removal. The truth is more complex. Since the Daily Mail story Colquhoun had featured regularly in the local and national press, predominantly being portrayed in a negative light. This, combined with contentions within the Northampton branch of the Labour party, Northampton Council, and her constituency about a wide range of issues including her stance on racism, her feminist beliefs and views on issues such as abortion, her sexuality, and her left-leaning tendencies, resulted in Colquhoun’s deselection in September 1977. However, she successfully appealed the decision at the National Executive Committee. She stood again as the Labour party candidate for Northampton North in the general election of 1979, but lost her seat to the Conservative candidate, Antony Marlow.

Amidst the turbulence of her personal life and the threat of deselection, Colquhoun maintained her fierce spirit in dealing with parliamentary business and political causes. She was undoubtedly a feminist and often found herself frustrated with what she deemed a severe lack of feminist integrity among her fellow female MPs, claiming that “It was almost as if when they got the vote women died, remaining satisfied with the crumbs from the table which still belonged to men.” She campaigned on numerous issues for the improvement of women’s rights, including the campaign for women’s right to an abortion, and she introduced the Protection of Prostitutes Bill to the Commons in 1979. She was satisfied when the National Abortion Campaign served to unite women in Parliament in a way that other issues seemed to fail. She did not, however,  limit herself to ‘women’s issues’ and involved herself in varied business from human rights issues, such as the force feeding of prisoners, to industry and environmental matters, such as North Sea Oil. She called for an overhaul of the political system and advocated for more women’s voices in Parliament and across all parliamentary business to “fight the maleocracy.”

Maureen Colquhoun’s unapologetic individuality often left her at odds with other politicians and made her the subject of negative press. But as the first lesbian to be open about her sexuality in the House of Commons, and an outspoken feminist to boot, she paved the way for other lesbian (and gay) MPs to live openly and contributed to the feminist cause in and outside Parliament.

S.S.

Further reading:

  • Rose Collis, Portraits to the wall: historic lesbian lives unveiled (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)
  • Maureen Colquhoun, A Woman in the House (Shoreham-by-Sea: Scan: 1980)

For all of our blogs about LGBTQ+ History and parliament click here.

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