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Dame Mary Donaldson, 82; Woman of Many Firsts in City of London Politics

October 10, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Dame Mary Donaldson, the first woman to serve as lord mayor of the City of London, the area within London proper that includes the financial district, died Saturday at a hospice in Lymington, her family home in southern England.

The cause of death was not reported. Donaldson was 82.

She was elected lord mayor in 1983 in a unanimous vote by city officials. The figurehead position does not include a salary but carries considerable prestige and historic significance.

The City of London is the oldest local government in England, instated by King Richard the Lionhearted in 1192. Inside the square-mile city district, the lord mayor is second in power only to the queen of England, should the queen visit.

The main responsibility of the lord mayor is to host official occasions and travel to promote tourism and trade.

Donaldson insisted on being addressed as "Lord" rather than "Lady" Mayor and charged a fine of one pound to anyone who made the mistake.

"I'm not a great banner-waver for the feminist movement," she told the Los Angeles Times in a 1984 interview. However, she added, "I will stand on a soapbox for equal opportunity."

Despite her efforts to downplay her feminine gender, a marching band at Donaldson's inaugural parade opened with "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." News features about her paid close attention to her dress style.

While her predecessors in the job of lord mayor wore medieval costumes with knee breeches and silk hose under their black robes, Donaldson said in interviews that she wore only a slip and bra. She might have considered the traditional costume, she explained, "If I were 20 years younger and considerably slimmer."

Her position as mayor capped a political career of firsts. She was the first woman to serve as the City of London's sheriff, from 1981 to 1982; the first to serve as city alderman in 1975, and the first female on the city's Common Council, having been elected in 1966.

Known for her simple, direct manner, she once said she found it a challenge getting used to the many formalities of public office.

"After all my years in the city, it no longer strikes me as extraordinary that when you see something move, you bow to it," she told the New York Times in 1982.

Born Dorothy Mary Warwick in Hampshire, England, on Aug. 29,1921, her father was an ironmonger and her mother taught school. After high school, she spent a year in Paris, teaching English, then trained to be a nurse at Oxford University in England.

She worked at a London hospital during World War II and met her husband, then Army Lt. Col. John Donaldson, when his mother, a patient at the hospital, introduced them.

John Donaldson later became a lawyer and judge who was appointed Master of the Rolls, one of the highest ranking positions in the judiciary.

The couple married in 1945 and had three children. Donaldson, who is survived by her husband, children and six grandchildren, entered public life after she became a grandmother.

"You come in from being a grandmother and suddenly you are lord mayor," she said in 1984, looking back on her career.

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