Overlooked No More: Maureen Colquhoun, Pathbreaking Politician Waylaid by Bias

Colquhoun campaigned for women’s rights in Britain’s male-dominated Parliament. But her political career came to an end when she was outed as a lesbian.

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

LONDON — As a determined pioneer of women’s rights, Maureen Colquhoun boldly drew attention to the nascent campaign for feminist change in Britain’s male-dominated Parliament in the 1970s.

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Once, for instance, she took a group of sex workers with her to a committee room at the Houses of Parliament in her ground-breaking fight to secure for them a new status that would protect them from prosecution. She was also the first member to ask the speaker of the lower house to address her as Ms., not Mrs.; he promised to meet her request by slurring his pronunciation of the former to make it sound more like the latter.

And, perhaps most notably, she was the first openly lesbian member of British Parliament.

Everything changed, however, in 1976, when a gossip columnist wrote in the right-wing tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail that Colquhoun (pronounced kuh-HOON) was moving in with her partner, Barbara Todd, an editor of the lesbian magazine Sappho. Before the article was published, her sexual orientation had not been widely known.

The disclosure, Colquhoun said, was the beginning of the end of a career in national politics that is remembered as having tested the bounds of governmental prejudice.

By the time she died on Feb. 2 last year at 92, her legacy seemed barely to reflect the sweep of her achievement, in large part because her identification as a lesbian overshadowed her political successes.

Her local chapter of the Labour Party sought in 1977 to have her barred from running in the next election two years later — a process known as deselection — accusing her of displaying an “obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights.”

To Colquhoun, her sexuality becoming public was more damaging than her feminist views.

“Being a lesbian has ruined my political career,” she said in an interview with the British magazine Woman’s Own in 1977.

Only many years later did the local party acknowledge her contribution to the debate about the politics of gender.

In the so-called Swinging Sixties, Britons celebrated a heady sexual liberation that rarely extended to same-sex relationships. Indeed, British law came to grips with homosexuality only with great reluctance, even punishing some of the country’s most accomplished public figures, such as Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, for their sexual orientation.

The political establishment was especially slow to come to terms with the sexual identity of some of its members.

Chris Smith, the first male lawmaker to come out as gay, did so in 1984 — 17 years after private homosexual acts between consenting adult males had been legalized. The first female lawmaker to declare herself voluntarily as lesbian was Angela Eagle in 1997, two decades after Colquhoun was outed.

Unlike male homosexuality, “female homosexuality was never explicitly targeted by any legislation,” the researcher Steven Dryden wrote in a study for the British Library. Both upper and lower houses of Parliament rejected the creation of discriminatory laws in 1921, he said, “due to the fear a law would draw attention and encourage women to explore homosexuality.”

“It was also assumed,” he added, “that lesbianism occurred in an extremely small pocket of the female population.”

Matthew Parris, a onetime Conservative lawmaker and columnist, wrote in The Times of London in 2018: “Labour could live with individualists. Not lesbians, though. When she came out she was sunk, and deselected, and finished.”

Maureen Morfydd Smith was born on Aug. 12, 1928, in Eastbourne, on the southern English coast, and raised by Elizabeth Smith, a single mother. She adopted her political allegiance at the age of 17, when she joined the Labour Party. She was later a member of the left-wing Tribune Group of the party. She was a graduate of the London School of Economics.

In 1948 she married Keith Colquhoun, a British journalist and novelist, with whom she had three children; he died of prostate cancer in 2010.

Maureen Colquhoun first ran for a seat in Parliament, from Tonbridge, a commuter town south of London, in 1970, but lost. From 1971 to 1974 she served as the only female town council member in Shoreham-by-Sea, on the English Channel. Her Conservative Party adversaries on the council barred her serving on committees, referring to her as a “chatterbox.”

Colquhoun won a seat in the House of Commons in February 1974, an election that brought Harold Wilson to power as a Labour prime minister; at the time, less than 30 percent of the house’s 635 lawmakers were women.

A year later, Colquhoun left her husband to move in with Todd.

Throughout her parliamentary career she displayed “an uncomfortable ability for upsetting equally my friends and my enemies,” as she wrote in her memoir, “A Woman in the House” (1980).

Colquhoun campaigned in favor of the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, which outlawed gender-based discrimination, and pushed for equal status for men and women in running public institutions.

“Two battles face women today,” she said in the 1970s. “One is to hold onto what they have won, and the other is to get a better share of what they have not yet won.”

But she also raised hackles among Labour Party colleagues by seeming to defend Enoch Powell, a Conservative lawmaker who was widely criticized as holding racist views, before she reversed her stance.

After her relationship with Todd came to light, Colquhoun complained to the Press Council, an official media watchdog, that she was being harassed. But the group rejected her allegations because of her status as a public figure. Still, it ruled that by identifying Todd, The Daily Mail had committed “a gross intrusion in privacy which could not be justified on the grounds of public interest.”

Amid rumblings that the local Labour Party committee in her Midlands district was considering deselecting her as its candidate, she was quoted as saying, “The day hasn’t yet arrived when a member of Parliament can be unseated by a gossip columnist.”

But in 1977, the local party came down against her, ruling that “she was elected as a working wife and mother” and adding, “This business has blackened her image irredeemably.”

She then appealed to the party’s national leaders and won their support. But she nevertheless lost her bid for re-election in the political tsunami that brought the Conservative Margaret Thatcher to power as Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979.

Many years would pass before she received a letter from the local Labour Party acknowledging that it had wronged her and thanking her for her contribution to gender politics. On receiving the letter, she said, “I felt like crying.”

Colquhoun and Todd married in 2015, the year after same-sex marriage was legalized in England. Todd died in February 2020 — just a year before Colquhoun did. By that time they were living in the scenic Lake District of northwest England. While Colquhoun remained active on local issues like conservation, she never returned to the national stage.

Parliament has become more inclusive since her time. In 2022, there were 225 women out of 650 members — around 35 percent, the highest on record. About 60 lawmakers identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Britain has had a second female prime minister, Theresa May. And the Scottish Parliament has two openly lesbian party leaders, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale.

In “Difficult Women,” a study of feminism published in 2020, the journalist Helen Lewis questioned why Colquhoun, Todd and a third prominent lesbian, Jackie Forster, were not better known. “The erasure of lesbians has troubled generations of feminist historians,” she wrote.

At least one marginalized group in England remembered Colquhoun’s struggle on their behalf.

In a tribute after her death, a group representing sex workers said that, like them, “Maureen Colquhoun knew what it was like to be treated as an outcast.”

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