SHE was elected to Parliament to represent North Lanark, not perhaps an area of Scotland notorious for its commitment to equality of female opportunity.

At 24, Jennie Lee became the newest and youngest member at Westminster, representing the Independent Labour Party while too young to vote for herself. (It was 1929, when the franchise was only extended to women over 30 or those with property.) This, then, is the centenary of her storming the almost all-male bastions of the House of Commons, and the 50th anniversary of arguably her greatest achievement – persuading Harold Wilson to launch the Open University.

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I’ve been retracing some of Lee’s journey in Fife for a radio tribute to a woman who was never merely known as Mrs Nye Bevan, although their marriage provided the Labour Party, which she later joined, with one of the great political power couples. And pondering along the way how the daughter and granddaughter of miners managed to defy every social norm of her day. She hailed from Lochgelly, home of the notorious tawse, where her childhood was far from typical. Most local families were large, in stark contrast to the wage packet from which they were to be fed and clothed. But Jennie’s mother and father, having lost two boys in infancy, went on to have just two more, herself and a younger brother.

And it was Jennie who was the dominant sibling, a voracious reader, a voluble taker up of causes, and a girl determined not to follow most of her peers into teenage employment. She had sat at the feet of some of the legendary ILP pioneers as a child, and imbibed her gospel at the Socialist Sunday School and the doctrines as preached by her father whom she adored.

Her journey through Beath High School to Edinburgh University was facilitated by funding from Fife Council and the Carnegie Trust, and by doting parents keen to indulge the ambitions of their precocious youngest child. Mum made food hampers supplemented by the local community with which Dad cycled to Edinburgh taking back home his daughter’s laundry.

Unlike most local girls, she was a stranger to housework or any domestic chores and probably wanted to keep it that way. Her biographer, Patricia Hollis, notes that “in every way that mattered Jennie was brought up as the oldest son”. Which speaks volumes for the accepted pecking order.

Lee mixed a natural talent for oratory with a keen sense of social justice, and was temperamentally not given to suffering fools or would be obstructors gladly. If Jennie tore a strip off you, you stayed telt. For all that, she never lost the pull of her roots, or her class, which she dubbed “upper working”. The 1926 strike propelled her home to Fife and to serve in soup kitchens and help with fundraising tours for the miners.

Her marriage to Nye took her out of frontline politics for a while but she became the Labour MP for Cannock in 1945. Twenty years later this formidable, feisty Fifer was in Harold Wilson’s Cabinet, launching the first ever national arts strategy and persuading him of the merits of a “University of the Air” open to all regardless of background or qualifications.

Yet talking to those who cherish her memory and keep the flame alive it’s clear there are unexpected contradictions in her life’s work. She wouldn’t have described herself as a feminist, it seems, having a touching faith in an improvement in the human condition being sure to benefit women ultimately. Hmm.

And of course she went to the Lords after losing her seat in 1970. Asked if she had any qualms about becoming a baroness she shot back “of course not, they have a fabulous library”.

Few of the 1120 women standing for Westminster next month will know too much about Jennie, or many of the other women who battered a way through the glass ceiling in previous generations. But they might reflect that, in representing just one-third of the candidates this time round, the suspicion is that the trend to have Parliament more accurately reflecting society at large is going in the wrong direction. And even the raw statistics tell less than the whole story since being selected in a hopeless seat is no more than tokenism.

Holyrood, which began life with a Parliament 37% female with half the Labour intake female and almost 43% of the SNP, has slipped dismally back. Neither are its inner workings helped by a male-dominated corporate body too often reflected on its committees as well.

Yet given the dismal images of the last few months, and the raft of female MPs throwing in the towel in the wake of sustained threats, social media onslaughts and general misogyny, it’s not a culture in which it’s easy to persuade women to put themselves in the election firing line. There is a subtext here where women of colour have a particularly grim ordeal via their Twitter feeds.

This is not to say that male MPs are immune from threats of physical violence or having their premises daubed with unsavoury slogans. But it’s rare for them to face threats of rape outlined in the goriest detail. Women who become MPs are not simpering snowflakes, but a relentless diet of insult and disparagement inevitably has a cumulative effect on the psyche. Neither is it helpful when you have a Prime Minister who takes a cavalier and contemptuous attitude towards this kind of bullying.

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If Boris Johnson finds himself returned to 10 Downing Street next month he might care to take a very hard look in the mirror and contemplate whether a man with a reputation for both serial philandering and treating women as disposable window dressing is really the kind of prime minister the country deserves.

Otherwise he had better take a care before attempting any more dismissive quippery. The girly swots are on the march. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more.

In The Footsteps of Jennie Lee is on BBC Radio Scotland tomorrow at 1.30pm