On this day in history : 21st October 1958 – Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading and Baroness Swanborough is the first woman to take her seat in the House of Lords….
Baroness Swanborough had been heavily involved with charity work for most of her life, including founding the Women’s Voluntary Service in 1938….
“I have no right to speak, except for my experience over many years with a great number of very strong commonsensical women”…. – Stella Isaacs
After the passing of the Life Peerages Act, 1958 women were finally allowed to sit in the Upper House as life Peers…. Baroness Swanborough was not the first woman to be appointed (that went to Baroness Wootton of Abinger) – but she was the first woman to take her seat…. Before 1958 only male hereditary Peers were permitted to sit in the House of Lords, along with a small number of judges (Law Lords) and Bishops…. There were women hereditary Peers but of course they were not allowed to sit…. The Life Peerages Act was passed to address the problem of a decline in the number of members….by opening the way to include life Peers this also opened the channels for women…. Ironically, hereditary ‘Peeresses’ were still excluded until the Peerage Act, 1963….
With women now being allowed into the formerly male dominated establishment certain changes had to be made…. The House of Lords administration had to decide what to call their new female counterparts…. “Peeresses” was favoured by the establishment but the women fought hard to be known as Peers…. Even as late as 1970 there was still resistance to this….but eventually ‘Women Peers’ became accepted….
Another matter was ‘Oh what to wear!’…. It was decided ceremonial dress would consist of a scarlet robe, trimmed with ermine and gold oak leaf lace…. To complete the ensemble a Tricorne hat, designed and made by Ede and Ravenscroft….constructed from lightweight black velour and adorned on the left-hand side by a rosette of gold lace with a gold sequinned button at the centre….
Bathroom facilities were an issue that needed to be addressed…. A ‘Peeresses retiring room’ was allocated, redecorated and furnished…. In 1958 four women took their seats in the House of Lords; by 1971 there were 46 women Peers and the facilities were desperately inadequate…. A letter from the Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod stated two baths and two lavatories were urgently required…. Nowadays there are approximately 200 women Peers…. The first female Chief Whip was Baroness Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe in 1973 and the first woman leader of the House of Lords was Baroness Young in 1981….