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Margaret Bondfield and Mary Macarthur : their work to organize working women

Mise à jour: 11 octobre 2003.

Anna Zagoreos

Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) and Mary Macarthur (1880-1921) were two women activists who worked to organize working women. They came from diverse backgrounds and had different childhoods but they both became active as trade-union leaders and later as politicians. They met in 1902 and remained close friends and associates until Mary Macarthur’s death in 1921. Margaret Bondfield was born in Chard, Somerset, in 1873, the daughter of a lace-maker with strong nonconformist views and radical political beliefs. At the age of 15, she served an apprenticeship in a draper shop. She worked as a draper’s assistant in Brighton where she became interested in women’s rights, being influenced by Liberal women’s customers. During the next eleven years she worked in shops in London, “living-in and working a 75-hours week for £25 a year”. [1] In 1894 she joined the Shop Assistants’ Union, and soon became the Assistant Secretary (1898-1908). She became the first woman delegate to a Trade Union Congress Conference in 1899. In 1896 she also worked with Lady Emily Dilke through the Women’s Trade Union League. In 1902, she met Mary Macarthur during the Annual Congress of the Shop Assistants’ Union in Newcastle.

Mary Macarthur was born in Glasgow, in 1880, the daughter of a prosperous Conservative draper. Her father was a supporter of the Conservative Party and an opponent of Trade Unions. In 1896, she joined her father’s business in Ayr as a clerk. But in 1901, when Mary observed a meeting of the Shop Assistants’ Union she was converted to the cause of Trade Unions and became an active member of the Shop Assistants’ Union, rising quickly to become President of the Ayr branch of the Shop Assistants’ Union in Scotland. In 1902, Mary Macarthur participated in the Annual Congress of the Shop Assistants’ Union in Newcastle. She “came as a delegate and leader of the Scottish contingent to the conference of the Union” [2]. This was where she met Margaret Bondfield, the Assistant Secretary of the Union, who was known as Britain’s leading expert on shop workers.

“In 1902 Mary Macarthur came as a delegate, and leader of the Scottish contingent, to the Newcastle Conference of the Union. I had written to welcome her into the Union, but, when she came to meet me at the station, I was overcome with the sense of a great event. Here was genius, allied to boundless enthusiasm and leadership of a high order, coming to build our little Union into a more effective instrument.” [3]

It was when Mary Macarthur moved to London, in 1903, that they began to work together as members of the Women’s Trade Union League. It was through her friendship with Margaret Bondfield that Mary Macarthur became Secretary of the WTUL.Between 1901 and 1910, there was a significant growth in female membership in labour, “these gains were a delayed tribute to the middle-class women who had fostered female trade unionism through the Women’s Trade Union League, founded by Emma Paterson in 1874”. [4] In 1901, Lady Dilke had replaced Mrs Paterson. Mary Macarthur was introduced to Lady Dilke by Margaret Bondfield, then woman’s officer of the Shop Assistants’ Union. And in 1903, when Mary Macarthur moved to London, she became Secretary of the WTUL. Mary Macarthur completely revitalized the WTUL. She “increased membership and worked to establish trade board, organize strikes and negotiate wages.” [5]

In 1906, Mary Macarthur federated the local bodies sponsored by the League into a general union for women. She founded, with the help of Margaret Bondfield, the National Federation of Women Workers. She was the President of the federation between 1906 and 1908 and then Secretary between 1908 and 1921, she worked with Margaret Bondfield who was the Assistant Secretary between 1914 and 1921. By 1910, the Federation had 6000 members. Mary Macarthur founded the National Federation of Women Workers to agitate in order to improve condition of labour. Her most notable campaigns concerned sweated trades (1906), home-workers (1907) and the chain-makers, whom she led in a strike in 1910.

During the first World War, Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield were both active as members of the Central Committee of Women’s Employment. Mary Macarthur continued to campaign as a labour candidate (She was on the National Council of the Independent Labour Party from 1909 to 1912) until she died of cancer in 1921. Margaret Bondfield was the first woman chairman of the Trade Union Congress in 1923 and became in that year Labour MP for Northampton. She became, in 1929, the first woman to be appointed a British Cabinet minister. She continued her trade union work until 1938. She died in Sanderstead, Surrey, in 1953.


[1Jennifer S. Uglow, The Macmillan Dictionary of Women’s Bibliography, 1999

[2Margaret Bondfield, A Life’s Work, 1948

[3Margaret Bondfield, A Life’s Work, 1948

[4H.A. Clegg, Alan Fox and A.F. Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, vol 1 1889-1910, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1964.

[5Jennifer S. Uglow, The Macmillan Dictionary of women’s Biography, 1999.


19e siècle , Femmes , Histoire , Mouvements ouvriers , Royaume-Uni