Politics

Betty Boothroyd: From campaigning for JFK to becoming the first female speaker

The late Betty Boothroyd lived through an age of momentous politics. She shared the highs and lows with The Big Issue

Betty Boothroyd

Betty Boothroyd, images taken for The Big Issue by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Betty Boothroyd, the first woman to be elected speaker of the House of Commons, has died at the age of 93.  

Boothroyd was MP for West Bromich West from 1973 until 2000. She took on one of the most prominent positions in Parliament when made speaker in 1992, remaining in the post until 2000. She then became a baroness in the House of Lords in 2001.

Politics was not just a way of life for Boothroyd, it was much more important than that.  

“Politics is not a job to me. It is like miner’s coal dust under my finger nails. You can’t scrub it out,” she told The Big Issue in an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of becoming speaker in 2017. 

Boothroyd recalled how her background fed into her politics.  

“I came out of the womb into the Labour movement,” she said. “I come from a working-class family in a mill town in Yorkshire, I was an only child, my parents were textile workers when they worked. And my father was unemployed a lot of the time. 

“The big issues I grew up with were employment, jobs and opportunities, housing and environment. And when I say environment, that was a posh word then for the conditions in which we lived – the mean narrow streets, the dark satanic mills.” 

Boothroyd recalled Labour League of Youth rallies in Huddersfield, Leeds and Wakefield where she was inspired by speeches from Clement Atlee (“my great hero”), Jennie Lee, Betty Braddock, Nye Bevan and Alice Bacon.  

“My family thought I could get a nice job in the Town Hall for a couple of years and then I’d be married off and someone would take care of me,” she said. “But I remain an unclaimed treasure! I have had to fight my own way.” 

Betty Boothroyd stands for Parliament, 1957
Betty Boothroyd stands for Parliament, 1957

Boothroyd first stood for Parliament in Leicester South East in 1957, with further unsuccessful campaigns to follow in Peterborough (1959), Nelson and Colne (1968) and Rossendale (1970).  

But even before becoming an MP at the fifth attempt, Boothroyd was already a regular in and around Parliament. She worked for that other great Labour stalwart Barbara Castle from the late 1950s.  

Boothroyd then took time out to campaign for John F Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential election.  

“I went as an immigrant, £200 in my purse and a return airline ticket just in case. I ended up working on Capitol Hill earning more than a British MP did at that time. Can you believe it?”   

She had to fight to win over local party members in West Bromwich West, where she would serve from 1973-2000. But Boothroyd was not one to back down.  

“At my selection, one woman said: ‘The women here won’t vote for you because you don’t know what it is like to be married, to have a tough time, to bring up children, peel potatoes!’ This was anti-woman,” she recalled.  

“I didn’t answer the question. I just said: ‘Because I have never been married, it has given me more time to look after the likes of you.’” 

Boothroyd also shared her youthful ambition before she realised politics was a possibility.  

“I had ambitions to work as a window dresser in Dewsbury,” she said. “I thought it would be lovely. All the ribbons and bras and corsets and knickers. I never reached the height of my great ambition in that respect. 

“So if you were to say to me I would be known nationally and be the first citizen of this country, which is what the Speaker is, I would have laughed in your face. I would never have believed it.  

“My career has been a lot of hard work. It came very late. And I had to work very hard for everything that I got. I took a lot of knockbacks.” 

In 1992, Boothroyd took on the role that would define her career, becoming the first woman in Parliament’s history to become Speaker with 60.98% of the vote. Five years later, by now also Chancellor of the Open University, Boothroyd was in the House of Commons to welcome a new generation of women into politics.  

“I felt an enthusiasm when Blair came in and I was delighted that more women came into the House at that time, that was great,” she said. “But I tell you what I disapproved of – I wasn’t very happy about what was called ‘The Blair Babes’. The experience I’d had of getting through the glass ceiling was tough. And every woman is a human being in their own right. They are not someone else’s babe.”

Betty Boothroyd, images taken for The Big Issue by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Betty Boothroyd, images taken for The Big Issue by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

It was a typical Boothroyd answer. Astute, combative, unswerving. Little wonder that controlling the rough and tumble in the house became a Boothroyd speciality. As the first speaker whose tenure was entirely televised, she became fixture on the nightly news.  

“It is the best job in the world and I loved every minute of it,” she said.  

“It was a real challenge to someone like me, who wasn’t highly educated. But I think I made the right decisions.  

“I spoke in the House of Representatives in the US, the Russian Dumar, the Indian Lok Sabha, and at parliaments all over Europe representing this house. I was so proud. It stimulated me. It was a better education than going to Oxford or Cambridge. 

“I don’t mind an argumentative and noisy chamber,” she continued. “I have never wanted a morgue, I have been to many parliaments around the world where someone makes a speech and there is silence – no intervention, no debate. That is not what I want here.

“People have a hard job getting elected. They come here and want to change the flow of the Thames. They have every right to speak and let their passion out. But when they get too obstreperous you put your foot down – like with children.” 

Boothroyd was created a life peer in 2001, as Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell, before being award the Order of Merit by The Queen in 2005. She continued to make her voice heard – on Brexit, on David Cameron’s liberal distribution of peerages, and on the future of politics in this country. She detailed her plans to evolve the House of Lords into a highly skilled, slimmed down chamber of experts – even if it would have put her out of a job.  

“I think people over the age of 80 should retire, which includes me!” she said. “But I will only go when I have got legislation through parliament to see there is retirement at 80. I am not going alone – I will take a lot more with me. And I am going to stick it out here until I do.”

Betty Boothroyd reading The Big Issue
Betty Boothroyd, image: Adrian Lobb

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