Who was the first British woman to have a seat in the House of Lords?

STELLA ISAACS 1894 – 1971

In 1918, women were given the right to stand for Parliament but were not allowed to be members of the House of Lords.

On his death, Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda (1883–1958) wished to take her father’s seat in the Lords.

As Viscount Rhondda had no sons he’d made a special request for his daughter to be able to take his title after he died. This was allowed but Margaret was still not entitled to take up her father’s seat in the House of Lords.

Lady Rhondda had been a militant suffragette in her youth and she was determined to take her place in the Lords.

She claimed that the Sex Disqualification Act 1919 stated that no woman should be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function and that this included the House of Lords.

She was turned down and it wasn’t until 1949 that the Lords agreed that they were in favour of admitting women.

However it wasn’t until the Life Peerages Act 1958 that women were finally allowed to sit in the Upper House as life peers. Viscountess Rhondda lived to see the passage of the Life Peerages Act, but died in July 1958, before the first women took their seats as life peers in the Lords in October. Hereditary women peers like Lady Rhondda were finally allowed to sit in the House of Lords after the Peerage Act 1963.

Stella Isaacs, Baroness Swanborough was the first of four newly created women life peers to be admitted into the House of Lords.

Prior to her swearing in on 21 October 1958 the House of Lords administrators had to adapt to women members in a variety of ways, from deciding what to call them (women peers or peeresses) to providing more bathrooms.

Stella Isaacs was the founder of the Women’s Voluntary Service which worked throughout the Second World War with refugees, bombing victims and the armed forces, as well as playing a major part in the evacuation of thousands of city children.

Before her appointment as a life peer, Stella was married to Rufus Isaacs, the 1st Earl of Reading and was known as Lady Reading. In addition to her work with the WVS, she had a lifetime of public work including as Governor of the BBC, trustee of the Glyndebourne Festival and benefactor of the University of Sussex.

Photo credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons