Macarthur, Mary Reid (1880–1921)

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Macarthur, Mary Reid (1880–1921)

Scottish trade unionist . Name variations: Mary Reid Anderson; Mary Reid MacArthur. Born Mary Reid Macarthur in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1880; died of cancer in 1921; daughter of a Conservative Glasgow draper; attended Glasgow Girls' High School, followed by a year of study in Germany, 1896; married Will C. Anderson, in 1911; children: two, one of whom died at birth.

Was a member of the Shop Assistants' Union (1901); served as president of the Scottish National District of the Union (1902); was a secretary,Women's Trade Union League (1903–21); was a delegate, International Congress of Women (1904 and 1908); was founder and first president, National Federation of Working Women (1906); was a member, National Council of the Independent Labour Party (1909–12); was a member, Central Committee of Women's Training and Employment (1914–18); was a Labour candidate for Parliament (1918). Publications: several articles.

In 1896, when Mary Reid Macarthur returned from a year of study abroad, she was at loose ends. Only 16 and not quite sure what career she should pursue, she decided to help out in her father's shop, working as his bookkeeper. Macarthur also freelanced for a local newspaper and, while covering the speech of an organizer for the Shop Assistants' Union, became interested in trade unionism. Despite being the "boss's daughter," Macarthur soon joined the Shop Assistants' Union and convinced the rest of her father's employees to do the same.

Shortly after that, she became president of her local and in 1902, at age 22, became president of the national council for her union. At that year's conference, Macarthur met Margaret Bondfield , an English trade unionist and organizer for the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). Encouraged by Bondfield, who even offered to share her London apartment, Macarthur left Scotland in 1903. She became secretary for the WTUL, a post she would hold the rest of her life. Before leaving home, however, Macarthur also met the man she would eventually marry, Will C. Anderson. Anderson, chair of the Glasgow Shop Assistants' Union and a Socialist, would go on to be a Labour Party official as well as president of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Anderson was able to convert Macarthur to Socialism but not until 1911 did she agree to marry him, saying that her work had to come first.

Working conditions in London seemed even worse than in her native Scotland, and Macarthur sought to change that soon after her arrival. While the conditions of labor for women and children in sweatshops and factories were horrific, she was just as troubled by women engaged in outwork. In the journal Woman Worker, which she established and served as editor of from 1907 to 1909, Macarthur wrote that "the plight of the sweated factory worker is as bad as her sister who toils in the home." When a minimum wage became law for English women workers in 1909, Macarthur was one of those who saw to it that the law covered women employed in factories as well as those who worked out of their home. For Macarthur, the Trade Boards Act of 1909 was compromised enough in that it only covered women and not all workers, male and female, as initially proposed.

Despite her willingness to advocate protective labor legislation, Macarthur's first priority was trade unionism. The organization of women was especially critical. "Women are badly paid and badly treated because they are not organized," wrote Macarthur. "They are not organized because they are badly paid and badly treated." She sought to end this vicious circle and helped organize women chain-makers and hosiery knitters, lace makers and garment workers. From its beginnings, the British WTUL sought to organize women workers into unions already established by men. However, in some cases, unions did not exist for the trades in which women worked or, in other cases, certain male-dominated unions did not allow women to join. In response, the WTUL formed the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906. Open to all women working in those industries where unions did not exist or were not open to them, the NFWW had as its first president Mary Reid Macarthur.

During World War I, Macarthur, a pacifist, served on the Central Committee of Women's Training and Employment, ensuring that the women who flooded into the English munitions plants were treated fairly and earned a decent wage. Working in high government circles, she became nationally known and even became acquainted with Queen Mary of Teck . During the war, the woman suffrage movement gained momentum in Great Britain. While she supported the right of women to vote, Macarthur sought to emphasize the economic needs of women, needs that could be met through trade unionism. Nonetheless, she saw the efficacy in establishing an alliance between working women and the British Labour Party. In 1906, Macarthur and three other WTUL activists joined in the formation of the Women's Labour League which sought to give women a voice within the party.

In 1918, a franchise bill was passed in Great Britain, giving women over the age of 30 the vote. At the same time, property requirements for voters were lifted, and the vote was extended to all men over 21. Given the high loss of life during the war, had women over 21 been given the vote, they would have been a majority of British voters. Not until 1928 was the voting age for women lowered to 21. However, in 1918, the 38-year-old Macarthur, who was old enough to vote and campaign for office, ran as the first woman Labour candidate for Parliament. Hampered in part by her acknowledged pacifism, Macarthur's campaign was further hurt by the fact that election officials insisted that she run under her married name, Mary Anderson, and not the name by which she was well known, Mary Reid Macarthur. In any case, she lost her bid for political office.

An even more devastating loss was the death of her husband and friend, Will Anderson, during the great influenza pandemic of 1918–19. Macarthur died two years later, in 1921, of cancer. Her loss was keenly felt by the WTUL. Unlike her predecessors, Emma Paterson and Emily Dilke , Macarthur had come to the WTUL with solid labor credentials, both in terms of her union work and her Socialist politics. Historians of the period credit her with revitalizing the WTUL, vastly increasing its membership and its clout. In part, this was due to her vital personality. One contemporary remarked that Macarthur "acted as if something great was always going to happen and she made an atmosphere in which it usually did."


Hart, Vivien. Bound by Our Constitution: Women, Workers, and the Minimum Wage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Jacoby, Robin Miller. The British and American Women's Trade Union Leagues, 1890–1925: A Case Study of Feminism and Class. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1994.

Soldon, Norbert C. Women in British Trade Unions, 1874–1976. London: Gill and Macmillan, 1978.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , Manuscripts Processor at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts

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Macarthur, Mary Reid (1880–1921)

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