Maureen Colquhoun was the first openly lesbian member of the UK parliament, and championed many causes back in the 70’s – many which would still be in vogue today, indicative perhaps of the lack of policy progress in some areas, particularly for women and persons of colour.
Colquhoun died just last week, on the February 2, to little viral news on the subject, nor many accolades despite her historic position and what she attempted to achieve for women.
Maureen Morfydd Colquhoun was raised in a politically active household in East Sussex and joined the Labour Party in her late teens. She then studied at LSE where she was awarded a degree in Economics, and later worked as a literary research assistant before unsuccessfully contesting the former parliamentary constituency of Tonbridge in the 1970 General Election.
Between 1971 and 1974 Maureen was a member of West Sussex County Council and at her second attempt was elected to the House of Commons in February 1974, as representative for the newly-created Northampton North constituency. She used her maiden speech in Parliament (March 1974) to highlight the impact of the Three-Day Week on her constituents, to reinforce Labour’s manifesto commitment to addressing the pricing crisis, and spoke on achieving equality in the pensions system.
In 1975 she introduced the Balance of Sexes Bill with the objective to require men and women on public bodies in equal numbers.
She had identified 4500 jobs appointed by Ministers, and 174 public bodies that were almost entirely male. In her speech to introduce the second reading of the Bill, she commended changes that had been made to the nominations process for the ‘central list’ from which candidates for government bodies could be selected, although she doubted that it was sufficiently broad to encourage applications from all areas of society.
During a Common’s debate in March 1975, Maureen brought to the attention of the House that remarkably, after over an hour of debate, not a single woman had been called to speak on the Sex Equalities Bill. In her remarks on the Bill, Maureen challenged the discriminatory language set to appear in statute, where “he” was used throughout the text to describe persons suffering discrimination.
She questioned why “s/he” wasn’t used in the text:
“…does this mean that we are to have a commission of men and one statutory woman? Surely in this Bill above all others, it is vital that at least 50% of the commissioners should be women.”
The Bill did not become law.
In 1979, she introduced the Protection of Prostitutes Bill into the House of Commons, turning up with 50 prostitutes in order to campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution.
From fervently supporting womens rights in a time before the advent of female liberation to much disdain from her peers, to advocating for equality for all, Maureen Colquhoun was a Labour MP with a strong sense of social activism that motivated her throughout her entire career.
Although feminism was a strong politcal movement by the 1970’s, the landscape for women and LGBT women in particular was very different to what we see now. A majority of women were still in the home traditionally, with little legal provisions for childcare to allow women to endevour a career. Traditional gender roles were slowly eroding, although much prejudice still existed towards those with different lifestyles, be that single women, lesbians trying to start a family, or women who were the breadwinners.
In law, being a lesbian was never codefied as a crime in the UK, with amusing anecdotal stories about Queen Victoria not knowing what a lesbian was and therefore never criminalising it. However, this does not mean lesbians could publicly exist without extreme, often sexist scrutiny, and much like gay men, many lesbians kept their relationships behind closed doors and known to their friends or family only, and experienced ridicule for not adhering to a traditional relationship.
It is important to understand the contextual environment for LGBT individuals and women at the time to understand how impactful and meaningful Colquhoun’s public display of her sexuality was. She faced extreme scrutiny over her political views and sexuality and was unashamedly bold in both.
Due to lesbiamism not being illegal in law, Colquhoun and other LGBT women often championed policies which would seek to end traditional gender roles that restricted women rather than outright lesbian legislation. The fight to end conventional gender roles paved the way for individuals to deviate from this traditional norm, whether that be in sexuality or gender expression. While not directly fighting for exclusively lesbian rights, Colquhoun indirectly did this by campaigning for an end to female subjugation and more female empowerment, allowing women the building blocks to explore their sexuality by not requiring financial assistance from males.
In February 1976, Colquhoun asked the then Commons Speaker George Thomas to refer to her as “Ms.” instead of “Mrs”.
It was the first time such a request had been made. Mr Speaker Thomas responded by letter: “In the interests of the House, I think I must continue to use some form of prefix, but I will endeavour to slur it in such a way as to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, the audible distinction between ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss'”.
It really was still controversial in 1976 to go by “Miss”. The expectation for a women of Colquhoun’s age to remain married to a man was firmly embedded in society. She requested this prefix change after her divorce from her husband when she subsequently began a relationship with editor of Sappho magazine, Barbara ‘Babs’ Todd.
Colquhoun was eventually thought difficult and unelectable after her first stint due to her views.
She was eventually deselected due to her sexuality and feminist views, with Labour Party members actually citing her sexuality as a reason they would not reselect her for candidacy.
In late September 1977, members of her constituency party’s General Management Committee voted by 23 votes to 18, with one abstention, to deselect her, citing her “obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights”. Yes, they did refer to women’s rights as a triviality – an attitude that pervaded throughout politics until the 90’s, with a massive resurgence of support in the 2010’s.
The local party chairman Norman Ashby said at the time that “She was elected as a working wife and mother … this business has blackened her image irredeemably”.
“My sexuality has nothing whatever to do with my ability to my job as an MP”, Colquhoun insisted in an article for Gay News in October 1977.
The vote by her constituency party was overruled in January 1978, as supporters of Colquhoun appealed to the National Executive Committee, who agreed that Colquhoun had been unfairly dismissed owing to her sexual orientation.
Colquhoun desired to put the past behind her and work with her local party, but the Vice-Chair of the General Management Committee said he thought that was impossible as many members were unwilling to work for Colquhorn’s re-election, the prospects for which he thought were not promising.
Unfortunately the Vice-Chair was correct in his prediction. At the 1979 general election, she lost her seat to the Conservative Antony Marlow on an 8% swing.
Following Colquhoun’s defeat as an MP, she worked as an assistant to other Labour MPs in the House of Commons, and was elected to Hackney London Borough Council, serving as a member of the council from 1982 to 1990.
Featured Image Credit: Maureen protesting with Gay Defence Committee December 1977. Getty Images