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Who was Jennie Lee?
Jennie Lee was born Janet Lee in Lochgelly, in Fife, Scotland on 3 November 1904. The daughter of a miner (who later gave up work in the mines to run a hotel), she inherited her father’s socialist inclinations, and like him joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). In her childhood she met socialist leaders such as James Maxton (who would have a profound influence on her) and David Kirkwood. She opposed the UK’s involvement in the First World War, and hoped to attend university, but her parents found they were unable to afford the fees involved. She managed to secure support from the Carnegie Trust which allowed her to attend the University of Edinburgh.
At university she became further politically involved, joining the Labour Club there, and taking part in the campaign to have Bertrand Russell elected as University Rector. During the general strike Lee returned home to assist the striking miners, even donating a bursary she was receiving to her parents to tide them over. She graduated from university and worked as a teacher in Cowdenbeath before being adopted as the ILP candidate for the North Lanarkshire constituency, which she won at a 1929 by-election, becoming the youngest member of the House of Commons. However, in the 1931 general election she lost her seat in parliament. In 1933, Lee married the left-wing Welsh Labour MP Aneurin Bevan, with whom she remained until his death in 1960.
She later returned to the Labour Party from the ILP, and at the 1945 general election she was once again elected to the Commons, this time to represent the Cannock constituency in Staffordshire. She was appointed arts minister in the Harold Wilson government of 1964 and played a key role in the formation of the Open University, an act described by Wilson as the greatest of his time in government. Lee renewed the charter of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1967 which saw an expansion of its work in the regions as well of the creation of the new arts institutions at London’s South Bank Centre. She also introduced the only UK White Paper for the Arts and following the 1967 reshuffle was promoted to Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science after two years as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State.
Lee was defeated at the 1970 election in Cannock by Patrick Cormack and she retired from frontline politics when she was made Baroness Lee of Asheridge, of the City of Westminster. She died in 1988 from natural causes at the age of 83. Jennie Lee bequeathed her personal papers to the Open University. They are preserved in the Open University Archive.
In 2005, the Student’s Association of the newly created Adam Smith College in Kirkcaldy, Fife refused to name themselves after Adam Smith, and instead chose the name Jennie Lee Student’s Association. The Association claimed Adam Smith is synonymous with “exploitation and greed” and stated “Jennie Lee would be an excellent role model for the students because of the courage and conviction she showed in achieving the aims she believed passionately in”.