Margaret Bondfield, the daughter of William Bondfield and Anne Taylor, was born in Chard, Somerset on 17th March 1873. Margaret was Anne's eleventh child and her husband was at that time was sixty-one years old. William Bondfield had worked in the textile industry since he was a young boy and was well known in the area for his radical political beliefs. Philip Williamson has argued: "Her parents gave her a nonconformist faith and ethic, a strong sense of the dignity of work, and a belief in an active female role, while contact with philanthropists and preachers encouraged her to read widely about social, ethical, and spiritual issues."
At the age of fourteen Margaret left home to serve an apprenticeship in a large draper's shop in Hove. She later recalled: "When I first went to Brighton for a holiday in 1887 I had the chance of a job as apprentice to Mrs. White of Church Road, Hove, a friend of my sister Annie. I eagerly grasped this opportunity of earning my living. I did not see my home again for five years. Mrs. White successfully ran one of those old-fashioned businesses where the relations between the customer and assistant were of the most courteous and friendly, and the assistants, of whom I was the youngest, were treated like members of the family."
Margaret Bondfield became friendly with one of her customers, Louisa Martindale, a strong advocate of women's rights. Margaret was a regular visitor to the Martindale home where she met other radicals living in Brighton. Louisa Martindale lent Margaret books and was an important influence on her political development.
In 1894 Margaret went to live with her brother Frank in London. Margaret found work in a shop and after a short period was elected to the Shop Assistants Union District Council. In 1896 Clementina Black of the Women's Industrial Council asked Bondfield to carry out an investigation into the pay and conditions of shop workers. Bondfield's report was published in 1898, the same year she was appointed assistant secretary of the Shop Assistants' Union.
As a result of her work for the Women's Industrial Council, Bondfield became known as Britain's leading expert on shop workers and gave evidence to the Select Committee on Shops (1902) and the Select Committee on the Truck System (1907). During this period she met Mary Macarthur: "I saw a thin white face and glowing eyes, and then I was enveloped by her ardent, young hero-worshipping personality. She was gloriously young and self-confident It was a dazzling experience for a humdrum official to find herself treated with the reverence due to an oracle by one whose brilliant gifts and vital energy were even then manifest." As a Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) executive member, she recommended Macarthur as organizer and in 1906 they established the first women's general union, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW).
Margaret Bondfield made the decision to concentrate on her career. In her autobiography, A Life's Work (1948): "I concentrated on my job. This concentration was undisturbed by love affairs. I had seen too much - too early - to have the least desire to join in the pitiful scramble of my workmates. The very surroundings of shop life accentuated the desire of most shop girls to get married. Long hours of work and the living-in system deprived them of the normal companionship of men in their leisure hours, and the wonder is that so many of the women continued to be good and kind, and self-respecting, without the incentive of a great cause, or of any interest outside their job... I had no vocation for wifehood or motherhood, but an urge to serve the Union".
Bondfield was chairperson of the Adult Suffrage Society. In 1906 she made a speech where she said: "I work for Adult Suffrage because I believe it is the quickest way to establish a real sex-equality... I have always said in my speeches and in conversation that these women who believe in the same terms as men Bill have a perfect right to go on working for that Bill, and I say good luck to them and may they get it! But don't let them come and tell me that they are working for my class."
Unlike some members of the NUWSS and the WSPU, Bondfield was totally opposed to the idea that initially only certain categories of women should be given the vote. Bondfield believed that a limited franchise would disadvantage the working class and feared that it might act as a barrier against the granting of adult suffrage. This made Bondfield unpopular with middle class suffragettes who saw limited suffrage as an important step in the struggle to win the vote.
Fran Abrams the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003) described a debate she had with Isabella Ford over the issue of women's suffrage: The young Margaret Bondfield tore to shreds the argument that a limited women's franchise was the way forward. Industrial organisation would improve women's lot much more efficiently than votes, she said. If women were to have the vote at all, they should have it as part of a much more radical move towards universal suffrage for both men and women." Sylvia Pankhurst did not agree with this assessment: "Miss Bondfield appeared in pink, dark and dark-eyed with a deep, throaty voice which many found beautiful. She was very charming and vivacious and eager to score all the points that her youth and prettiness would win for her against the plain middle-aged woman with red face and turban hat... Miss Bondfield deprecated votes for women as the hobby of disappointed old maids whom no-one had wanted to marry."
In 1908 Bondfield resigned from the Shop Assistants' Union and became secretary of the Women's Labour League. Bondfield was also active in the Women's Co-operative Guild which was campaigning for minimum wage legislation, an improvement in child welfare and action to lower the infant mortality rate. Her biographer, Mary Agnes Hamilton, commented that "any deficiences... are offset by her personal charm."
In 1910 the Liberal Government asked Bondfield to serve as a member of its Advisory Committee on the Health Insurance Bill. Bondfield's efforts were rewarded when she persuaded the government to include maternity benefits. Bondfield also influenced their decision to make the benefit the property of the mother.
Two days after the British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, Millicent Fawcett announced that the NUWSS was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Although the NUWSS supported the war effort, it did not become involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces.
The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."
After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.
Bondfield disagreed with the position that the NUWSS and WSPU took during the First World War. She joined forces with the Women's Freedom League to establish the Women's Peace Crusade, an organization that called for a negotiated peace. Other members included Charlotte Despard, Selina Cooper, Margaret Bondfield, Ethel Snowden, Katherine Glasier, Helen Crawfurd, Eva Gore-Booth, Esther Roper, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Margaret Nevinson, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Mary Barbour.
In October 1916 Bondfield joined with George Lansbury and Mary Macarthur to set-up a new National Council for Adult Suffrage. The main plan was to persuade the government to reconsider its plans for a limited extension of the franchise. At the time, the Manchester Guardian commented: " She is a little woman but her pleasantly toned, deep voice has great carrying power. I have often seen her sway an audience and lift it for the moment to the height of some great idea by the force of her own feeling and deep sincerity."
In 1923 Margaret Bondfield became one of the first women to enter the House of Commons when she was elected as Labour MP for Northampton. When Ramsay McDonald became Prime Minister in 1924 he appointed Bondfield as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour. One political commentator described her as: "Small in stature with dark hair, wide brows, and bright dark eyes, she reminded her hearers of a courageous robin as, in her clear, resonant, musical voice she told them that the unions must get together for political action if they were to achieve their larger aims."
Bondfield welcomed the passing of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act. She commented in the House of Commons: "Since I have been able to vote at all I have never felt the same enthusiasm because the vote was the consequence of possessing property rather than the consequence of being a human being... At last we are established on that equitable footing because we are human beings and part of society as a whole."
When Ramsay McDonald became Prime Minister for a second time in 1929 he appointed Bondfield as his new Minister of Labour. Bondfield therefore became the first woman in history to gain a place in the British Cabinet. In the financial crisis of 1931, Bondfield upset many members of the Labour Party when she supported the government policy of depriving some married women of their unemployment benefit. However, she refused to join McDonald's National Government and lost her seat in the 1931 General Election.
As Fran Abrams has pointed out, this brought an end to her career in the House of Commons: "Her seat lost and her parliamentary career at an end, Margaret suffered a complete breakdown. She was ordered to bed with fibrositis - generalised muscle pain - for which she underwent painful treatment, but it was clear she was in poor emotional as well as physical shape. After a long rest she spent several months touring the US before returning to fight Wallsend again in 1935 without success. She was then adopted as Labour candidate for Reading, but she gave up her candidature when it became clear the election would be long delayed by the Second World War."
Margaret Bondfield died at Verecroft Nursing Home, Sanderstead on 16th June 1953.
When I first went to Brighton for a holiday in 1887 I had the chance of a job as apprentice to Mrs. White of Church Road, Hove, a friend of my sister Annie. I eagerly grasped this opportunity of earning my living. I did not see my home again for five years.
Mrs. White successfully ran one of those old-fashioned businesses where the relations between the customer and assistant were of the most courteous and friendly, and the assistants, of whom I was the youngest, were treated like members of the family.
My mother kept open house for another set of women whom she began to think were oppressed, as undoubtedly they were in the eighties - shop assistants. Among them came an eager, attractive, and vividly alive girl of 16, Margaret Bondfield. She was working in one of the large draper's shops in Brighton and was not happy. She needed sympathy and was ready to talk when she found her hostess really wanted to listen. She told her about "living in" and all that it meant - sleeping in bare, dingy, stuffy dormitories, intolerably hot in summer, miserably cold in winter; never being alone, even to wash; no place to keep one's things except a box under the bed, fines for entering the dormitory in the daytime, nights spent with a poor consumptive girl who coughed and coughed… My mother gained not only a friend who has always remained faithful to her memory, but an insight into the conditions under which shop girls were employed.
