Women in the Cabinet: 1979 to 2017

This year International Women’s Day coincides with celebrations for the centenary of votes for women in the United Kingdom. 2017 also saw the appointment of Sarah Clarke as Black Rod in the House of Lords, the first woman to fill the post in Parliament’s 650 year history, and the election of the largest ever number of female MPs to the House of Commons (206).

We decided to take a look at women’s role in the Cabinet since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in office.

What is a Cabinet Minister?

The Prime Minister’s Cabinet consists of approximately 20 Cabinet members who fill the most senior Government posts. They are chosen by the Prime Minister to lead departmental policy areas. Under Prime Minister Theresa May, there are currently 23 Cabinet members – six of whom are female, including the Prime Minster.

There are also a number of Cabinet attendees that are not Cabinet Ministers. These are known as Ministers “who also attend Cabinet”. Examples include staff of the Treasury and the Attorney General. Of the current six extra cabinet attendees, four are women.

Our calculations below focus on Cabinet members and do not include Ministers who “also attend” cabinet.

Women in cabinet positions

45 women have been appointed to Cabinet posts since 1929. Margaret Bondfield was the first ever woman appointed to the Cabinet, having previously become the first woman non-Cabinet minister in 1924.

February 1992 was the last month that there were no female cabinet members. Since then there has consistently been at least one female Cabinet Member, though numbers of women holding positions has fluctuated.

The most women to hold Cabinet posts at any one time is eight. This has happened twice in history, as part of Gordon Brown’s Labour Government and as part of Theresa May’s Conservative Government.

The graph below shows a time series of the number of women in parliament, and this Cabinet changes May 1979 to January 2017 PDF explains each of these changes.

Graph showing the number of female cabinet members May 1979 to January 2017

Parliamentary and political firsts for women

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries there have been many notable milestones for women in politics, several of which are included in the timeline below.

You can also check out our briefing Women in Government and Parliament.

Timeline of women in Parliament. See our Women In Parliament and Government briefing paper for a full version of this timeline in PDF form.

About the data

The Members’ Names Information Service includes a database of previous MPs. By combining data from this with our research briefings on Governments from 2010 and British Political Facts (Butler and Butler, 2011), we were able to build our own database of Cabinet Members, their gender and time(s) in office.

From this database, we then created a count based on the number of female cabinet members that held posts during each month between May 1979 and January 2018.

Please note that persons are not counted in the month in which they ceased to hold a Cabinet post. This is to counter the fact that some people held two different posts within the same month due to moving from one to another, or two people held the same post within the same calendar month. As such, had the final month been included, the number of female cabinet members in office at any one time could have been overstated.

Sources

Members’ Names Information Service

Ministers in the Coalition Government: 2010-15, House of Commons Library, 2015

Ministers in the 2015 and 2017 Conservative Governments, House of Commons Library, November 2017

British Political Facts 10th ed., David Butler and Gareth Butler, 2011

Picture credit 10 Downing Street by Number 10Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)