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The first Female Speaker of the UK House of Commons, Baroness Boothroyd, Dies at 93

The first Female Speaker of the UK House of Commons, Baroness Boothroyd, Dies at 93

On Baroness Boothroyd’s retirement as Speaker, the then-leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, stated, “As the first female Speaker, her place in history is assured.”

Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, has died at the age of 93.

Current House Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle stated: “Betty Boothroyd was not only an inspiring woman, but also an inspiring politician, and I was proud to call her my friend.

“Being the first female Speaker was truly revolutionary, and Betty broke the glass ceiling with style.”

“Betty was exceptional. I will miss this intelligent, witty, and formidable woman “he added.

Baroness Boothroyd, who was born into a working-class family in Dewsbury in 1929, was first exposed to politics through her mother’s membership in the women’s section of the Labour Party.

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Baroness Boothroyd was frequently taken to rallies where Labour giants such as Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan addressed large crowds, and she would later follow in their footsteps.

But not before a foot infection cruelly ended the talented dancer’s hopes of storming the West End with the dance group the Tiller Girls at the tender age of 25.

The journey began with a move to London in the early 1950s after obtaining a position as secretary to two Labour MPs, Barbara Castle, and Geoffrey de Freitas.

During this decade, Baroness Boothroyd made two unsuccessful attempts to become a Member of Parliament; in her first attempt, she finished less than 7,000 votes behind the Conservative candidate in the 1957 Leicester South East by-election.

Following two defeats, Baroness Boothroyd traveled to the United States in 1960 to work on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign after he was elected the Democratic nominee.

Baroness Boothroyd toured the United States with the Democratic senator Estes Kefauver before joining the staff of the left-leaning Republican congressman Silvio Conte.

After spending two years in the United States, she returned to the United Kingdom and began working as the political assistant to Labour minister Lord Harry Walston.

Baroness Boothroyd won the seat of West Bromwich for the Labour Party on her fifth attempt in 1973, becoming an MP for the Labour Party.

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She is believed to have stated that this would be her last attempt to enter Parliament, but she won the election by a margin of more than 8,000 votes.

At the time, 27 women were serving in the House of Commons.

Baroness Boothroyd became an assistant government whip for the Labour Party, ensuring that members of the House of Commons were present to vote on crucial pieces of legislation.

She was elected to the European Parliament in 1975 and became an outspoken advocate for the common market.

After her appointment to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen in 1979, Baroness Boothroyd’s political influence continued to increase.

In 1987, the Labour MP was appointed Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, a position she held until 1992 when Bernard “Jack” Weatherill announced his intention to step down as Speaker.

Some Labour colleagues persuaded Baroness Boothroyd to run to replace him because she had already demonstrated her great authority and conviction.

John Brooke, a Conservative Member of Parliament, contested her appointment, but Baroness Boothroyd won a vote by a margin of 372 to 234 votes.

As a result, Baroness Boothroyd became the first female Speaker of the House of Commons and the first member of the opposition to be elected to the position, garnering overwhelming support from both sides of the chamber.

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In her acceptance speech, she stated, “Elect me for who I am, and not for who I was born.”

During her first time presiding as Speaker, then-Burnley MP Peter Pike asked her, “What do we call you?”

She responded, “Please call me Madam,” to a crowded Commons chamber.

Baroness Boothroyd modernized the position of Speaker by refusing to wear the traditional wig – a decision approved by MPs – and by concluding each week’s Prime Minister’s Questions with her catchphrase, “Time’s up!”

As soon as television coverage of the Commons began, she became a household name due to her adherence to the rules and straightforward manner.

Baroness Boothroyd once reminded members of parliament that her role was to “ensure that opinion-holders, no matter how unpopular, are allowed to express their views.”

During her tenure, however, she expelled only one member of parliament: then-DUP leader Ian Paisley, who had accused a minister of lying and was subsequently suspended for 10 days.

She also controversially prohibited women from breastfeeding during the hearings of select committees.

Baroness Boothroyd presided over acrimonious debates on the European Union, but described Nelson Mandela’s state visit and address to parliament in 1996 as “my most memorable moment as Speaker.”

Mr. Mandela had taken her hand before their entrance into Westminster Hall for a ceremony.

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Baroness Boothroyd’s tenure coincided with Conservative prime minister Sir John Major’s attempts to defend his narrow majority and Labour’s 1997 landslide victory.

Her reelection in 1997 was unopposed.

Baroness Boothroyd resigned as Speaker in 2000 after eight years of presiding over Members of Parliament with a firm demeanor and a sense of humor.

During this period, she addressed the Indian Lok Sabha twice, the Russian Duma once, and the majority of European parliaments.

She also welcomed many political figures, including former French President Jacques Chirac, to Parliament.

Before she delivered her farewell address in the House of Commons, parliamentary staff lined up to applaud her.

Her motto as Speaker was “I speak to serve,” and she insisted that it is the responsibility of the legislature to control the current government.

In her farewell speech on 26 July, Baroness Boothroyd criticized moves toward a more presidential style, stating that prime ministers “can be toppled easily” and that parliament “is the chief forum of the nation – today, tomorrow, and, I hope, forever.”

She became a life peer in 2001, assuming the title Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell in the West Midlands.

Her autobiography was published in the same year.

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In 2005, Queen Elizabeth II awarded her the Order of Merit, which is given to those “who have rendered eminent service in the armed forces or distinguished themselves in science, art, literature, or the promotion of culture.”

After her retirement, Baroness Boothroyd did not fear speaking her mind on political matters.

In 2018, she intensified the pressure on then-Speaker John Bercow to fulfill his pledge to resign later that year.

She argued that he should resign mid-parliament as a “courtesy” to MPs rather than waiting until the next general election.

In April 2019, Baroness Boothroyd called for a second Brexit referendum at a rally organized by The People’s Vote.

During an interview in 2021, she stated that PMQs had “deteriorated significantly over the past few years,” adding, “It’s not as good as it once was.”

She added as the party gate scandal was unfolding: “The prime minister is present to answer questions regarding government actions and inactions.

“I do not believe that prime ministers have answers to every question. They have not. However, they should at least attempt it and make an effort, which is not the case today.”

On her retirement as Speaker, the then-leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, stated, “As the first female Speaker, her place in history is assured.”

Tony Blair stated on Baroness Boothroyd’s 90th birthday that he was “somewhat in awe” of the former Speaker after she reprimanded him for entering Parliament’s terrace in sweatpants and jeans as a young MP.

Sir John Major stated that the politician from Dewsbury had entered the “Pantheon of National Treasures.”

Baroness Boothroyd died childless and unmarried, having prioritized her career.

She is the only woman to serve as Speaker of the House of Commons in over 700 years.