JENNIE Lee was one of the earliest female MPs and a pioneering socialist who believed in access to higher education for all, regardless of social status.
Born in Lochgelly, Fife on 3 November 1904, Lee’s future occupation was practically written in the stars. Her father, James Lee, was a miner who taught her about the benefits of socialism, while her grandfather, Michael, was heavily involved in politics at a local level and had played a pivotal role in the establishment the Fifeshire Independent Labour Party (ILP) federation. He could also count Labour Party pioneer Keir Hardie as a personal acquaintance.
After finishing secondary school, Jennie expressed a desire to study politics at university, but the family couldn’t afford to send her. However, she did eventually enrol for higher education to study law and education at Edinburgh – thanks to a little monetary help from the Carnegie Trust, who gifted her 50% towards her tuition fees.
In 1929, Jennie, ILP candidate for North Lanark, stormed to victory at both the by-election and general election to become the youngest member of the House of Commons and one of the earliest female MPs. During Jennie’s maiden speech she attracted a great deal of attention by condemning the budget proposals of then Conservative Chancellor Winston Churchill. The future Prime Minister congratulated the young MP afterwards for her courage and tenacity.
As a left-wing MP Jennie Lee was decades ahead of her time. She dared not label herself as a feminist, preferring instead to continue the fight for true socialism, in the belief that gender equality would be achieved as part of a wider package of societal progression.
In 1934, Lee married the prominent Welsh Labour MP Nye Bevan. She remained devoted to until his death in 1960, though had never been afraid to oppose his politics while they were in office.
Having been absent from the House of Commons for more than a decade, Lee secured her return at the 1945 general election, this time as Labour MP for Cannock in Staffordshire.
Lee’s defining moment arrived 20 years later. As an MP of Harold Wilson’s Labour government, she joined the Department of Education and Science and was appointed as the country’s first Minister for the Arts. The latter was a role which gave her a golden opportunity to focus on pushing through a parliamentary act that would turn out to be her political Meisterstuck: the founding of the Open University.
Working towards the establishment of a ‘University of the Air’, Lee put forth her proposal to the Ministerial Committee on Broadcasting, a standing Cabinet Committee. The principle of open access was heavily underlined: “Enrolment as a student of the University should be open to everyone … irrespective of educational qualifications, and no formal entrance requirement should be imposed.”
In her biography, Jennie Lee: A Life, author Patrica Hollis had this to say about her impact: “She wasn’t a better minister than I originally thought when I wrote about her. She was simply more remarkable. And for everyone else around her, even more impossible.”
Thanks largely to the efforts of Jennie Lee, the Open University was able to open in 1969. Today, several buildings belonging to the OU bear her name up and down the country.
Jennie Lee passed away in 1988 at the age of 84, her health having deteriorated rapidly in her last few years of life. In 2009, the community library in her native Lochgelly was renamed the Jennie Lee Library in her honour.