Maureen Colquhoun: Trailblazer for women’s rights and Britain’s first openly lesbian MP

The Labour politician was a passionate, forthright feminist in a parliament dominated by men

Anthony Hayward
Thursday 18 February 2021 15:51
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Maureen Colquhoun, who has died aged 92, arrived at the House of Commons in 1974 as the newly elected Labour MP for Northampton North, clutching a “Buy at the Co-op” carrier bag instead of a briefcase, and later asked the speaker to address her as “Ms” rather than “Mrs”.

Not only was she a passionate, forthright feminist – who would in time be regarded as pioneering for the women’s rights issues she brought before parliament – but Colquhoun became Britain’s first openly lesbian MP after being outed by Daily Mail gossip columnist Nigel Dempster.

In 1975, she left her husband, journalist Keith Colquhoun, the father of her three children, to move in with Barbara (“Babs”) Todd, joint editor of the lesbian magazine Sappho.

Early the following year, she sent a letter to the Commons speaker, George Thomas, asking to be referred to in the chamber and Hansard as either “Maureen Colquhoun” or “Ms Colquhoun”.

In his reply, Thomas wrote that he felt some title was needed, adding: “I will slur it in such a way as to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, the audible distinction between ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’.”

Shortly afterwards, Colquhoun and Todd planned a housewarming party after setting up home together in Hackney and sent invitations out to friends.

“The objective of letting them know where we were and how we were living was achieved,” Colquhoun wrote in her 1980 memoir, A Woman in the House.

When the invitation found its way to the Daily Mail, Dempster and journalists on his diary team sought reactions – through phone calls and door-stepping – from Colquhoun, her estranged husband and Todd.

After all of them refused to comment, the paper went ahead with its gossip-column revelation of Colquhoun’s relationship with Todd, which led to both of them being besieged by reporters and photographers.

Colquhoun complained to the Press Council that the Mail article constituted harassment and an invasion of her privacy, adding: “The whole tone was one of leering innuendo and lip-smacking suggestion.”

The regulator rejected this – because she was not a “private person”, but an MP who had taken a strong stand on feminist issues – while ruling that the identification of Todd was “a gross intrusion into privacy which could not be justified on the grounds of public interest”.

While trying to progress with battles in parliament to advance her causes in what she saw as a male-dominated club, with fewer than 30 female MPs, Colquhoun faced another fight – with her local Labour Party in Northampton, where she could count many members as friends.

“I confronted the bigots in my constituency party by affirming that I was glad to be gay,” she recalled.

Nevertheless, in 1977, a majority voted to deselect her as their candidate for the next election, citing her “obsession with trivialities such as women's rights”.

Labour’s National Executive Committee overruled this decision on the grounds that it was unfairly based on her sexual orientation.

The highlights of Colquhoun’s time in the Commons as a backbencher in the 1974-79 Labour government were bringing forward two private member’s bills, which were groundbreaking in their proposals, although neither passed into law.

The 1975 Balance of Sexes Bill sought equal representation for men and women on public bodies.

It also changed the rest of the MP’s life when Todd was among those brought in to brief on the issues surrounding this and the Sex Discrimination Bill, some elements of which did become an act, with Colquhoun contributing to the committee stage of the legislation.

At the 1977 Labour Party conference in Brighton

Four years later, she was guaranteed publicity for her Protection of Prostitutes Bill, to decriminalise soliciting and abolish the law classifying more than two women living together as a brothel, by taking 50 sex workers to the House of Commons’ packed Grand Committee Room for a public meeting the day beforehand. She described their job as “sexual therapists”.

The bill was granted a second reading but, before that could happen, Labour was defeated in the 1979 general election. Colquhoun, a distinctive figure in the Commons with her red hair and green two-piece suit, was one of those who lost her seat as Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, led the Tories to victory.

The former MP for Northampton North wrote in her memoir that she and fellow female Labour politicians “knew that [Thatcher] was what the American feminists irreverently call a ‘man with tits’ and would do little if nothing either for women in the House or for women outside it”.

Although she longed to return to parliament, Colquhoun spent the rest of her life in local politics, fighting fervently for her beliefs.

She was born Maureen Morfydd Smith in Eastbourne, East Sussex, in 1928, to Elizabeth Smith, a single parent, and never knew her Welsh father.

Her Irish mother had moved to Britain from Waterford at the age of 14 and brought her daughter up in Lindfield, near Haywards Heath.

She attended an Eastbourne convent school and a Brighton college, then read economics at the London School of Economics.

After marrying Keith Colquhoun in 1949, she brought up their children and entered politics as the only woman on Shoreham Urban District Council (1965-74), leading the small Labour group at one stage.

When she challenged almost everything the Tory majority put forward, they excluded her from committees for being a “chatterbox”. West Sussex County Council, on which she also served (1971-74), ordered her reinstatement.

Although she unsuccessfully stood as the Labour candidate for Tonbridge in the 1970 general election, Colquhoun had another chance when Northampton North was created as a new constituency – and won the seat in both 1974 elections.

She was treasurer of Labour’s left-wing Tribune group and campaigned on issues such as abortion and the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland.

On leaving the Commons, she worked as an information officer for the single parents’ charity Gingerbread (1980-82), then served on Hackney Borough Council (1982-90).

Colquhoun moved to Ambleside, Cumbria, in 1992 and was a member of the Lake District National Park Authority (1998-2006), campaigning for speed limits on Windermere and against the sacking of park rangers, and the Lakes Parish Council (2006-15).

She was also a founder member of the Historic Ambleside Trust in 1992.

In 2015, Colquhoun – who was divorced from her husband in 1980 – married Todd, who died in 2020.

She moved back to Sussex shortly before her death and is survived by Andrew, Mary and Edward, the children of her first marriage, and her stepchildren, Mairi and Hilda, from the second.

Maureen Colquhoun, politician, born 12 August 1928, died 2 February 2021