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100 years of women in FE and skills. 'Nothing but the best is good enough': Jennie Lee

06th February 2018

To mark 100 years of women's suffrage, FETL is launching a series of articles profiling the achievements and ideas of the women who have helped shape further education and skills in the UK. The first of our series focuses, fittingly, on open access pioneer Jennie Lee, who became the youngest member of the House of Commons in 1929, at an age, 24, when she was still too young to vote.

Jennie Lee’s story is remarkable. As a Labour MP and Minister for the Arts in the government of Harold Wilson, she was instrumental in the foundation of the Open University and, in particular, ensuring that access to this new ‘University of the Air’ was genuinely open and its academic standards high. But she was groundbreaking in other ways, too, illustrating how, in the course of the twentieth century, education transformed the lives of many women, while women, in turn, began to transform education itself.

Lee was born on 3 November 1904, into a mining family in Lochgelly, Fife. Her father, James Lee, and grandfather, Michael Lee, were both active in the Independent Labour Party (her grandfather founded the local branch), and Lee would often accompany her father to party meetings, which he would chair. It was here that she encountered prominent Scottish socialists such as James Maxton and David Kirkwood and her political outlook was shaped, grounded in the language of class struggle.

She attended Edinburgh University, supported by bursaries, and became active in the University Labour Club, cultivating a growing reputation as a public speaker. As a young student she was strongly influence by Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and its story of one working-class man’s struggle to gain an education. She graduated with an MA, a teacher’s diploma and a law degree, and began work as a teacher, all the while continuing her political activism in the ILP.

In 1929 she was nominated as ILP candidate for North Lanark, comfortably winning a by-election later that year (overturning a Conservative majority). At 24, she became the youngest MP in parliament, ironically at an age when she, at the time, was not entitled to vote. The 1928 Equal Franchise Act, which came into force in the 1929 general election, gave the vote to women aged between 21 and 29 for the first time, adding five million women to the electoral roll in the 1929 general election (the Representation of the People Act 1918 enfranchised all men and all women over the age of 30 who met minimum property requirements). Her bold, irreverent style of speaking made a significant impact on the male-dominated House of Commons, while her socialist commitments brought her into conflict with senior figures in her own party.

Lee lost her seat in the Conservative landslide of 1931 (and failed to regain it in 1935) but continued to write articles in journals and newspapers and to lecture on politics. In 1934 she married Aneurin Bevan, then a rising star in the Labour Party. Increasingly, Lee put her political energies into supporting Bevan, who she viewed as the future of the Labour left (increasingly important to her after the demise of the ILP). Having been charged with keeping aircraft factories running during the war, Lee was re-elected to the Commons as Labour MP for Cannock, Staffordshire, in 1945. She was steadfast in her support of Bevan, defending him in the in-fighting that followed Labour losing power in 1951.

Lee emerged as a national figure in her own right following Bevan’s death in 1960. When Labour won the 1964 general election, Prime Minister Harold Wilson appointed her Minister for the Arts, in which capacity she was asked to lead on setting up the Open University, which Wilson regarded as the greatest achievement of his government. She showed great determination in pushing through a project in which civil servants and many Labour colleagues had little interest, and ensured that the new university was true to the dual principles of academic rigour and open access, going significantly beyond Wilson’s own vision of a ‘new educational trust’. Laying the foundation stone of the OU’s Jennie Lee Library in 1973, she praised ‘a great independent university which does not insult any man or any women whatever their background by offering them the second best. Nothing but the best is good enough.’

As arts minister Lee strove to widen access to the arts and culture, while resisting the temptation to link government funding to political influence. Although her direct influence on further education was slight, her indirect influence in establishing the principle of open access and widening working people’s access to education more generally was immense. Just as importantly, she defended the principle that open access need not mean any dilution of standards.

Lee retired from the House of Commons in 1970, becoming Baroness Lee of Asheridge. She died in 1988.

2 thoughts on “100 years of women in FE and skills. ‘Nothing but the best is good enough’: Jennie Lee”

  1. Simon says:

    Were Jennie alive and active today I wonder what causes she would take up? The following spring to mind…

    -Reforming admissions policies and looking at transition points between stages of education

    -Campaigning on the marginalisation of the arts in the curriculum

    -Transforming the education and funding systems to tackle inequalities

    As the Labour Party develop their ideas on a National Education Service, it is interesting to think about what Jennie’s vision of an inclusive and holistic education system would look like in a fundamentally different labour market and economy.

  2. Dame Ruth Silver says:

    Great question from Simon. If alive today, Jennie would be clear as crystal that high academic standards need high academics, ie, teachers with the space and support to sharpen their craft

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