The gender gap in general elections – particularly notable in the immediate post-war period – has led historians to interrogate Labour’s apparent recurring failures to successfully appeal to women voters. Yet the Labour Party rarely speaks with one voice-especially on gender. In this paper, I analyse some of the ways that Labour women MPs championed ‘the housewife’ in the House of Commons in the 1940s and 1950s, raising questions around taxation, pensions, healthcare and the supply and cost of food. Labour women MPs did not only claim to represent housewives, they proudly asserted that they were housewives, drawing on their own experiences and expertise as they sought to reshape policy and legislation in the housewife’s interest. This paper thus argues that elements of the party, if not the government, were actively aware of and responsive to women's concerns, while interrogating the political meanings of ‘the housewife’ in this period. Serving as a reminder that narrow definitions of feminist activity can obscure more than they reveal, this paper not only contributes to the growing scholarship highlighting women's activism between the first and second waves, but also begins to extend the rich historiography on women and the Labour Party in the first half of the century into the post-war period.
Lyndsey Jenkins is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. She is a historian of women, politics, and social change. Her first book, Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr, was a Sunday Times biography of the year and shortlisted for the Slightly Foxed/Biographer’s Club Best First Biography Prize. Sisters and Sisterhood: The Kenney Family, Class and Suffrage c.1890-1965 is forthcoming with OUP in November, and her editorial collaboration with Alexandra Hughes-Johnson, The Politics of Women’s Suffrage: Local, National and International Dimensions is due out the same month with the Royal Historical Society.
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