In this blog Mari Takayanagi and Elizabeth Hallam Smith preview the story of Kay Midwinter, one of the pioneering women staff in Parliament featured in their new book, Necessary Women: the Untold Story of Parliament’s Working Women.
In the public mind, Parliament is equated with MPs and Members of the House of Lords debating in their chambers. Although some staff might play visible roles, such as the Doorkeepers in their uniforms and the Clerks sitting in wigs and gowns at the table, they appear almost as part of the furniture – blending in with the Gothic architecture, ritual and ceremony, rather than as individuals. And countless generations of these officials were invariably male – until the first ever female Clerk, Kay Midwinter, arrived in the Commons chamber at the height of the Second World War.
In May 1940, the House of Commons experienced a seismic shock as a woman walked in and stood calmly on the floor, looking around at her new workplace. Although a few women had been present as MPs for some twenty years, this one was different: Kay Midwinter, the first female Clerk in the House of Commons. One of her fellow Clerks, Basil Drennan, wrote to his parents that it had created, ‘a sensation in the Committee Office, a woman amongst all these men and for the first time in history… Another sanctuary gone, I feel.’1
Midwinter later recounted her experiences of working in the Commons:
‘During the war I was standing behind the Speaker’s Chair about 5 or 6 yards from Churchill while he made all his famous war speeches. He used to glare at me as much as to say “What’s this woman doing?” but he never challenged me. I was expecting to be ordered to be removed from the Chamber, but it was great fun and then when it came to laying the Report on the table of the House – you know, my male colleagues said “Oh you’d better not do that, you know, it has never been done by a woman before!” So I said “Well, for that reason I’m going to do it!” So there we are. But really one was up against male prejudice throughout. Absolutely. There was never any question of promotion.’2
Appointed specifically to free up a man for war service, the ‘Girl Clerk’ as she was termed in the press – although she was aged 32 – worked for the House of Commons National Expenditure Committee. Unlike any other female member of staff in Parliament to date, her background was in international relations, with nearly ten years’ experience working for the League of Nations in Geneva. At the point she joined them, the League had enjoyed some successes in resolving international disagreements during the 1920s. Midwinter reflected many years later that ‘this promised a life career in a worthwhile cause, that of helping to preserve peace in the world.’
Unfortunately, the League was not able to preserve peace in the world; its staff contracts were suspended at the outbreak of war and Midwinter came home to Britain in search of a new job. Unlike most staff in Parliament in this period she had no previous connections to the Commons or the Lords – she was recruited after answering an advertisement in the press. Her experience of working with committees helped her to get the job, where she settled in well and was immediately successful. Highly praised by her managers and by Irene Ward and Joan Davidson, the female MPs on the committee, Midwinter made a substantial contribution to the achievements of the National Expenditure Committee. She worked particularly closely with Ward and Davidson on two reports, on the women’s armed services and women factory workers.3
Yet Midwinter was paid less than half the rate of her fellow male Clerks doing exactly the same job as her.4 Ward and Davidson advocated for a better salary for Midwinter with a small measure of success; and then organised a transfer for her to the Foreign Office, where she went in October 1943. There she worked on the winding up of the League of Nations and the setting up of the United Nations. After the war she went on to work for the UN for the rest of her life, first in New York and then back in Geneva, where she settled and died in 1996.
Midwinter’s time in the Commons was an interlude in a lifetime of working on international affairs; she brought broader life experience to the UK Parliament than most of her colleagues, male and female. She was very conscious of being a pioneer, writing that her career was possible ‘mainly because during the war many opportunities in a variety of fields were opened up to women for the first time in which they found themselves competing on an equal footing with men’. Although this is true of her Commons role, she had won it through her ability and her experience at the League of Nations, which she joined on merit aged just 21 in a foreign country. She faced up to inequality in the House of Commons and hostility in the Foreign Office, and successfully held her various jobs by virtue of her skills and experience. In later life she expressed regrets that despite a lifetime of hard work and dedicated service, she remained under-paid and under-promoted because of ‘the prejudice against women in the higher grades in my time’.
Sadly, Midwinter and a few other pioneering Second World War women staff in Parliament were almost forgotten within a generation. We hope our book Necessary Women will go some way to rediscovering such women and giving them the credit they deserve.
Dr Mari Takayanagi is a historian and Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives. Dr Elizabeth Hallam Smith was the first female Librarian at the House of Lords and before that was the Director of Public Services at The National Archives, Kew. Their book, ‘Necessary Women: the Untold Story of Parliament’s Working Women’, is published on 22 June 2023 by History Press.
Image credit: Parliamentary Archives, DRE/1/A/15.