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The Legacy of Margaret Bondfield – A Woman of Many Firsts

Equality - 17 Mar 2021

GMB activist and Brighton councillor Amanda Jane Grimshaw reflects on the legacy of one of GMB's earliest women fighters

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Up until recently I was only vaguely aware that Margaret Bondfield once resided in Brighton, the city where I live and am a Labour councillor.

There is a blue plaque on the premises of a shop she had worked at, but I knew nothing about her. How was it that such an inspirational sister, the first woman cabinet minister and a woman who played such an important role in the formation of our union GMB, was just a blip on my radar?

The more I learnt, I began to discover why. Maggie, as I began to refer to her, was instrumental in breaking one glass ceiling after another. She lead the way for thousands of socialist women who would follow in her footsteps in the trade union and political movements that shaped the 20th century in Britain.

Maggie was born in 1873, the 11th of 12 children. Her father, a weaver, encouraged his children to be independent and introduced them to the concept of working women's rights. At the age of 14 Maggie moved from Somerset to take up an apprenticeship at Mrs White’s drapery shop in Hove.

Mrs White’s had an interesting clientele - including surgeon and feminist Louisa Martindale. Maggie was allowed to attend political meetings at Louisa’s house - an incredible education for a working-class woman.

Margaret started attending political meetings at a young age: an incredible education for a working-class woman

When her kind employer retired, Maggie found alternative employment in Brighton then London - where she was introduced to the more typical unpleasant experience of life as a 'live in shop assistant'.

Shopping by gas light was a new experience for the public. Unfortunately, this meant extended shop opening hours for workers - from 8am, sometimes until midnight. Maggie took up the pen name of Grace Dare and began to write about her experiences.

These articles are published, including such quotes as:

"Overcrowded insanitary conditions, poor and insufficient food were the main characteristics of this system, with an undertone of danger; in some houses both natural and unnatural vices found a breeding ground"

and

"Sleeping in bare, dingy stuffy dormitories, intolerably hot in summer, miserably cold in winter, never being alone even when washing. No place to keep one’s things, except in a box under the bed. Night spent with a poor consumptive girl who just coughed and coughed".

Experiencing these conditions seems to have spurred Maggie on to take up the brave role as a trade union activist. Brave, as joining a union could mean instant dismissal.

By 1898 as a member of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehouseman and Clerks, Maggie is taking part in recruitment drives and leafleting. By 1899 she becomes assistant secretary to the Shop Workers union and is the only woman delegate to attend the 1899 TUC conference.

Maggie was arguably instrumental in the passing of the 1904 Shop Hours Act which aims to reduce working hours by allowing local councils to be in control of trading times - but often this law is unenforced.

Maggie progresses to Organising Secretary of the Women's Labour league, Women's Officer for the National Union of General and Municipal workers (now the GMB) and is elected to the General Council of the TUC. She became TUC General Council Chair in 1923 – the first woman to ever take on the role.

Margaret is elected as Labour MP for Northampton in 1923 and by 1929 when Ramsay McDonald is made Prime Minister she is appointed as Secretary of State for Labour - making her the first woman in the cabinet.

But - after such an eventful journey from shop girl to secretary of state, she ultimately makes a decision which will end her flourishing political career - by 1931 she has lost her seat.

Why was Margaret Bondfield just a blip on my radar... swept under the carpet? She was considered to have betrayed the labour movement. The government she was part of was a minority Labour Government at a time of depression and mass unemployment, struggling to maintain power and get its agenda through.

Maggie took a number of decisions unpopular with her fellow trade unionists - such as cutting unemployment benefit, including for married women. Did Maggie make one too many compromises? Does that invalidate her other achievements as a trade unionist and a politician?

Margaret Bondfield’s legacy is complex. On one hand, you have a young working-class woman shop worker who was a trailblazer for the rights of working women - but on the other hand you have a politician making compromises which many felt went too far.

References: Professor Pamela Cox for her research at TUC 150 ; Kate Elms at The Keep archive centre.

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