A Brief History
On April 27, 1992, Betty Boothroyd made Women’s History by becoming the first woman elected as Speaker of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, ending a 700 year run of a Men’s only club. Merry Olde England (and the rest of the United Kingdom) beat Nancy Pelosi and the United States House of Representatives by a whopping 15 years in electing a woman to its top legislative post. (Nancy Pelosi, the current Speaker of the US House of Representatives, was the first and only female ever elected to that post when she took control of the gavel in 2007, serving as Speaker until 2011, and then re-attaining that post in 2019.)
The daughter of textile workers, Betty first endeavored to pursue a career as a dancer, and attended Dewsbury College of Commerce and Art. She found employment as a dancer until 1952, when, alas, a foot infection derailed her dancing career hopes and she switched to interest in politics, a most propitious choice. Betty did secretarial and clerking work for Members of Parliament during the 1950’s, and after traveling to the United States to observe the Kennedy presidential victory of 1960, she found herself working as a legislative assistant to American Congressman, Silvio Conte (Republican, Massachusetts). Ms. Boothroyd was definitely learning the political ropes. She returned to England (a native resident born in London) and worked for various political figures until seeking office on her own merits. She was elected to the Hammersmith Borough Council in London in 1965, serving as such until 1968.
After 4 failed attempts to be elected to the House of Commons, Betty finally hit paydirt in 1973 when she took a seat on the lower legislative house of Parliament, representing West Bromwich in the West Midlands of England. Her abilities gained her appointments to positions of power and trust, including appointment as a Member of the European Parliament (1975-1977), an Assistant Government Whip (1974) and appointment to several important committees.
In 1987, Betty’s career went up a significant rung on the ladder when she was elected Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, a role she filled for 5 years until finally winning election as Speaker of the House of Commons, an historic event for her, for Parliament, for England and the UK, and for women everywhere. She served as Speaker under Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair until 2000 when she resigned her post, taking a new post as Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds. Such machinations are required in the UK as members of Parliament are not permitted to resign unless they are “appointed to an office of profit.” She now sits as a “Crossbench Peer” in the House of Lords, a sort of MP Emeritus if you will. She had been made a “Life Peer” in 2001, gaining the title Baroness Boothroyd.
Boothroyd was always interested in generating interest in politics among the young, and in in education in general. She served as chancellor of the largest university in the UK, the Open University, from 1994 to 2006. Of course, Betty has also earned many accolades and honors during her life, such as honorary degrees, the praise of the powerful, and royal mention, as well as being a fellow of many institutions.
Now 90 years old, Betty never married or had children, devoting her life to her work, and a considerable body of work it has been.
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For more information, please see…
Boothroyd, Betty. Betty Boothroyd: The Autobiography. Random House UK, 2002.
Routledge, Paul. Madam Speaker: The life of Betty Boothroyd. HarperCollins, 1995.
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