Bondfield, Margaret (1873–1953)

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Bondfield, Margaret (1873–1953)

Trade union organizer, advocate of child welfare improvement, lecturer, and first woman member of a British Cabinet. Name variations: Maggie; (pseudonym) Grace Dare. Born Margaret Grace Bondfield on March 17, 1873, in Furnham, Somerset, England; died in Sanderstead, Surrey, on June 16, 1953; daughter of William (foreman of a lace-making factory) and Ann (Taylor) Bondfield; attended elementary school until 14; never married; no children.

Apprenticed to a drapery store; joined the National Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks and became one of its full-time officials (1898), a post she held until 1908; also acted on behalf of the Women's Trade Union League, the National Federation of Women Workers, and the Women's Co-operative Guild; became chief woman officer of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers (1920), a post occupied until 1938 but with secondments when she was a Member of Parliament; served as MP for Northampton (1923–24); served as junior minister in the Labour Government (1924); elected MP for Wallsend (1926–31); served as minister of labour in the Labour Government (1929–31); was British Information Services lecturer in U.S. (1941–42).


articles and pamphlets on industrial questions; Why Labour Fights (British Information Services, 1941); A Life's Work (Hutchinson 1949).

On June 15, 1929, the weekly journal The Economist, in an appraisal of the newly formed government of Ramsay MacDonald, commented: "The Ministry of Labour is given to Miss Margaret Bondfield whose record and abilities have fittingly earned her the distinction of being the first woman to reach Cabinet rank." Five years earlier, in January 1924, Margaret—or, as she was often known to friends and colleagues, Maggie—Bondfield had created a precedent as the first woman to reach ministerial office, when she had been appointed to a minor post in the government. These two appointments, which were widely, and usually favorably, commented on at the time, marked an advance in the political status of women in a period when in many countries women's right to vote was still disputed or had been a matter of recent and often reluctant recognition.

Margaret Bondfield, the tenth of a family of eleven children (seven boys, four girls), was born in Furnham, a village near the small market town of Chard, in Somerset. Her father, who had been born in 1814, had been active in radical causes, especially in the 1840s, when the agitation

for the "People's Charter"—a program of political reform—had been at its height. He was able to support his large family both from his wages as the overseer of a small lace-making factory and from the food he grew in the field attached to his cottage. Margaret's father had been a lay preacher, as had other of her forebears, and she always kept to the religious principles in which she had been raised. In particular, she believed that Christianity was a social gospel; as she wrote in her autobiography:

Christianity is not merely a spiritual and mystical and personal religion, but is quite definitely a social scheme—and what is more a scheme for the proper and just management of the whole world. It is only to the degree in which we love our neighbour that we can know anything of the love of God. The personal life of a Christian has to be also a social life.

As a trade union leader and Labour Party politician, she sought to apply her faith in an everyday context, and she believed that the foundations of the labor movement should be built on ethical values drawn from the precepts of Christianity.

Bondfield's education was of the elementary sort provided for children of her background. By the age of 13, having acquired knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic, the main subjects at her school (and most others that were run by the local authorities), she was paid three shillings a week to teach younger children. This she did for about a year and was then apprenticed to the drapery trade in Brighton, where a brother and sister also lived. The first shop at which she worked was a family business with an extensive postal trade to India.

When the proprietor of this establishment retired, she was taken on in the outfitting department of a larger shop. Bondfield quickly realized that behind the genteel exterior of such premises was considerable squalor. Most assistants in the larger businesses were expected to "live in"; their quarters were usually cramped and spartan. Petty regulations, enforced by fines, operated in these dormitories, which could be stifling in summer and icy in winter. Usually, the assistant's possessions had to be kept in a box under her bed. Facilities for cooking food or taking a bath were often nonexistent. In addition, shopowners regarded such accommodation, which increased their authority over those required to occupy it, as part of the employees' payment. Cash wages were therefore very small; after 15 years' experience, Margaret Bondfield was paid less than an unskilled male worker and was expected to work some 65 hours each week (most shops were open six days a week, usually until late in the evening). Very few belonged to the small local associations of shop assistants or to the National Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks which had been formed in 1891.

After five years in Brighton, Bondfield moved to London where a brother, an active trade unionist, also lived. Soon after finding a post, she began to get involved in organizations that sought to improve social and economic conditions. She joined the shop assistants' union and the Social Democratic Federation. Since the latter included many followers of Karl Marx who believed in his doctrines of class conflict, something that she could not accept, she eventually moved over to the more moderate socialism of the Independent Labour Party. By the mid-1890s, she was on the executive committee of her trade union which met on Sundays, the only day its members were free. At that time, the union's campaigns were centered on three issues: an end to the living-in system; the abolition of fines and deductions, which could reduce the assistants' already small salaries; and shorter working hours. Late at night, against her employer's regulations, she would burn a small light while writing letters and articles (under the pen name of Grace Dare) on behalf of the union.

