Labour's 101 women MPs threatened to turn the Commons upside down, but six months after the general election they appear to have been Folletted and spin-doctored into submission. O for another Jennie Lee, a woman with attitude who used her maiden speech to attack Churchill's `cant, corruption and incompetence'. By Kenneth O. Morgan
he political impact of women - "bitch power" to Seventies American women's libbers - has been relatively limited in Britain in the 79 years since they won the vote. But was this substance or style, lack of numbers in a male-run world or lack of ambition? The publication of Patricia Hollis's exceptionally readable Jennie Lee: A Life (OUP, pounds 25) chronicles the life of one remarkable woman who did leave an imprint on her times, in her own right and not merely as a famous spouse. Depicting Lee as essentially anti-feminist, concerned with class rather than gender, "a socialist who just happened to be a woman", the author opens up with skill and scholarship what Keir Hardie called "the woman question" in new ways.

Perhaps the greatest of the many blessings of 1 May, of course, was the return of a significant group of women MPs for the first time: 120 in all, of whom 101 were Labour. But to date, their distinctive impact has, perhaps inevitably in so massive a government majority, not been great. The press (no doubt unfairly) gives an impression of almost anonymous middle-class uniformity. New Labour, new clones. Journalists retail their complaints of the inadequacies of the Commons in the matter of creches, child-care and coiffeurs, or the beastliness of male Tory MPs who actually insult them (as well as our intelligence). One woman MP to strike an individual note, the youthful member for Rochdale who gave an interview to the News of the World about her sex drive (apparently powerful and varied) perhaps aided neither her party nor her gender.

The various women ministers, often seemingly interchangeable, Folletted almost to oblivion, do not often impose their own personalities. One who has done, the outspoken and highly popular Clare Short, "off message" on drugs and taxes, blowing her own top over the volcano in poor Montserrat, has been marginalised through apology. Another talented woman member, Ann Clwyd, an excellent shadow minister on overseas aid, eliminated herself on foreign affairs issues such as the Kurds and East Timor. So far, therefore, six months after the dawn, Labour's women have yet to assert themselves. A contrast indeed with Jennie Lee, whose sparky maiden speech in 1928 attacked the Chancellor, Winston Churchill, for "cant, corruption and incompetence". It is hard to see journalists burying her among the blandness of "Blair's Babes".

The political style of Labour's women has been partly shaped by their opponents. Tory women MPs have always been a tiny contingent. The Florence Horsburghs, Pat Hornsby-Smiths and Mervyn Pikes of yesteryear were decent, competent politicians, but they hardly summoned up the blood. On the other hand, the Tories have produced two larger-than-life figures who have had some impact on their Labour counterparts. Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House, was a great personality, if hardly a front- line politician. She advocated many bizarre causes, but her pursuit of equal pay for women won allies across the spectrum. On balance, Jennie Lee saw her as an exhibitionist role-model to avoid, even though Lee's own style (such as entering the Chamber in a shimmering emerald velvet evening dress) hardly made her inconspicuous.

Fifty years on, of course, the Tories produced the outstanding public figure of her time, the first woman prime minister and dominatrix extraordinary, Margaret Thatcher. By all accounts, even as prime minister, she was acutely aware of her gender disadvantages. She fought her corner, triumphantly, in a man's world, which she conquered the more effectively by making use of her femininity. She did nothing to advance the cause of women, which she felt had already been won. In fact, her triumphs gave most encouragement to her female opponents; to women Tories she gave none at all. Of the 376 Tories elected in 1987, only 17 were women. Yet her feminine style fascinated Barbara Castle - "hair immaculately groomed, smart dress crowned by a string of pearls". Instinctively, Castle cheered on Thatcher when chauvinist Labour ministers sneered at her as an hysterical (or even menopausal) handbag-swinger. She and Jennie Lee were poles apart, ideologically if not temperamentally, Yet, in one of history's curious twists, it was Margaret Thatcher at the Education Department who fought for and saved Jennie Lee's Open University, though the premature death of Iain Macleod, who thought the OU "blithering nonsense", costly and semi-socialist, was also an important factor.

Half-inspired by Thatcher, Labour women politicians have been much less influenced by those in lesser parties. The Liberals threw up two remarkable figures, Lady Megan Lloyd George, a Liberal then Labour member, and Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, who was never elected. But both, perhaps, for all their considerable gifts, made news not as women but rather as living embodiments of the continuing feud between Lloyd Georgeites and Asquithians. Lady Megan, as a Labour MP in the Fifties, seemed a diminished figure. Female Nationalists have been essentially local celebrities, type-cast by their background, such as the SNP's Winnie Ewing, now transmuted from pioneer to elder statesperson.

Bernadette Devlin had a dramatic, if transient, role as a youthful Irish republican swinging sky high into parliament at a key moment. Plaid Cymru has had neither a woman MP nor even candidate in a winnable (ie, Welsh- speaking) constituency, perhaps a by-product of the "boyo" chauvinism until recently prevalent in the valleys. Maybe the best of Labour's role models (although not one specially influential on Jennie Lee), was Eleanor Rathbone, a crusader for "women's issues" such as family allowances and for the disregarded plight of Indian women. She is rightly described by Patricia Hollis as "in many ways the finest woman MP of them all", but an independent member for a university seat was inevitably a fringe figure.

