While women reporting todays politics is commonplace, the first female political reporters have been sidelined to obscurity
When Nancy Astor first took her seat in parliament on 1 December 1919, she was greeted with a buzz of animated conversation from the men in the Commons according to reports. Astor, an American-born viscountess had won Plymouth Sutton in a by-election. Yet high up above in the wood-panelled press gallery, feminist history of a different kind was also being made. For the first time two female reporters were allowed to watch proceedings, effectively kick-starting female political journalism in Westminster.
The two reporters presence was covered in newspapers across the country. Marguerite Cody worked for the Daily News and Miss E Cohn for the Central News agency. Despite giving her account to the Daily Telegraph, in which she described the day as the complete recognition of the right of British women to take their place in the government of the nation, Cohn was not even afforded a first name, and nor is she given one in any of the write ups since. It remains lost to history.
Marguerite Cody, however, went on to have a long and more visible career in journalism, later becoming the editor of the Liberal Womens News. She also had a sideline as a champion open-water swimmer, crossing Belfast Lough in 1913 in a time of four hours when she worked for the local paper. Cody and Cohns history-making moment was short-lived they were only allowed into the press gallery to report on Lady Astor and swiftly ejected.
It had been quite the struggle to even get to that afternoon in 1919. The first official request for a female journalist to join the press gallery had taken place almost 30 years earlier. A Miss E Blain again no first name who was working for the early suffrage newspaper the Womens Penny Paper, applied for access in March 1890. Outraged at its treatment at the hands of a rather dismissive sergeant-at-arms, Henry David Erskine, the paper published in full their back and forth with him; an 1890 public shaming. Their account of his final say on the matter was: Male journalists would much resent their intrusion, and he was afraid the consequent outcry would be terrific.
By 1924 more female MPs arrived in Westminster after a string of general elections and by-elections. Stella Wolfe Murray arrived to report for the Daily Sketch. She also ran her own womens News and views column that featured in the Leeds Mercury. She was the first woman to work in the lobby, which gives reporters access to the members lobby area to interview MPs in person. She was there to write about womens issues and legislation affecting children. She also wrote Womens Topics for the Sheffield Independent.
The Leeds Mercury was over the moon to have secured the first female lobby correspondent. On Tuesday 2 December 1924, they wrote: The Leeds Mercury has always taken a pride in stating fairly all points of view in public life.
Murray was a force of nature, and like Cody had her own gender-defying hobby for the time: flying planes. She later co-wrote Woman and Flying with aviator Lady Mary Heath who was the first person to fly from Cape Town to London. She turned her pen to everything from washing up to stove-top cooking, to the new Factories Act and equal pay campaigning championed by then socialist MP for Middlesborough Ellen Wilkinson. She also wrote about women at the top of their professional field, from Sheffields one policewoman to Yorkshires women engineers.
A year later in 1925, Vera Hemmen joined the Daily Graphic with the Leeds Mercury cheering that women are strengthening their hold in journalism. Like Murray, Hemmens range of topics was vast but a real coup was her interview with Prince Phillips father Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark in 1929. Headlined a King in Exile it was carried in many papers. She wrote of meeting him in a quiet London hotel where he said he was learning about Britains post-war recovery. By that time he had been exiled for seven years. She found out he had quietly studied medicine, toured hospitals, mines, car plants and factories for inspiration.
The first female MP turned journalist was the former member for North Lanark, Jennie Lee, who returned to the Commons in 1940 to work for the Daily Mirror. It was reported at the time that her husband, Welsh politician Nye Bevan, who had not yet begun his ground-breaking work on the NHS, provided her with easy copy by asking a question in the chamber.
Patricia OBrien (nee Newton) gives the most extensive account of those first few decades for female journalists in parliament. She left school at 14, and was a reporter by 16, and later was the first female reporter in the parliamentary press gallery for the Press Association. In 1946, she wrote a piece for one of her old papers, the Norwood News, headlined Woman Invades the Press Gallery and explained how she only got a foot in the door because a male editor had mistaken her name on an application Pat for Patrick.
I am called in when descriptions are needed of clothes worn by women minister and members and my opinion is sometimes sought when a reporter is writing a newsletter on things which affect women, she wrote.
While men were afforded overnight accommodation within parliament on late sittings, there was nowhere for a woman, so OBrien had to catch the early morning fish train home or if she was lucky cadge a lift on a milk lorry.
She was fired on each occasion she became pregnant only to get her job back after some lobbying from MPs including Barbara Castle and Conservative Dame Irene Ward.
In her obituary written by her children Tom and Francesca in 2009, they said: As children it didnt seem odd that our mother Pat worked in the House of Commons where the policeman tipped his hat to us as our father (who stayed at home to look after us) drove her in and out.
But for the early sixties our parents were trailblazers and as we grew older our mothers quiet determination was a source of inspiration and great pride.
There were other female political journalists of course but the archives do not throw up their stories easily, if they exist at all. Among those who followed was Julia Langdon, who joined the lobby in 1974 and was the first ever female political editor of a national daily newspaper, the Daily Mirror, from 1984 to 1989. She was the first female chair of the lobby and still has her lobby pass today. Her varied writing and broadcast work now includes penning obituaries for the Guardian.
Elinor Goodman, the political editor of Channel 4 between 1988 and 2005, and the BBCs Carolyn Quinn, who was also the first female chair of the press gallery, are others who laid the groundwork for the current crop of women working in Westminster, even if they did not realise at the time.
Women are enjoying a golden age for telling the nations political stories with the appointment of the BBCs Laura Kuenssberg and Sky News Beth Rigby to the political editorship roles for their organisations. The Guardian appointed Heather Stewart and Anushka Asthana as joint political editors in 2016, while Pippa Crerar is the political editor of the Daily Mirror.
With social media, 24-hour news and online journalism, none of these women will suffer the fate of Miss E Cohn and be erased from the story theyre helping to write.