In 1898, the importance of her trade union work was recognized when she was appointed to the full-time post of assistant secretary. Her salary was £2 a week, more than twice what she had been paid as a shop worker. In the next few years, Bondfield helped to double the size of the union membership. She attended and spoke at the annual Trades Union Congress in 1899, when she was the only woman delegate. With Lady Emily Dilke and Gertrude Tuckwell , she worked on behalf of the Women's Trade Union League, which operated as a pressure group to improve the lot of all working women. In 1906, she became involved with the Women's Labour League, an organization closely associated with the Labour Party. She was active too in the Adult Suffrage Society and campaigned for the franchise to be extended to all adults, as opposed to those who advocated women should receive the vote on the same terms (which involved a property qualification) as men. When another pioneer of shop assistants' trade unionism, Mary Reid Macarthur , formed the National Federation of Women Workers in 1906, Bondfield gave that body her support also. In 1908, after, in the words of her autobiography, "ten slogging years as officer" and "drained of vitality," she resigned from the shop assistants' union.

By this time, Bondfield had become a wellknown figure in trade union and progressive circles. Dressed in a neat and simple way, somewhat below average height and with a pleasant, rounded face, she was an eloquent platform speaker. In 1904, she made what was to be the first of many foreign visits when she attended the International Congress of Women in Berlin. At the invitation of Elizabeth Glendower Evans , she spent five months in lecturing and touring the United States in 1910; her autobiography records the visit in detail, drawn from a diary kept at the time. In Chicago, she stayed at Hull House and befriended Jane Addams ; in New York on November 1, she had meetings with Carrie Chapman Catt ("a powerful personality"), Rose Schneiderman and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Towards the end of 1911, Margaret Bondfield's health broke down, and it was not until well into the following year that she resumed her activities. At the request of Margaret Llewelyn Davies of the Women's Co-operative Guild, Bondfield took part in a campaign for improved maternity and child welfare facilities. This involved publicizing examples of hardship, lobbying politicians, and encouraging the individual members of the Co-operative Guild, who numbered some 32,000, to work for the campaign at branch level. A collection of letters written by working women about their circumstances, published in 1915 under the editorship of Davies with a preface by Virginia Woolf as Maternity: Letters from Working Women, is still a valuable source for the social historian.

When World War I broke out, Bondfield was as shocked by the accompanying spirit of militarism as she was by the scale of subsequent casualties. However, rather than opposing the war, her energies were spent in trying to reduce the problems caused on the home front with regard to rising prices, conscription, war widows' pensions and so forth. In common with others in the Independent Labour Party, she welcomed Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points" as the basis of a peace settlement, but the British government refused to issue her a passport to the United States or to The Hague conference of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, whose president was her friend Jane Addams.

Tuckwell, Gertrude (1861–1951)

English trade unionist. Born Gertrude Mary Tuckwell in Oxford, England, in 1861; died in 1951; daughter of a parson.

Gertrude Tuckwell was educated at home by her father who was master of New College School. After a seven-year stint teaching in elementary schools in London (1885–93), she became secretary to her aunt, Lady Emily Dilke (1893). On Lady Dilke's death, Tuckwell was elected president of the Women's Trade Union League (1904–1921). Along with Mary Reid Macarthur, Adelaide Anderson , and others, Tuckwell led crusades against white lead poisoning and organized the Sweated Goods Exhibition (1906), spurring the Trade Boards Act of 1909. After World War I, Tuckwell's energies turned to social reform, in particular, Macarthur's work on maternity. Gertrude Tuckwell was the first woman justice of the peace for the County of London (1920); founded the maternal Mortality Committee (1927); was president of the Women Sanitary Inspectors and the National Association of Probation Officers; and sat on the Central Committee on Women's Training and Employment. She also published The State and its Children (1894), Women in Industry (1908), and, with Stephen Gwynn, a biography of Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1917).

In common with other progressive figures, Bondfield hoped a new and better order could be shaped once the war ended. She was a delegate to the international conference of socialist parties held in Berne in January and February 1919. In the summer, she was a fraternal delegate to the conference of the American Federation of Labor; again her autobiography includes a diary of her stay in the U.S. where she was able to renew her acquaintanceship with activists such as Lillian Wald and Rose Schneiderman, who helped to entertain her and accompanied her to meetings ("dear little Rose," Bondfield recorded on one occasion in her diary, "good as always"). Although war had ended in much of Europe in December 1918, there was still turmoil in the Soviet Union (created after the Communist revolution of 1917). To inquire into the situation, a delegation of the British labor movement, including Margaret Bondfield, traveled to Russia in May 1920. In spite of meeting some of the Bolshevik leaders, including V.I. Lenin, and calling for the end of hostilities between the Soviet Union and Poland, she was not converted to the ideas of the new regime. Her view, supported by the other delegates and publicized on their return to England in August, was that military intervention in Russia should end: it was a desire for peace and sympathy with the sufferings of the people that motivated her. Communism as a creed she rejected.

