As Bishop Auckland Labour Party meets to choose a successor to Derek Foster MP from an all-woman shortlist, Chris Lloyd looks at the history of women MPs in the North-East.

TODAY, from an all-woman shortlist, Bishop Auckland Labour Party will chose its candidate for the forthcoming election. Barring a political earthquake higher on the Richter scale than the underwater earthquake off the coast of Indonesia on Boxing Day, she will be the constituency's next MP.

But she won't be the constituency's first woman MP. That honour fell to Ruth Dalton in 1929, when she became the 13th woman ever to be elected to the House of Commons.

Only her victory wasn't really an honour for womankind. Ruth - listed on the ballot paper as "Mrs Hugh Dalton" - was just keeping the seat warm for her hubby, for whom it was too inconvenient to contest Bishop Auckland at that moment.

Women had been campaigning for the vote, and indeed for entry into the Commons, since the end of the 18th century, although their fight didn't gather momentum until the start of the 20th century as the suffragettes turned nasty. They were the Fathers4Justice of their day, chucking things about the Commons, chaining themselves to railings, getting themselves arrested for being where they shouldn't have been.

Most famously, and most fatally, was the 1913 Derby run at Epsom when Emily Davison sprinted from the crowd and made a grab at the bridle of a horse belonging to the king. She died of her injuries four days later.

The First World War changed everything. Women had proved themselves men's equal in home and industry, and the 1918 Representation of the People Act made them nearly equal in terms of politics. It granted the vote to women aged over 30, and it allowed women aged over 21 to stand for Parliament (even though they couldn't vote for themselves until they turned 30).

In the December 1918 election, 17 of the 1,623 candidates were women. But the only one who was elected hadn't been a brave suffragette. In fact, she didn't even want to be in the Commons.

SHE was Countess Constance Markievicz, the wife of a Polish Count, who was locked up in Holloway Prison for allegedly conspiring with the Germans during the war. As a Sinn Fein member, she refused to take her seat once the people of Dublin had elected her.

So the first woman MP to take her seat in the Commons was Viscountess Nancy Astor, an American who had only come to this country on her divorce. She had married Waldorf Astor, the MP for Plymouth, and when he became a peer on the death of his father, she decided to take over his seat in 1919.

The North-East's first female MP was another Conservative, Mabel Philipson, who acquired Berwick-upon-Tweed in curious fashion in 1923. As Mabel Russell, she was a famous comedy actress. Her second husband was the Liberal MP for Berwick, and when he was unseated because of the fraudulent activities of his agent, she took over.

Next up was Ellen Wilkinson, who in 1923 was elected by Middlesbrough East. She came from poor Manchester stock, but had joined the Independent Labour Party in 1907, won a scholarship to university and then flirted with Communism.

But it was as a Labour candidate that she won Middlesbrough, and she arrived at the Commons in a fashionable velvet green suit which contrasted with her vivid hair. Her hair colouring, and her left-leaning politics, caused her to be known as "Red Ellen" or "The Fiery Particle".

She represented Middlesbrough until 1931 - a sympathetic portrait of the town featured in her 1929 novel Clash - when the Labour Party feuded amongst itself over whether or not it should be supporting Ramsay MacDonald's National Government.

Four years later, though, Red Ellen was elected by the people of Jarrow. She led them on the Jarrow March of 1936 (although she often rode rather than marched) and passionately championed their cause.

After the Second World War, she became Britain's first female Minister of Education with some quite startling achievements: she introduced free school milk and meals for those from poor backgrounds, and she increased the school leaving age to 15 (she wanted it to be 16, but her male colleagues decided the country couldn't afford that).

RED Ellen was a contemporary of Margaret Bondfield who, from 1926, represented Wallsend. In 1929, MacDonald appointed her Minister of Labour, making her the first female Cabinet member and Privy Councillor - her career, though, was ended in 1931 because she had worked for him.

All of these early Labour women were driven by a desire to make women equal to men, but the same cannot be said of Ruth Dalton who, from February 7 to May 7, was MP for Bishop Auckland - she remains the shortest serving female MP in Commons history.

Her husband was Hugh Dalton, an Eton-educated rising star in the Labour Party. He was MP for Peckham but in 1928 fell out with his local party. He was forced to look elsewhere, and discovered that Bishop Auckland was looking for someone to replace its alcoholic MP, Ben Spoor.

Mr Dalton became Bishop's candidate - but prematurely Mr Spoor dropped dead. A by-election had to be called. For Mr Dalton to stand, he'd have to relinquish Peckham which would cause a by-election there and his chosen successor would have to resign from Gateshead and cause a by-election there... It would have been a messy game of dominos, so Mr Dalton sent his wife to clean up the mess.

Ruth, educated at the London School of Economics, was politically active in the capital but appears not to have wanted the national stage. Bravely, though, she sallied forth, her campaign directed by her husband and supported by a decent cast of Labour MPs.

Sir Oswald Mosley, not yet a fully-fledged fascist, spoke on her behalf to 1,500 people in Shildon Hippodrome. The night before polling day Philip Snowden, who had become Labour's first Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, spoke for her at the King's Hall, Bishop Auckland.

When a member of the audience lit his pipe, Mr Snowden turned it into an attack on the tax-raising Conservative who had replaced him at the Exchequer, Winston Churchill.

"I wonder if that man knows how much tax he's paid on that last ounce of tobacco," said Mr Snowden. "He's just taken five puffs on his pipe. One is for himself and four are for Mr Churchill."

With such support, Ruth romped home. She increased Labour's percentage of the vote and doubled its majority. So overcome was she that she collapsed, but she recovered to make a speech to the crowds gathered in Bishop Auckland Market Place.

"It's a smashing victory," she said, watched over by her husband. "The electors of Bishop Auckland have remained true to their Labour and Socialist faith...only a Labour Government can reconstruct this devastated district."

These were desperate, desperate times in the Durham coalfield, and Mrs Dalton devoted her maiden speech in the Commons to the 45 per cent unemployment among miners in her constituency (she anonymously sent them clothing and shoes).

BUT there was time for her to do very little else. In early May 1929, a General Election was called, and Hugh Dalton came north to claim what was rightfully his.

Ruth was beside him throughout the campaign and watched as he was chaired shoulder high along Newgate on the announcement of the result. For him, it was a crucial moment in a career which would lead him to No 11 Downing Street and, but for a momentary indiscretion when he accidentally leaked the 1947 Budget to a journalist, might well have taken him one higher to No 10.

Quite what Ruth thought of it isn't known. Some in the constituency were apparently sad to see the back of her because, despite initial scepticism, they'd warmed to her feminine touch.

But some of her friends thought that she was glad to have been just a three-month MP for she hadn't really enjoyed the masculine joustabout of the House. She returned to the more sedate world of the Parks Committee of the London County Council and later to the Arts Council.

Today's controversial all-women shortlist is an attempt to create sexual equality: there are just 118 female MPs - 18 per cent - in the Commons, although in the country women account for 51 per cent of the population.

There is some irony, therefore, that today's women are competing for a seat in the name of equality, that a pioneering 1920s' woman wanted only for her husband.