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Laborite Becomes First Woman Speaker in Commons

April 28, 1992

LONDON (AP) _ The House of Commons broke a 700-year tradition Monday, electing Betty Boothroyd, a Labor Party lawmaker and former chorus girl, to wear the black robes of the Speaker of the House.

Miss Boothroyd, 62, the first woman Speaker, celebrated the moment by going right to work, crying out for ″Order, Order 3/8″ as lawmakers in the traditionally turbulent and lively Commons clamored to offer congratulations.

Miss Boothroyd was elected when the Commons sat for the first time since the Conservative Party won a fourth consecutive victory in national elections April 9. Its majority was slashed from 88 to 21.

In a 372-238 vote Miss Boothroyd defeated the former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke, a Conservative lawmaker. She is the first Speaker from outside the governing party since World War II.

The powerful post dates back to 1258, and the uniform has not changed much since then: full wig, black robe, breeches, tight stockings. Officials said she would wear the wig and gown, but Miss Boothroyd had other ideas.

″I won’t be wearing a wig,″ she said. ″I want to be comfortable in what I wear, and I don’t think I’ll be comfortable in a wig.″ Miss Boothroyd said she would forgo the other ancient garb as well, and would wear a skirt under her robes.

″I cannot deny my sex,″ she said.

Miss Boothroyd is one of 60 women in the 651-member Commons. Her new job pays 65,000 pounds ($115,000).

She had total backing from Labor and picked up key support from about 70 Conservative rank-and-file lawmakers who liked her style as a deputy speaker in the previous Parliament and the idea of having a woman and a Laborite, despite the party’s defeat.

Miss Boothroyd, who mixes humor with the no-nonsense attitude familiar in her native Yorkshire, urged lawmakers to vote for her on merit.

″While having a competent woman as Speaker may be a good thing, having a bad woman Speaker would be disastrous,″ she said. ″It would be a tragedy for this House ... it would be bad for the cause of women everywhere.″

Then, in a reference to her days 40 years ago as one of the Tiller Girls, a nationally famous lineup of high-kicking dancers at London’s Palladium, she joked, ″It is true that in the past I may have been granted physical agility, but my carriage isn’t all that majestic now.″

″It seems to me why you have made history is relevant,″ said Prime Minister John Major. ″You have become our Speaker-elect because the House trusts you.″

Major did not vote in the contest for the strictly impartial post. But published reports said he wanted Brooke.

Miss Boothroyd, on Labor’s right-wing, comes from a working class family.

She joined the party at 16 and started out as a secretary in a Labor office. She was elected to the Commons in 1973 for the district of West Bromwich West.

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