No worker in any Movement ever had a colleague who was more single-minded, generous, and loyal. She is in many ways the type of what all Labour women should be—unflinchingly staunch to her cause, fair to her opponents, radiating good will to all.

—Margaret Llewelyn Davies

In 1920, the National Federation of Women Workers amalgamated with the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, and the position of chief woman officer was created. Margaret Bondfield occupied the post until 1938, though many of the duties were carried out by a deputy; it was intended that her efforts on behalf of working women should be in the wider public sphere.

Women over 30 had been brought within the parliamentary franchise in 1918 and were also allowed to stand as candidates for election to the House of Commons. Bondfield had unsuccessfully contested Woolwich for a seat on the London County Council in 1910, but early in 1920 she stood as a parliamentary candidate of the Labour Party in a by-election at Northampton. Although defeated, she continued to nurse the constituency and again represented Labour there in the general election of 1922. Once more, she was unsuccessful, but at her third attempt to win the Northampton seat, in the general election of December 1923, she came top of the poll. Early in 1924, the Labour Party formed a government for the first time. Lacking a parliamentary majority, it survived only nine months, though it was also notable for including, in the junior post of parliamentary secretary to minister of labour, the first woman to hold a ministerial office in Parliament, Margaret Bondfield.

However, in the general election of October 1924, which followed the defeat of the government, she lost her Northampton seat. At the start of the election campaign, she was in North America, as leader of a delegation inquiring into the settlement of children and other migrants to Canada. She was regarded by the Labour Party as someone whose services should be available in the House of Commons and when a by-election was called in Wallsend, a constituency in the northeast of England near Newcastle upon Tyne, the local party was requested to nominate her. In July 1926, she was returned to Parliament and comfortably won the seat again in the general election of 1929.

In 1929, her party, though it had more members than either the Liberals or the Conservatives, was able to form only a minority government. She was made minister of labour, a Cabinet office, and as such recognized by membership of the Privy Council. Margaret Bondfield was the first woman to sit in a British Cabinet and the first to be appointed to the Privy Council. The post was a particularly difficult one, as the level of unemployment, which the Labour Party hoped to lessen on taking office, continued to increase. Like other members of the Cabinet, in the face of several problems, she struggled rather than succeeded. In the economic crisis of August 1931, the government collapsed; in the general election that followed in October, she lost her Wallsend seat.

Her trade union had continued to retain her in the post of chief woman officer, and she nominally resumed its duties. However, the strain of office had affected her health and for a time she suffered from fibrositis. By 1933, Bondfield was well enough to accept an invitation to speak in Chicago at a women's congress on "Economic Security through Government, under Fascism, under Communism and under Democracy." She took the opportunity to travel to Washington to visit Frances Perkins , the secretary of labor in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.

At the general election of 1935, Bondfield unsuccessfully attempted to regain the Wallsend seat. However, when members of the Reading Labour Party invited her to become their candidate for the next election, she accepted, withdrawing only during World War II when it was apparent that the election would be delayed. In 1938, at age 65, Bondfield retired from her trade union post, and soon after traveled again to the United States where for about a year she lectured and visited friends. Her familiarity with American audiences led her to spend several months during the war touring the towns and cities of the U.S. and Canada, under the auspices of British Information Services, where she explained the war as a contest between "the evil spirit of a brutal paganism" and "the Christian way of life." Those who knew her recalled the clear, musical voice, combined with a sincerity of manner, which seldom failed to impress an audience.

After the war, she wrote a substantial volume of memoirs, published in 1949 under the title A Life's Work. Her last years were spent in retirement, occasionally entertaining visitors in her cottage garden. Margaret Bondfield died on June 16, 1953, at Sanderstead, Surrey.


Bondfield, Margaret. A Life's Work. London: Hutchinson, 1949.

Collette, Christine. For Labour and for Women: The Women's Labour League, 1906–18. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Hamilton, Mary Agnes. Margaret Bondfield. London: Leonard Parsons, 1924.

suggested reading:

Middleton, Lucy, ed. Women in the Labour Movement: The British Experience. Towata, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.

D. E. Martin , Lecturer in History, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England