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Jennie Lee (1904 - 1988)

One of the first woman MPs, prominent socialist, and leading founder of the Open University.

Lee plaques
Photograph by Walter Bird © National Portrait Gallery

Janet 'Jennie' Lee, later Baroness Lee of Asheridge, was born in Lochgelly, Fife, in 1904, to James Lee, a miner, and Euphemia Grieg. She became interested in politics at an early age. Her grandfather Michael Lee had been deeply involved in local politics, establishing the Fifeshire Federation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), through which Jennie attended local meetings and met many political figures, becoming deeply engrained in the Socialist movement.

At Edinburgh

Jennie enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study teaching in 1922. She was largely supported by bursaries, and became quickly involved in political life there by joining the University Labour Club. She graduated in 1927, having gained an MA, a teacher's diploma and a law degree, and began a  career in teaching.


At the same time, Jennie became increasingly involved in the Scottish ILP and was nominated as the ILP candidate for North Lanark, storming to victory. At 24, she was the youngest member of the House of Commons. In 1931 she was defeated in a Conservative landslide  and did not return to the Commons until 1945, having renounced the official Labour Party during the Labour/ILP split in 1932. She rejoined the official Party in 1944 and was elected MP for Cannock, Staffordshire in 1945.

Between 1931 and 1945, Jennie wrote articles for left-wing journals and newspapers and lectured in America, Canada and Europe. During the Second World War she was initially involved in the manufacture of barrage balloons and then as the House of Commons representative for The Daily Mirror. 

University of the Air

Jennie was a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee from 1958 to 1970, and following Labour’s win in the 1964 general election, she was appointed Minister for the Arts in the Ministry of Works. She then moved to the department of Education and Science in 1965.

It was while there that she produced a white paper on 'The University of the Air', which advoated the establishment of a correspondence university - using television and radio -  for adult learners who had previously been denied the chance to study. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was enthusiastic and the paper would have a major influence on the foundation of what would become the Open University. 

Life Peer

In 1970, the Labour government was defeated, and Jennie not only lost her ministerial position, but also her seat in Cannock. She was created a Life Peer and took the title Baroness Lee of Asheridge, after the farm she owned. She continued to attend the House of Lords until the mid-1980s, while also releasing the book 'My Life With Nye' about her marriage to fellow Labour politician Aneurin Bevan (1897 - 1960).

Jennie Lee died on 16 November 1988 aged 84. Among several memorials around the UK, she is remembered in Edinburgh by a plaque on Buccleuch Place and by the Open University's Jennie Lee Building in Drumsheugh Gardens.

Related links

The University's commemorative plaque