Jennie (Janet) Lee was born in Lochgelly, Fife, on 3 November 1904, to James Lee, a miner, and Euphemia Grieg. Two years later, her younger brother Tommy was born. Jennie became interested in politics at an early age. Her grandfather Michael Lee was deeply involved in local politics, establishing the Fifeshire Federation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), later chaired by Jennie's father. The ILP became a large part of Lee family life, through which Jennie attended local meetings and met many political figures. She became deeply interested in the Socialist movement and attended the Socialist Sunday School.
Jennie took the only means open to her of continuing her studies, by attending Edinburgh University as a trainee teacher. Jennie began at Edinburgh in 1922 and remained there for five years, largely supported by bursaries. She also joined the University Labour Club. In 1927 Jennie graduated with an MA, a teacher's diploma and a law (LLB) degree. She reluctantly embarked on a career in teaching, whilst continuing her political activities.
Jennie became increasingly involved in the Scottish ILP circuit. In 1929 she was nominated by the Labour Movement in Shotts as the ILP candidate for North Lanark and she stormed to victory. At 24, she was to be the youngest member of the House of Commons. Jennie's maiden speech in the House of Commons caused a great deal of interest - she spoke vehemently and attacked the government. In 1931 she was defeated in the Conservative landslide and did not return to the Commons until 1945, largely due to her committment to the increasingly isolated ILP, which forced her to renounce the official Labour Party during the Labour/ILP split in 1932. She rejoined the official Labour Party in 1944 and was elected MP for Cannock, Staffordshire in 1945.
Between 1931 and 1945, Jennie wrote articles for left-wing journals and newspapers and lectured in America, Canada and Europe. During the Second World War she was initially involved in the manufacture of barrage balloons and then as the House of Commons representative for The Daily Mirror. She also worked for Tribune, a newspaper for the Labour left, co-founded by Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps and G.R.Strauss: the 'As I Please' column became Jennie's in 1945.
In her earlier stint in parliament Jennie had developed a relationship with Frank Wise MP, who was married. In 1933 Wise died of a brain haemorrage and in 1934 Jennie married Aneurin 'Nye' Bevan (1897-1960).
Jennie was a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee from 1958 to 1970. Following Labour’s win in the 1964 general election, she was appointed Minister for the Arts in the Ministry of Works. In March 1965, Lee was moved to the department of Education and Science and additionally tasked with delivering the University of the Air.
Although she had personal experience of a conventional university Jennie was also subject to other influences. In 1965 she said that Hardy’s Jude the Obscure was ‘one of the formative books for me when I was a young student – the struggle for self-education’.
She also knew about conventional adult education. The Workers’ Educational Association was less popular in Scotland than England and less well-regarded by many on the left. The formal adult education of her late husband amounted to two years at the Central Labour College, London, funded by the South Wales Miners’ Federation. She felt that adult education should be more than ‘dowdy and mouldy... old-fashioned night schools ... hard benches’. Lee was mindful of the fact that Adult Education was, as the OU’s first Vice-Chancellor, Walter Perry, put it, to be ‘the patch on the backside of our educational trousers’. Her 1966 White Paper, A University of the Air made it clear that ‘There can be no question of offering to students a makeshift project inferior in quality to other universities. That would defeat its whole purpose’.
In 1970, the Labour government was defeated. Jennie not only lost her ministerial position, but also her seat at Cannock. In late 1970, she was created a Life Peer and took as her title Baroness Lee of Asheridge, after her farm. She continued to attend the House of Lords until the mid-1980s. Much of her time was spent writing her book 'My Life With Nye', published in 1980 to critical acclaim. After suffering a rapid deterioration in health, Jennie Lee died on 16 November 1988 aged 84.
Jennie Lee laid the foundation stone for the first OU library, which bore her name in April 1973:
Coming down here recalls for me, as it does for many of us, the mud right up to your eyebrows of those first years and I know that around here today there are pioneers, oh pioneers! There are some of you of course who came on later, you’ve had it easier. And of course my particular concern is that this university, which is already great, shall become greater still and that no one, no influence of any kind shall be allowed to reduce its academic status. We have established, you have established by the quality of your scholarship, you have established a university which makes no compromise whatsoever on academic standards, now that’s its glory.
But there it is, a great independent university which does not insult any man or any women whatever their background by offering them the second best, nothing but the best is good enough.