First Women Peers Enter Lords
Reform of the House of Lords to this day is a topic of heated debate as it has remained throughout the century since the 1911 Parliament Act asserted the supremacy of the Commons. The anachronism of hereditary power (and power through religious office) even for reduced numbers is still an annoyance to most liberal minds. But at least since 1958 the House of Lords has included women peers, a situation disgracefully resisted for generations even after women, or at least some of them, got the vote in 1918 .
The inclusion of women in the Lords can almost be regarded as an accidental reform, their entry enabled by the Life Peerages Act passed in July the same year which was needed to inject new and more vigorous blood into the thickly clotted arteries of the second chamber. Male hereditary peers were living longer, and rather than bringing greater wisdom as is often argued now, at that time brought disrepute through poor attendance and generally falling asleep when they did make it.
Four women were named in the first list of life peers put forward for royal approval by Harold Macmillan : Dame Katherine Elliot; the Dowager Lady Reading (who became Baroness Swanborough), founder of the WRVS; the sociologist and left-wing intellectual Barbara Wootton; and Lady Ravensdale. The reform was limited, as so often in British life, in that 10 men were put forward as life peers at the same time; and all four of those women were from upper class backgrounds. First to actually take the oath of allegiance in the House was Lady Reading.
Interestingly Barbara Wootton, the first of the women to receive her letters patent on August 8 1958, had spoken and written against the existence of the Lords, which she saw as undemocratic and in need of removal rather than reform.
Contrary to what Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone famously said, male members of the Lords did not die of shock at seeing women there, nor female members of boredom at what went on. As might have been expected the press focussed on the trivial – hats and would they be worn; the provision of toilet facilities; and robes. Equally unsurprising is the fact that the quartet, with solid records of achievement in public life behind them, rapidly added weight and intellect to the life and work of the house.
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