Theresa Stewart: Leader, Lord Mayor, Councillor and Mother

Chris Game

A few months ago, in blogging about ‘Women in West Midlands Governance’, I noted that in 1975 – not special, simply the year that had prompted the blog – 21 or 17% of Birmingham City Councillors had been women. They included “Theresa Stewart … a future Leader of the Council, Birmingham Lord Mayor, and wife of a Professor John Stewart”, who himself was, of course, for nearly 30 years an INLOGOV Professor, and builder, shaper and almost embodiment of the institution it would become.

There was no cause to mention in that blog that Theresa Stewart had in fact died, aged 90, during the first year of Covid, in November 2020. It did, however, mean that the City Council’s formal Thanksgiving Service for the Life of Honorary Alderman Theresa Stewart – Birmingham (Labour) City Councillor (1970-2002), its so far only female Leader (1993-99), and Lord Mayor (2000-01) – was indefinitely postponed.      

From a purely personal viewpoint, but also arguably more generally, it was one of the more fortuitous Covid postponements. As a work colleague of her husband, Professor John Stewart, I knew Theresa for nearly four decades, including as one of their countless serendipitous chauffeurs.

However, had the Council’s commemoration event not been Covid-prevented from being held relatively soon after her death, I’m not sure it would necessarily have taken the informal, inclusive, family-led and, yes, appropriately celebratory form that it eventually did. Or indeed that I – and possibly even the Clarion Singers’ delightful ‘socialist choir’ – would necessarily have made the invitation list.  

As it was, though, the Thanksgiving took place over an early June lunchtime in the so-called Banqueting Suite in the Council House home of the City Council in Victoria Square. And yes, there were socialist anthems, food, and much non-alcoholic and cross-party mingling after the ‘Service’ itself.

Moreover, the enforced delay allowed the celebration to be highlighted by the formal unveiling – by the Stewarts’ daughter, Selina, and grandchildren – of the portrait commissioned to celebrate their mother/grandmother’s unique contribution to Birmingham’s civic life.  I say ‘portrait’, but the Council seem commendably to prefer ‘artwork’, as I’d guess does Michelle Turton, the Birmingham-based illustrator who created it.  

It should by now be viewable in the Council House’s (Dame) Ellen Pinsent Room – thus renamed in 2018 after the city’s first female (Liberal Unionist) councillor, who, like so many of Birmingham’s subsequent women councillors and MPs, was elected by Edgbaston voters, as a Liberal Unionist in 1911.

The formal rededication of the former committee room had been undertaken by then Honorary Alderman Theresa Stewart in 2018, and both, pleasingly, are now among the 30+ exceptional ‘Pinsent Room women’ – from Olympic heptathlete Denise Lewis to Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai – whose achievements are celebrated in Louise Palfreyman’s fascinating 2018 book, Once Upon a Time in Birmingham: Women Who Dared to Dream.

As already indicated, the commissioned portrait was a kind of double bonus of the Covid postponement – in its own right, but also in its directly involving younger generations of the Stewart family, always at the heart, in every sense, of Theresa’s exceptional life of public and political service.

Not primarily, on this occasion, her lifelong work for, obviously, the Labour Party; or even the almost countless other causes for which she influentially campaigned – hospital standards, the Birmingham Pregnancy Advisory Service (which she founded), family allowances (going to mothers), CND, the miners’ strike, and indeed, just about every aspect of social services and education.

No – for arguably the most striking feature of Theresa Stewart’s ceaselessly active, seven-days-a-week, public life is that already alluded to: that it was totally interwoven with her family life – her immediate and extended family of 17 grand- and great-grandchildren and counting.   

The other obvious feature is that it was very largely focused on ‘local’ government. Exceptionally large-scale local, given it was Birmingham, but, while turning the initially marginal Billesley ward into pretty safe Labour, she resisted most of what must have been regular opportunities to at least consider Westminster – at a time, pre-1997, when under 5% of MPs were women.

Things have progressed, somewhat. Paulette Hamilton’s recent Erdington by-election win increased Labour’s women MPs to 52%, but the Commons total is still barely one-third and the proportion of mothers significantly lower still.

Which is why ‘Dirty Mother Pukka’ – aka Walthamstow Labour MP – Stella Creasy recently launched her VoteMama UK campaign, modelled on the US VoteMama movement. Its MotheRED grants of up to £2,000 are as timely as ever, at least helping – in the absence of maternity rights for MPs – to cover campaign childcare costs and encourage more mothers to stand for Parliament.

Early indications are that even these modest subsidies are attracting particularly single mothers and BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) women. Yet one more worthy cause which Honorary Alderman Theresa Stewart would undoubtedly have backed with enthusiasm.

Pictured: Emeritus Professor John Stewart; Selina Stewart; C’llr Brigid Jones,
Deputy Leader, Birmingham City Council

If anyone would like to see a copy of the Service ‘programme’ – with summaries of Theresa’s life and Council record, and the tributes by Baroness Estelle Morris, Steve McCabe MP, Deputy Council Leader Brigid Jones, and Sir Michael Lyons – a small number are available via [email protected]


A version of this blog appeared in the Birmingham Post on 30th June –

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