Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Welfare and equalities

Service, activism and politics: The inspirational story of Cllr Helen Wright

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Credit: Guy Hinks

In this interview, Helen Wright, Dundee City Council representative and the city’s first female Lord Provost, reflects on more than four decades of work in local government and her support for women in politics and the wider community.

Nearly 45 years after she was first elected as a councillor, Dundee City Council’s Helen Wright continues to blaze a trail in local government. A Scottish Labour Party representative for the Coldside ward, the now 80-year-old made history in 1999 when she became the first female Lord Provost and lord-lieutenant of the city, almost two decades after being elected as the only female member of the council’s Labour administration. In November 2023, she was given the Lifetime Legend accolade at the LGIU Scotland & CCLA Cllr Awards, which recognised her decades of service and her impact supporting women in her community.

“I never expected to have any rewards for anything,” she reflects. “If a job needed doing, I just got on and did it. I was so emotional about [the award, but] I was so pleased and happy [as well].”

The totality of Helen’s accomplishments as a politician and activist is nothing short of formidable. Joining Dundee City Council with a background in trade union activity, she broke new ground in the 1980s as a councillor with a child, later becoming the first female councillor in Dundee to have a baby while in office. The representative also boasts experience as a magistrate and prison visitor, as well as in social work and community justice.

The early years

Helen was born into a labour and trade union family in Clackmannanshire in 1943. “Social justice was a way of life,” she explains. “My grandmother could have been one of the original suffragettes because, where women were concerned, she was the one that always was in the front line. She was in every organisation, and in those days, that just wasn’t done. A lot of that rubbed off on me.”

Helen Wright
Credit: Guy Hinks

With a family involved in the Labour and Co-operative movement, representing workers seemed like the natural thing for Helen to do. She worked in the engineering and oil sectors, and became a national official for her engineering trade union. Later, she ran her own business. In 1980, she took her first step into local government, becoming the only female member of the 25-member Labour administration at Dundee’s district council when she was elected as councillor for the Fairmuir ward.

The early years as a councillor weren’t always easy for Helen, with the council having to get used to a member who had a baby on the scene. The 80-year-old remembers visiting the council chambers with her infant daughter, with nobody assisting her as she navigated the stairs with her pushchair.

“My son was born during my first term in office, and so there was a toddler and a baby at one point in time,” she notes. “There were all sorts of debates about ‘Where will the nappies go?’ and ‘What will happen?’ Some people weren’t particularly happy [and had the attitude of:] ‘Women should stay at the house and look after their kids.’”

Recent activity

Nevertheless, Helen remains a city councillor some 40 years later. A longstanding champion of women’s rights, she has campaigned for the greater involvement of women in politics, as well as playing a pivotal role in successfully improving women’s representation on the council. “I would say to women who are thinking they’ve not got time [to be a councillor], because of their household and because of maybe another job that they have, not to let that hold them back,” she advocates. “If they have strong feelings or if there’s been an inequality that they want to see put right, they should go for it.”

Another women’s issue that Helen has been involved with relates to female incarceration and the Bella Centre Community Custody Unit for low-supervision women and young people (which became operational in 2022 and is located in her ward). “We could see where the problems were with women [prisoners], and I argued with the Scottish Prison Service for years that we should have an alternative for women,” she says. “When I was a prison visitor, I found many local women were missing their kids, and the children were also adversely.”

“[The alternative] eventually landed up in my own ward, which I didn’t see as a problem, but many in the community didn’t like it one little bit. They thought they were getting a prison with murderers, drug dealers and serious offenders, but although some of the women fell into that category, they were actually trying to turn their lives around. The day the council took a vote about the planning application, I was in London at my daughter’s, so I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and I drove back to Dundee so that I could vote for it”

The representative’s dedication to her community is evident, with the councillor holding five surgeries a week — including one that she has been running since 1980. “I love surgeries because they’re about communicating with the public,” she says. “I feel quite good when I’ve been able to help [people]. They come back and they’ve got smiles on their faces. They don’t always say thank you, but their clear relief of getting whatever it was they needed help with resolved says it all. It could be anything from a repair to a personal problem to a legal problem, and I can always either solve the problem or  manage to put them in the right direction”

Helen Wright
Credit: Guy Hinks

If Helen’s story has reminded you of someone,  nominate them for a Cllr Award and celebrate their achievements with us!

Bumps in the road

Helen’s years in local government have undoubtedly come with their challenges. “I went through a lot of trials and errors when I was the Lord Provost,” she notes. “You would expect that the first female would have been supported, but that wasn’t the case. A lot of people worked against me, and I was accused of things that I wasn’t guilty of. I managed to clear my name, and I’m still standing.”

“In this day and age, I think a lot of councillors and elected members all over do worry about being in public spaces,” she adds. “Councillors get a lot of abuse. That never used to happen — there was a certain respect [in] that somebody was there to help you and you were there to help them. I’ve had a couple of times when people curse and swear at you and tell you that you’re a waste of space.”

Helen’s cases can also prove difficult. “A lot of people all over Dundee come to me because they know that I’ve got a track record, but some cases you just can’t solve,” she says. “There are some really sad cases I’ve got at the moment that upset me because you can see there is a way through, but the person can’t see the way. Sometimes now, because of the budget cuts and everything else like that, there’s not enough money to do things.”

However, the councillor believes that it is adversity that pushes her forward. “If a problem arises, I go into overdrive,” she notes. “I go face to face with officers and plead the cases of people. If I’ve got the wrong answer, I challenge again.”

Looking forward

One of the driving forces in Helen’s choice to seek re-election in 2022 was her determination to encourage women to put themselves forward as candidates and be there to support them. That year, she notes, the new Labour group had a majority of female members for the first time. Now in her 80s, the councillor can be forgiven for revealing that she doesn’t believe that she can stand in another election. Despite this, the representative says that she still wants to help out in any way possible — and that she is looking forward to the next contest.

“We are encouraging women to put themselves forward,” she notes. “We’ve got a couple of women who will put themselves forward for the Scottish Parliament and I’m trying to bring more women on for the next local government elections.”

With so many accomplishments under her belt, Helen can be proud when she ultimately steps back from local government. Until that time comes, it remains to be seen how she will continue to contribute to her legacy as a councillor — one that has undoubtedly changed the world of local politics for the better.

If Helen’s story has reminded you of someone,  nominate them for a Cllr Award and celebrate their achievements with us!

Watch the full interview with Helen now:



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