Who was Betty Boothroyd? First woman to become Commons Speaker dies aged 93

Betty Boothroyd served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 1992 to 2000, before being elevated to the House of Lords in 2001 ( Tom Stoddart / Getty Images)
Betty Boothroyd served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 1992 to 2000, before being elevated to the House of Lords in 2001 ( Tom Stoddart / Getty Images)

The first female Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, has died aged 93. The flags in Parliament are being flown at half mast and a minute’s silence will be observed in the House of Commons on Monday.

She was known for modernising the Commons Speaker role by refusing to wear the traditional white wig. In doing so, she ensured that her successors would be able to choose whether to wear one or not. Yet she also banned MPs from breastfeeding their babies during select committee meetings, and put a similar ban in place in the Commons public gallery.

Here’s what you need to know about Betty Boothroyd.

Who was Betty Boothroyd?

Betty Boothroyd was born on October 8, 1929 in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, the sole daughter of mill workers.

She grew up in a political environment, as her father was a trade unionist, and described herself as coming “out of the womb into the Labour movement”. But she didn’t enter politics straight away and instead became a dancer with the Tiller Girl troupe. She took several office jobs before becoming involved in politics, working for the Labour MP Barbara Castle and on the campaign to elect John F Kennedy as US president.

In May 1973, after several attempts, she entered Parliament, securing the seat of West Bromwich, later renamed West Bromwich West.

After nearly two decades in Parliament she was elected by her fellow MPs to the position of Speaker of the House of Commons, which involved supervising proceedings in the chamber. She served as Speaker from 1992 to 2000, before going to the House of Lords in 2001.

She called for a statue in central London to commemorate the part women played in World War Two, and was fervently involved in the campaign to keep the UK in the EU.

What tributes have been paid to her?

The current Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said: “Not only was Betty Boothroyd an inspiring woman, but she was also an inspirational politician, and someone I was proud to call my friend. To be the first woman speaker was truly groundbreaking and Betty certainly broke that glass ceiling with panache.

“She was from Yorkshire and I am from Lancashire – so there was always that friendly rivalry between us. But, from my point of view, it was heartening to hear a northern voice speaking from the chair. She stuck by the rules, had a no-nonsense style but any reprimands she did issue were done with good humour and charm.

“Betty was one of a kind. A sharp, witty and formidable woman – and I will miss her.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Lady Boothroyd was a “remarkable woman” praising her “passion, wit and sense of fairness”.

Former prime ministers have also been paying tribute.

Sir Tony Blair said she was “big-hearted and kind” and Sir John Major described her as “easy to like and easier still to admire”.

Theresa May said she had earned “the respect and admiration” of all MPs during her time as Speaker.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described her as a “dedicated and devoted public servant who will be dearly missed”.

Alastair Campbell, who was also involved in the campaign, said she was a “total one off”. He described her as “one of the kindest, wisest, most loving and loveable women you could ever wish to know”.

Clare Short – a Labour minister from 1997 to 2003 – told BBC 5 Live that Lady Boothroyd “suited being Speaker perfectly, her personality shone through, she had a natural authority.

“She was the one who dropped the wig [traditionally worn by Commons Speakers] because she had her own lovely thick grey curling hair.”

Former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson simply tweeted: “Betty Boothroyd was magnificent.”