Before 1958, the House of Lords was entirely male. Most members were hereditary peers, with law lords (appointed for their lifetime) and bishops comprising the remainder. While there were some female peers in their own right, they did not receive a writ of summons from the Crown.
Change came gradually over almost 60 years. The Life Peerages Act 1958 allowed women to become members of the House of Lords for the first time. A few years later, the Peerage Act 1963 permitted some female hereditary peers to take their seats. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 had removed the bar on women serving in the judiciary, but it was not until 2004 that a female law lord was appointed. More recently, a female bishop joined the House of Lords for the first time in 2015.
Women’s right to vote—but not in the House of Lords
In 1918, following a campaign by the women’s suffrage movement, the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave most women over the age of 30 the right to vote. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 allowed women to stand for election to the House of Commons. The following year, the Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919 removed the bar on women becoming senior civil servants, magistrates and judges. However, none of these pieces of legislation explicitly addressed membership of the House of Lords.
In 1918, Viscountess Rhondda, a hereditary peer in her own right, announced her intention to claim a seat in the House of Lords. In 1921, she took a case to the House of Lords Committee for Privileges, a committee which considered peerage claims and related matters. She argued that the Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919 gave her the right to a seat in the House of Lords because it stated that “a woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from any public function”. The committee initially found in her favour and voted to allow her to sit in the House of Lords. However, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead, and several other peers, raised objections. The House referred the case back to the committee, which this time voted against Viscountess Rhondda’s petition and concluded that women could only be admitted to the House of Lords when legislation was passed that expressly allowed it.
Viscountess Rhondda asked her lawyer to draft a bill admitting women to the Lords. This bill was introduced in the second chamber as a private member’s bill by Viscount Astor, husband of Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. He introduced private member’s bills to this effect in almost every year between 1924 and 1928. The House of Lords voted against each of these bills. In 1931, Viscount Astor declined to raise the matter again, suggesting that wholesale reform was needed.
The matter was not raised again in Parliament for 15 years. After the Second World War, a petition on the subject collected 50,000 signatures. The petition was never presented to Parliament because, in 1949, the House of Lords voted in favour of a motion to admit female hereditary peers for the first time. However, this did not lead to legislation, as the Labour Government did not want to extend the hereditary principle. Historian Duncan Sutherland has suggested that, at this point, the question of women’s rights in the House of Lords became “entangled” with the wider issue of House of Lords reform.
Lords reform includes women
The two acts which first allowed women the right to a seat in the House of Lords, the Life Peerages Act 1958 and the Peerage Act 1963, did not focus solely on this right, but also addressed other constitutional questions. The Life Peerages Act 1958 sought to make the House of Lords more effective and more representative. It was for this second reason that the House of Lords agreed that women should be included. The first life peers, ten men and four women, were announced on 24 July 1958.
The Peerage Act 1963 allowed female hereditary peers to become members of the House of Lords. It has been argued that the primary purpose of this bill was to allow “reluctant” peers to disclaim their peerages, rather than to address the issue of female hereditary peers. Viscountess Rhondda did not live to see her aim finally achieved, having died in 1958.
Baroness Hale of Richmond was appointed lord of appeal in ordinary in 2004 and was the first female law lord. The Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015 made provision for female bishops to be fast-tracked to the House of Lords, bypassing the previous seniority-based system. The first female bishop in the House of Lords, the Lord Bishop of Gloucester, was then appointed in October 2015.
Women in the House of Lords today
Since 1958, 1,517 peerages have been created. Just over one in five (20 percent) of these appointments have been women.
The House of Lords Act 1999 removed all but 92 of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords. As a result, the proportion of women in the House of Lords almost doubled overnight, from 8.8 percent to 15.8 percent. Since then, the ratio of female to male peers has continued to increase, albeit more slowly. The number of female peers has increased from 106 at the start of the 1999–2000 session to 231 today, and the proportion of female peers has increased from 15.8 percent in November 1999 to 28 percent.
Baroness Hale of Richmond remains the only female peer to have entered the House of Lords by virtue of her appointment as a law lord. Following the creation of the Supreme Court in 2009, no more law lords will be created. Of the 26 bishops currently in the House, five are women.
- House of Lords Library, Women in the House of Lords, 30 June 2015
- House of Lords Library, Lifting the Barrier: Gender Equality Legislation 1919, 13 December 2019
- House of Lords Library, Women in the Lords: Viscountess Rhondda Peerage Case, 28 November 2018
Cover image: Copyright House of Lords 2019 / Photography by Roger Harris.