Celebrating Maureen Colquhoun, Britain’s First Out Lesbian MP

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photo via LSE Library

Maureen Colquhoun (1928-present) is an economist, women’s rights activist, and former Labour MP. She is also the first known lesbian to serve as a British Member of Parliament. In 1974 she was voted in as the Member of Parliament for Northampton North. Though she’s a key figure in lesbian herstory, Maureen is not given a fraction of the recognition she deserves for advancing women’s rights and the recognition of same-sex relationships. Her sexuality and feminist politics ultimately led to her deselection – the end of her career as an MP.

I will not say that Maureen Colquhoun was ahead of her time, because her work paved the way for the gains we have made since her time in Westminster. Without Maureen bringing her progressive politics to Parliament, it’s unlikely that lesbian MPs such as Angela Eagle and Mhairi Black would sit in the House of Commons today.

Born and raised in East Sussex, Maureen Colquhoun was politically inclined from a young age. She joined the Labour Party as a teenager and went on to study at the London School of Economics during the 1940s, where she earned a degree. After graduating, she worked as a research assistant. In the 1970 General Election Maureen ran an unsuccessful campaign to become MP for Tonbridge.

This defeat did not put her off politics. Elected as a local councilor for Shoreham in 1971, Maureen sat on the West Sussex County Council until 1974. She was the only female councilor in the district. Her Conservative colleagues repeatedly blocked Maureen from sitting on any committees.

Maureen’s determination paid off during the following general election. In February 1974 she was elected as MP for Northampton North, a newly created constituency. From her maiden speech onwards, Maureen Colquhoun advocated women’s rights. She was never afraid to reject tradition. In March 1975, while the Sex Equalities Bill was being debated in the House of Commons, Maureen pointed out that – ironically – the Speaker had not once called on a female MP to contribute. Maureen challenged he/him pronouns being treated as the default in legislation, suggesting ‘s/he’ to avoid treating men as the default citizens.

At the Labour Party Conference of 1975, Maureen criticized the lack of childcare facilities, pointing out that the absence of a crèche prevented many young women from attending. Quite rightly, she said, “it is outrageous that we have to ask for this.”

That same year Maureen left her husband, Keith Colquhoun, a journalist writing for the Sunday Times. She was in a relationship with Babs Todd, publisher of Sappho – a lesbian magazine. Maureen and Babs soon decided to move in together. Nigel Dempster, a gossip columnist for right-wing papers, tried to infiltrate their housewarming party. He published an expose, publicly outing Maureen. She and Babs complained to the Press Complaints Commission about this invasion of privacy, and the ruling went in their favor.

After her marriage ended Maureen Colquhoun asked the Speaker of the House to refer to her as Ms. She was the first politician to make this request. Today the prefix Ms is common, if not yet standard. It’s available as an option on most forms, listed on passports, and widely accepted as a style of address. In 1976, this was not the case. Men are granted the title of Mr from childhood, a prefix that does not change to reflect their age or marital status. Women have historically been ‘Miss’ when single and ‘Mrs’ when married. In styling herself as ‘Ms’, Maureen challenged the tradition of women being defined in relation to men.

Maureen lost support within her constituency – one of the most ethnically diverse in the UK – when in January 1977 she made a sympathetic comment about Enoch Powell, whose infamous Rivers of Blood speech was a precursor to the anti-immigration rhetoric of Brexit Britain. “I am rapidly concluding,” said Maureen, “that Mr Powell, whom I had always believed to be a racialist before I went into the House of Commons, is not one.” She withdrew this comment, denying support for Powell’s politics, and apologized the following month.

Less fairly, Maureen’s support declined as a consequence of her being an out lesbian. Babs joined Maureen when she was out campaigning, and attended events as her partner. While her constituents were accepting of this relationship, many of her colleagues within the Labour party were not. In September 1977 a vote passed to deselect Maureen, meaning she could not stand as a Labour MP for her constituency in the next general election. Among the reasons given was Maureen’s “obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights.”

Lesbophobia also played a role in ending Maureen’s career as an MP. Norman Ashby, the local Labour Party Chairman, said that “she was elected as a working wife and mother … this business [relationship with Babs Todd] has blackened her image irredeemably.”

Maureen’s allies took a complaint to the National Executive Committee, who agreed that it was an unfair dismissal connected to her sexuality. With characteristic gusto, Maureen used the remainder of her time in parliament to push for social change. In 1979 she introduced the Protection of Prostitutes Bill into the House of Commons, bringing 50 women in prostitution with her to argue for selling sex to be decriminalized.

Whether or not Maureen would continue with the Labour Party became a moot point. At the next general election, she lost her seat to a Conservative candidate. It is impossible not to wonder what gains for women’s rights could have been made if Maureen had continued as an MP. Her deselection cut short a remarkable political career.

After losing her seat, Maureen worked as an assistant for other Labour MPs. She was then elected to Hackney London Borough Council in 1982, where she served for eight years. Maureen and Babs have since moved to the Lake District, where it is reported they still live together.