‘Housewives in the House’: Labour Women MPs in Parliament, 1945-1951

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Lyndsey Jenkins of Queen Mary, University of London. On 23 November 2021, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., she will be responding to your questions about her pre-circulated paper on ‘Housewives and the House: Women Labour MPs and ‘the housewife’ in Parliament in the 1940s and 1950s’. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

In April 1949, the MP for Epping Forest, Leah Manning, explained to the House of Commons that it was perfectly possible to make three meals out of ten pennyworth of mutton – she had done it herself just last week. In the post-war years, Labour women MPs frequently spoke in the chamber of their own experiences: carrying out domestic work, standing in queues, using ration points, making food stretch to the end of the week, and even giving birth.

Labour MP, Dame (Elizabeth) Leah Manning (née Perrett) by Bassano Ltd (1946), CC NPG

Unlike previous generations of women MPs, the vast majority of these women were married.  Twelve had children. Most were in their forties and fifties, and, with a few exceptions, had direct experience of managing a household, frequently alongside both paid work and party activism. Labour women proudly drew on these experiences within their own homes and families to justify their interventions and arguments in Parliament. As housewives and MPs, they claimed they were uniquely positioned to understand the trials and tribulations of hardworking women in the home.

Claire Langhamer has argued that ‘ordinariness’ took on new meaning in the post-war years. Positioned in opposition to ‘experts’ and constituting its own form of expertise, ‘ordinariness’ was an acute political weapon. It was also a gendered identity. The ‘ordinary woman’ was, almost by default, a housewife – a woman who followed a conventional path into domesticity and motherhood. These plainly exceptional women who had embarked on careers in high politics used their own experiences in the home to make political points their male colleagues would not even consider – while also demonstrating that a woman in politics would not neglect her domestic duties.

Asserting their status as a housewife gave women MPs a degree of legitimacy, credibility and authority. It also made them less threatening, since a housewife was the opposite of that alarming creature – the feminist. Adopting the language of housewifery meant women could advocate for women’s causes without appearing too radical. As Caitriona Beaumont has argued, domesticity could be ‘the means through which modern women could assert their right to participate in public life’ – and this held true even in Parliament.

For Labour women, framing themselves as housewives was a useful way to lay claim to political territory that, as David Jarvis has shown, the Conservative Party had long claimed as their own. In the post-war years, the British Housewives League led prominent campaigns against austerity, rationing, food shortages and price controls, and the Tories were delighted to capitalise on their efforts. In this context, Labour women used their own experience and status as housewives to challenge the idea that the Conservative Party represented the authentic voice of the housewife.

Labour MP, Jean Mann by Bassano Ltd, 1946, CC NPG

But Labour women were also aggrieved when they saw their colleagues in government fail to take housewives into account, both because of the impact on women, and because it played into Conservative hands.  They felt the government took the housewife for granted all too easily. As Jean Mann put it

There is all this talk about our fine women, and what a grand job of work they have done, and so on. We are getting just a little tired of listening to it, and we want a little practical consideration for the women going about their household duties.

Hansard, 7 Apr. 1948

Labour women therefore demanded fairness for the housewife. They sought to ease the burdens on poorer housewives, ensuring they did not miss out on things which better off women had the time to seek out and the money to buy. And they argued that the housewife would support the government so long as they were treated honestly.

As a result, while defending the overall strategy on policies around rationing and consumption, Labour women raised frequent concerns about the way they were implemented, and the unequal burdens consciously or unconsciously imposed by government policy which fell on those who were least equipped to manage them.

In my paper for next week’s Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, I analyse when, how, why and with what effects Labour women invoked the figure of the housewife in the House of Commons. I show that using their own experiences as housewives gave them the political space to both critique the government and to resist the opposition.  It also enabled them to further the causes of welfare feminism that Labour women had long championed.

Close attention to the efforts of Labour women MPs in these years challenges longstanding historiographical assumptions about the distance between the Labour movement and the women’s movement in the post-war years. It also contributes to the growing understanding that thinking of feminism in terms of ‘waves’ often conceals more than it reveals.

LJ

To find out more, Lyndsey’s full-length paper is available by signing up to her seminar and contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk. Lyndsey will be taking questions about her research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 23 November 2021.

To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Lyndsey, please send it to seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

Further Reading:

Beaumont, Catriona, Housewives and Citizens: Domesticity and the Women’s Movement in England, 1928-1964 (Manchester, 2013).

Francis, Martin, ‘Labour and Gender’, in Duncan Tanner, Pat Thane, and Nick Tiratsoo (eds.), Labour’s First Century (Cambridge, 2000).

Hannam, June, ‘Women and Labour Politics’, in Matthew Worley (ed.), The Foundations of the British Labour Party: Identities, Cultures and Perspectives, 1900-39 (Farnham, 2009), 171-92.

Hemmings, Clare, ‘Telling Feminist Stories’, Feminist Theory, 6/2 (2005), 115-39.

Hinton, James, ‘Militant Housewives: the British Housewives’ League and the Attlee Government’, History Workshop Journal, 38/1 (1994), 129-56.

Jarvis, David, ‘Mrs Maggs and Betty: The Conservative Appeal to Women Voters in the 1920s’, Twentieth Century British History, 5 (1994), 129-52.

Jarvis, David, ‘The Conservative Party and the Politics of Gender, 1900-39’, in Martin Francis and Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska (eds.), The Conservatives and British Society, 1880-1990 (Cardiff, 1996).

Langhamer, Claire, ”Who the hell are ordinary people?’ Ordinariness as a category of historical analysis.’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 28 (2018), 175-95.

Reger, Jo, ‘Finding a Place in History: The Discursive Legacy of the Wave Metaphor and Contemporary Feminism’, Feminist Studies, 43/1 (2017), 193-221.

Thane, Pat, ‘Visions of gender in the making of the British welfare state: the case of women in the British Labour Party and social policy’, in Gisela Bock and Pat Thane (eds.), Maternity and Gender Policies: Women and the Rise of the European Welfare States, 1880s-1950s (London, 1991).

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina, ‘Rationing, Austerity, and the Conservative Party Recovery After 1945’, Historical Journal, 37 (1994), 173-98.

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina, Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption, 1939-1955 (Oxford, 2000).

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