Clearly, Labour has largely produced its own inspiration for its women politicians. Keir Hardie, the lover of Sylvia Pankhurst, was feminist as much as socialist. There have been significant women Labour MPs since 1923. Women have been prominent in Labour constituency politics since before World War I, notably in London's East End, and also in the macho world of Labour local government (the beloved Olive Gibbs in Oxford city, for instance). There were pioneering trade union leaders such as Margaret Irwin and Mary Macarthur. Later, Rita Hinden was a wonderful editor and educator. Dame Sara Barker was Labour's national agent in the Sixties. As is well known, Margaret Bondfield became the first woman Cabinet minister in 1929, although that was perhaps the least distinguished phase of an otherwise remarkable and underrated career. On the other hand, Labour, prior to Tony Blair, were reluctant feminists: the 393 Labour MPs elected in the landslide of 1945 included a mere 21 women. For seven decades, the comrades cherished fraternity but not sisterhood under the skin.

There have been two outstanding Labour woman politicians, emphatically of the left, and about as different from the Mandelsonian orthodoxy as could be imagined: Ellen Wilkinson and Barbara Castle, class warriors both. No clone-like anonymity here.

Ellen Wilkinson emerged in the Thirties as a kind of British La Pasionaria, the flame-haired protester at unemployment and the surrenders to fascism. Her crusading on behalf of the hunger marchers of Jarrow, "the town that was murdered", was in the grandest tradition of British dissent. She was beginning to impose herself in Attlee's government where she won some notable victories as minister of education (including at the expense of her lover, Herbert Morrison), but died aged 57 in 1947. She was not the only significant Labour woman MP at that time - Edith Summerskill, the scourge of the boxing fraternity, Bessie Braddock, that larger-than-life Liverpudlian, such compassionate personalities as Peggy Herbison and Alice Bacon - but no one else quite spelt out the grievances of her people with Red Ellen's power and charisma.

Barbara Castle, still very much with us, was another stormy petrel throughout her career. A natural member of Keep Left and CND, the one important woman in the Bevanites of the Fifties (indeed, more "Bevanite" than Nye himself), she was unusual in being a dissenter who sought out and could use power. She proved herself to be an immensely competent (and self-consciously feminine) minister under Wilson; as Secretary for Employment in 1968, she seemed perhaps destined for the highest office of all. In the event, an unwinnable fight on behalf of trade union reform, prophetic but ahead of its time, largely undermined her, until Callaghan removed her from government office for good in 1976. In her later years, a doctrinal approach towards Europe and traditional socialism, "Old Labour" to the core, marginalised her for ever.

If Barbara Castle is the classic female radical, Shirley Williams might have rivalled her in the Fabian mainstream, and she rose rapidly to be Minister for Education under Callaghan. She could well have been a senior figure in the Blair administration now. What ditched her was not her talents but her timing. The hard-left deluge of the early Eighties forced her into first the SDP, then the Alliance, now the Liberal Democrats, and a dignified but largely powerless role on the fringe. Another possible female premier was thereby lost.

How does Jennie Lee fit into this picture? In US terms, she was a woman "with attitude", a paid-up member of the awkward squad. Ever since she defeated the delightfully-named Lord Scone for North Lanark in 1928, she was on the leftward fringe, more ILP than Labour, neo-Marxist, neo-pacifist, an irreconcilable. She belonged to the tradition of Ellen Wilkinson and Barbara Castle in never seeing herself as mainly (or even at all) a woman's MP. Unlike them, however, she showed no urge for office. Her style was evangelical: Nye Bevan affectionately saw her as his "Salvation Army lassie". He would twit her for cherishing her political virginity in the wilderness rather than facing up to the challenge of power. She was in some ways a destabilising force in his career, pressing him towards resignation in 1951 and rebellion in the party thereafter, although Patricia Hollis also shows her as endorsing his opposition to CND. Her Tribune was simply an organ of socialist dissent. She made her impact as a crusader for the Scottish working class whence she sprang.

A miner's daughter, she cut her teeth politically on the great strikes of the Twenties. She responded instinctively to the victims of Tawney's "religion of inequality". But she was on the sidelines in the 1945 parliament, often cantankerous, not a team player. Unexpectedly, Harold Wilson's patronage in 1964 made her Minister for the Arts. Here, she proved to be chaotic but inspired. She turned a scratch, token department into a crucible of change. The Open University, Wilson's idea which she took up, was to prove one of Britain's unique contributions to social progress.

Beyond that, Jennie had style, even if it embraced personal service, the public schools and the life of a champagne socialist. She was in private and in public a passionate politician, a wilful but vivid personality. Young student socialists like me found her irresistibly attractive, with her gypsy charm, flashing eyes, a beguiling Fifeshire accent, and a relish for the company of admiring young men. With all her faults, she represented something precious and authentic, the raw, decent working-class world which male contemporaries from Bevan to Callaghan also reflected. Her visionary response to it was far removed from the rootless image-building of a later era.

Labour's women politicians now (and Lady Hollis herself is a notable figure among them) have forsworn the politics of class. Are they perhaps still searching for a substitute? Their frequent hard leftism in the early Eighties has been discreetly buried. Goodbye to all that, and to Jennie's culture of protest. Too often now they appear civilised but sanitised, spin-doctored almost out of this world. On the other hand, maybe this process is part of the educative disciplines of power. They could well respond that party loyalty and quiet committee work is more useful than Jennie Lee's wild and whirling rhetoric in the wilderness years. But where is the emotion, where "the bloody horse"? It would not come amiss if her successors showed just a trace of that passion and spontaneity which Patricia Hollis so vividly recalls. Still, this parliament is young, and so are most women MPs. To cite the title of Jennie's moving autobiography, Tomorrow is a new day

Kenneth O Morgan's `Callaghan: a Life' was recently published by Oxford University Press