Mistress of An Unruly House

updated 02/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

ANOTHER DAY 01 MAYHEM AM) MERRIMENT in Britain's House of Commons: inexplicable gales of laughter break out on both sides of the aisle as a leader of a minority party stands to speak. "Older! Order!" barks the Speaker of the House, glaring menacingly at the MPs when the laughter continues. "Now I will begin to name Members—on both sides of the House!" This threat of expulsion chastens the unruly crowd, and for a moment, Britain's esteemed legislators resemble nightclub hecklers one-upped by the act onstage. The Speaker gives the MPs a final severe look before continuing; she is not amused.

It look 600 years, but in 1992 the House of Commons chose its first woman Speaker. Betty Boothroyd, 64, is a stern taskmaster who must remain nonpartisan while ensuring every opinion is heard and generally keeping parliamentary language, well, parliamentary. (Last year, Boothroyd ousted one Labour MP when he refused to apologize after calling a fellow MP a little squirt.) "The men think I'm a bit of a bossy-boots," admits Boothroyd, who is one of only 60 women MPs out of a total of 651. "But that goes with my job. You have to be firm—but with a smile."

The $l00,000-a-year post has its perks. Boothroyd gets her own horse-drawn coach for state occasions, her own grand apartments in the Palace of Westminster and even her own procession: even' day she marches to the Speaker's office surrounded by functionaries in black tailcoats and knee breeches. The job involves power as well as pageantry. Boothroyd decides which amendments to bills will be voted on and casts a tie-breaking vote. She also manages the House staff of 1,000 and approves budgets on everything from House publications to the catering service. Sometimes she has lo deliver bad news, as when earlier this year she announced that Stephen Milligan, a Tory Minister, had been found dead (see story page 49).

In all her duties, Boothroyd has won praise from both sides of the bench for her evenhandedness. "Betty is tough and fairly brusque," says Gwynneth Dunwoody, 63, a Labour MP and one of Boothroyd's oldest friends. "But she genuinely cares about people."

Initially, Boothroyd was more interested in dance than politics: growing up in Dewsbury, a Yorkshire mill town, she performed with a student band called the Swing Stars. In 1947 she toured briefly with the Tiller Girls, Britain's version of the June Taylor Dancers. "Everyone thinks it was all men drinking champagne from your shoes," Boothroyd said. "But, like politics, it was damned hard and taught me about teamwork."

Meanwhile, her parents, both union activists, had instilled in their only daughter a passion for politics. Deciding at 17 that she would never be a great dancer, Boothroyd returned home and at 21 ran for a local council seat. She lost, then became an assistant to several MPs in London. Later, she traveled to the U.S. to work as a congressional aide for Silvio Conte, a Massachusetts Republican. In 1960 she campaigned for John F. Kennedy and treasures an inaugural program that he inscribed, "Many thanks for coming over."

Although Boothroyd found Congress "more sedate" than her beloved House of Commons, she never lost her ties to the U.S. She still makes trips here to visit friends she met on Capitol Hill. "Betty is aware of the importance of her role, but she is able to separate that from her personal life," says one, Melba Congleton, of Fort Myers, Fla.

Returning to Britain in 1962, Boothroyd again assisted various Labour MPs while running for Parliament as a Labour candidate. After four unsuccessful campaigns, she finally won a seat in West Bromwich, an industrial town, in 1973. Boothroyd then threw herself into parliamentary committee work. She became Deputy Speaker in 1987, and her assured performance led to election as the 155th Speaker—the first this century from the opposition.

For all its pomp, Madam Speaker's job can be lonely. Because she is expected to rise above party politics, she cannot fraternize daily with the other MPs. "Sometimes I look out from my window onto the Commons terrace [where MPs sometimes gather for lunch] and think, 'Boo hoo, they're having fun and here am I,' " she says. This isolation may be doubly hard on Boothroyd, notes her friend Dunwoody, because she has never married. But Boothroyd is hardly a wistful spinster; she has made peace with her choices. "The Commons has never been just a career," she explained. "It's my life."

JUDITH NEWMAN
ELLIN STEIN in London

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