The first female Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, has died aged 93.
The current Speaker of the House, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said: “Betty Boothroyd was not only an inspiring woman, but also an inspiring politician and someone I am proud to call a friend.
“Being the first woman to speak was really groundbreaking and Betty certainly broke that glass ceiling with panache.”
“Betty was one of a kind. A sharp, witty, formidable woman – and I will miss her,” he added.
Born into a working-class family in Dewsbury in 1929, Baroness Boothroyd was introduced to politics at a young age through her mother’s membership of the women’s section of the Labor Party.
Often taken to rallies where Labor giants including Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan addressed large crowds, Baroness Boothroyd would later follow in her footsteps.
But not before the talented dancer’s dreams of conquering the West End with dance troupe Tiller Girls were cruelly ended at the age of 25 due to a foot infection.
The political phase would soon follow, the journey starting with a move to London in the early 1950s after taking a job as secretary to two Labor MPs – Barbara Castle and Geoffrey de Freitas.
Baroness Boothroyd ran twice unsuccessfully to become MP during this decade – finishing less than 7,000 votes behind the Conservative candidate in her first attempt in the 1957 Leicester South East by-election.
After the two defeats, Baroness Boothroyd traveled to the United States in 1960, where she worked on the campaign of John F. Kennedy after he was elected the Democratic candidate for president.
Baroness Boothroyd toured America with Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver before working for leftist Republican Congressman Silvio Conte.
After two years on the other side of the pond, she returned to the UK, where she worked as a political assistant to the Minister for Labor, Lord Harry Walston.
In 1973, Baroness Boothroyd became an MP on the fifth attempt, successfully securing the West Bromwich seat for the Labor Party.
She is believed to have said that this would be her last attempt to enter Parliament – but she won the race with a majority of over 8,000 votes.
She became one of 27 Members of the House of Commons at the time.
Baroness Boothroyd became a government assistant for the Labor Party and kept a close eye on ensuring MPs were in the House of Commons to vote on key pieces of legislation.
In 1975, she was elected to the European Parliament and became a champion of the common market.
Baroness Boothroyd’s political influence continued to grow after she was appointed to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen in 1979.
In 1987, the Labor MP was appointed Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons – a position she would hold until 1992, when Bernard “Jack” Weatherill announced that he was stepping down as Speaker.
By this time Baroness Boothroyd had proved to have great authority and conviction, and was persuaded by some Labor colleagues to stand as a candidate to replace him.
Her nomination was contested by Conservative MP John Brooke, but Baroness Boothroyd won a vote by 372 votes to 238.
As a result, Baroness Boothroyd became the first female Speaker of the House of Commons and the first opposition MP to be elected to the post, having secured overwhelming support from both sides of the House.
“Elect me for what I am, not what I was born for,” she said in her acceptance speech.
During her first time as Speaker of Parliament she was asked by then Burnley MP Peter Pike: “What do we call you?”
“Call me Madam,” she replied – to a packed House of Commons.
Baroness Boothroyd has modernized the President’s role, refusing to wear the traditional wig – a decision which MPs approved – and closing the Prime Minister’s questions each week with her catchphrase: “Time’s up!”
She followed the rules and had a no-nonsense style, quickly becoming a household name when television coverage of the House of Commons began.
Baroness Boothroyd once reminded MPs that their role was “to ensure that holders of an opinion, however unpopular, can express their views”.
But she only expelled one MP during her time in office – then DUP leader Ian Paisley, who accused a minister of lying and was subsequently suspended for 10 days.
She also banned women from breastfeeding during committee hearings.
Baroness Boothroyd has presided over heated debates on the European Union, but has described Nelson Mandela’s state visit and speech to parliament in 1996 as “the most memorable moment of my time as president”.
Mandela took her hand before they entered Westminster Hall together for a ceremony.
Baroness Boothroyd’s tenure coincided with Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major’s attempts to defend his slim majority and Labor Party’s landslide victory in 1997.
His re-election in 1997 was unopposed.
Baroness Boothroyd resigned as Speaker of the House in 2000 after eight years in the chair presiding over MPs with a firm manner and a sense of humour.
During that time, she has spoken twice in the Indian Lok Sabha, once in the Russian Duma and most European parliaments.
She also welcomed several political figures to Parliament, including former French President Jacques Chirac.
Before delivering her farewell speech in the House of Commons, parliamentary staff lined up to applaud her.
Her personal motto as president was “I speak to serve” and she insisted that it was the job of parliament to control the government at the time.
Baroness Boothroyd has criticized the changes towards a more presidential style, warning in her farewell address on 26 July that prime ministers “can easily be overthrown” and that parliament “is the nation’s main forum – today, tomorrow and, I hope, forever.”
In 2001, she was appointed a peer for life, assuming the title of Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell in the West Midlands.
She published her autobiography in the same year.
In 2005, she received an Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II – awarded to those “who have rendered especially eminent service in the armed forces or have particularly distinguished themselves in science, art, literature or the promotion of culture”.
Baroness Boothroyd was not afraid to speak her mind on political issues after her retirement.
In 2018, she dramatically increased pressure on then-House Speaker John Bercow to honor a promise to step down later that year.
She said he should resign mid-parliament as a “courtesy” to MPs and not wait until the next general election.
In April 2019, Baroness Boothroyd spoke during a rally held by The People’s Vote, calling for another referendum on Brexit.
During a 2021 interview, she said that PMQs “have deteriorated a lot in recent years”, adding, “It’s not the quality it used to be.”
Speaking as the partygate scandal unfolded, she added: “The prime minister is there to answer questions about what the government is doing, why it isn’t doing it.
“I’m not saying prime ministers have the answer to every question. Of course not. But at least they need to try and give it a try, and that’s not currently happening.”
Upon retiring as Speaker of the House, then Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy declared, “As the first female Speaker of the House, your place in the history books is assured.”
On Baroness Boothroyd’s 90th birthday, Tony Blair said he was “somewhat dumbfounded” by the former president after she berated him when, as a young MP, he walked onto the Parliament terrace wearing a sweatshirt and jeans.
While Sir John Major said the Dewsbury-born politician had entered “the Pantheon of National Treasures”.
Baroness Boothroyd died unmarried and childless, having made her work a priority.
To this day, she remains the only female Speaker of the House of Commons for over 700 years.