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‘A trailblazer’: Harriet Harman pays tribute to Betty Boothroyd

Betty Boothroyd: 8 October 1929 – 26 February 2023 | Alamy

3 min read

An outstanding parliamentarian, as the first woman speaker Betty Boothroyd broke not one but numerous glass ceilings.

Betty Boothroyd broke not just one but numerous glass ceilings. She was the first, and only, woman ever to have been elected to the Speaker’s Chair.

She came from a Yorkshire working class family and worked for Labour MPs Barbara Castle and Geoffrey de Freitas. Before being elected she was a Tiller Girl – a popular dance troupe. She stood for Parliament no fewer than four times before being elected in a by-election in West Bromwich in 1973.

No doubt there will be another woman speaker, but there will never be another Betty Boothroyd

Nothing about her route into Parliament was done the easy way. She joined a Parliament as yet untouched by feminism, where 97 per cent of MPs were men. Yet 19 years later she was elected to the Speaker’s Chair despite Parliament being still 90 per cent men. She achieved that by being utterly professional, totally dedicated, razor sharp and more energetic and committed that anyone else.

Above all she was tough and dedicated. She proved herself as deputy speaker and that’s how she was as speaker. She held the House to the standards she set herself. She was intolerant of mistakes. The importance of being an MP meant that you should be better. She came down like a ton of bricks on loutish behavior because she expected Parliament to set an example to the country.

During a rowdy session in the Commons when I was speaking for the Labour opposition, the then-Conservative MP Tony Marlow shouted out that I was a “stupid cow”. Betty rebuked him and forced him to withdraw. She was not being protective of me – she was protecting Parliament from being the sort of place where people hurl insults.

I was in awe of her but I was also in fear of her. Some speakers would call a new MP into their office to give them advice and a warning if they got something wrong. But Betty’s way was more direct and she would slap you down in the Chamber. This was not to exercise authority for its own sake but because she believed as soon as you were elected you must get it right.

She was always immaculately groomed. That was her way of showing respect for Parliament and she expected the same from all of us. Having a woman in such a position of authority in Parliament was of enormous symbolic importance to the United Kingdom in the 1990s where men dominated in every sphere of life.

And she was an icon for this country abroad. When I was in the United States, the first thing I’d be asked was did I know Betty and then told how marvelous they thought she was.

She was a remarkable woman, an outstanding parliamentarian, and a trail blazer. No doubt there will be another woman speaker, but there will never be another Betty Boothroyd.


Harriet Harman, Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and Mother of the House.

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