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Equal rights

Monday, June 8, 2009

The following was published on the website of Progress.



80 years on since the appointment of the first woman to the cabinet, we still have a long way to go to reach equality.


Today marks 80 years since the appointment of the first woman as a Cabinet Minister and Privy Councillor. Margaret Bondfield was one of the first three Labour women MPs, was appointed as the first female junior Minister and then joined the Cabinet as Minister of Labour on 8 June 1929.


Born in Chard, Somerset, in 1873 her parents were textile workers and her working life began in a draper’s shop when she was fourteen. In 1894, following her move to London, she was elected to the Shop Assistants’ Union district council and subsequently elected Assistant Secretary. She investigated the pay and conditions of shop workers for the Women’s Industrial Council, and in 1908 became secretary of the Women’s Labour League. In 1923 she was President of the TUC General Council.


She was elected as the Labour MP for Northampton in 1923 at her third attempt, losing the seat in the subsequent General Election. Following a by-election in Wallsend constituency she returned to parliament in 1926. Her interest in the world of work and the role of the women continued - her maiden speech focused on the problems women were facing in gaining employment. She lost her seat in the 1931 General Election and never returned to parliament.


It was to be another 14 years before the next woman, Ellen Wilkinson, joined the Cabinet, and only since 1992 have there been Cabinets with continuous female representation. Margaret Thatcher had no other women in her Cabinet from the Commons, only Baroness Young from the Lords from 1982 to 1983. John Major’s first two years were with an all male Cabinet. In 1992 Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shepherd joined for the life time of the parliament.


Up to last Friday’s reshuffle Labour since 1997 has had 18 women in the Cabinet, four of them from the House of Lords. The high point was with Tony Blair as Prime Minister, with 8 women out of 23 posts in his final Cabinet. The Parliamentary Labour Party had 27% female membership so Blair achieved a higher proportion as Ministers and in Cabinet than the representation of his party in parliament.


Following the resignations of Jacqui Smith, still the only female Home Secretary, and Hazel Blears, there are now only 3 female full Cabinet members from the Commons and one from the Lords. There’s never been a female Defence Secretary or Chancellor, illustrating that women continue to face barriers, and proof that we still have a long way to go to reach equality.

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