Your mother is one of the great immortals who cannot die as long as memory lasts. She was a vivid influence in my life, the first woman of broad culture I had met, she seemed to recognise me and make me recognise myself as a person of independent thought and action… my first talk with your mother was the great event of that period of my life…. She put me in the way of knowledge that has been of help to many score of my shop mates. She lent me books on social questions, which prepared me to take my proper place in the Labour movement.
I concentrated on my job. This concentration was undisturbed by love affairs. I had seen too much - too early - to have the least desire to join in the pitiful scramble of my workmates. The very surroundings of shop life accentuated the desire of most shop girls to get married. Long hours of work and the living-in system deprived them of the normal companionship of men in their leisure hours, and the wonder is that so many of the women continued to be good and kind, and self-respecting, without the incentive of a great cause, or of any interest outside their job... I had no vocation for wifehood or motherhood, but an urge to serve the Union - an urge which developed into "a sense of oneness with our kind". I had "the dear love of comrades."
I work for Adult Suffrage because I believe it is the quickest way to establish a real sex-equality... I have always said in my speeches and in conversation that these women who believe in the "same terms as men" Bill have a perfect right to go on working for that Bill, and I say good luck to them and may they get it! But don't let them come and tell me that they are working for my class.
In 1911 personal loss again caused Margaret to suffer collapse. This time it was the deaths of two close colleagues, Mary Middleton and Margaret MacDonald, who had worked together as joint secretaries of the Women's Labour League. Margaret had visited Ramsay MacDonald's wife just before she died of a poisoned hand, then returned to Lancashire to complete a tour of lectures. In the middle of a speech in Manchester she found herself suddenly unable to continue, her mind a complete blank. The chairman of the meeting took over and Margaret was ordered to rest. She retired to Cornwall but found herself haunted by anxiety about her abandoned work. Even when she returned to London in April 1912 she was still not well. "Attended meeting at Woolwich. Tired and excited before. Tired and depressed after," her diary recorded one evening. She rested for several more months, taking a fortnight abroad with a colleague from the Co-operative Women's Guild and visiting the West of Ireland, before she was finally well enough to return to work. Now she stepped into her departed friends' shoes, as organising secretary of the Women's Labour League. In 1913 she took on a new role within the ILP, as a member of the party's National Administrative Council. She added further to her burdens by becoming a special campaigner on maternity issues for the Women's Co-operative Guild, gathering information on the 300,000 women who found themselves excluded from newly introduced maternity benefits because their husbands had not paid for sufficient "stamps".
All this work was interrupted by the war, which Margaret opposed along with many of her ILP colleagues including Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. Sylvia Pankhurst was also working to oppose the war, but this unity of purpose did not soften her attitude to Margaret. Nor did the fact that both were directing their efforts to help those left destitute by the outbreak of hostilities. All over the country, and particularly in the poorest areas, women who had relied on their husbands' wages were suddenly plunged into poverty. The Queen Mary's Needlework Guild had planned to collect clothing for these families but the Women's Trade Union League, with Margaret at its fore, protested. Women in the textile trades were being put out of work by a sudden economic collapse caused by the war, they said - it would be better to provide them with work making garments for others. Margaret was delighted with the result, which was the setting up of workshops. Sylvia was less impressed, dubbing the centres "Queen Mary's Sweatshop" and claiming they paid Young girls as little as five shillings a week. Margaret and her union colleagues "had proved useless, if not hostile, to the Women's Suffrage cause; but it was believed they were staunch on the industrial side ... alas the committee speedily covered itself with ignominy", she claimed later. (Sylvia Pankhurst, The Home Front). The truth of the matter is now hard to untangle but other, less partisan commentators have since praised Margaret's wartime efforts to promote equal pay for women hard hit by the war.
I shared the views of those who blamed secret diplomacy, and in particular Sir Edward Grey, who had failed to make it clear which side Great Britain would take. The shots at Serajevo did more than kill an Archduke and his Duchess. They gave the signal for a blood bath in Europe; and yet our Foreign Secretary dallied on the fence until the invasion of Belgium had actually begun. THere was a big demonstration in Trafalgar Square on Sunday, 1st August. A great Woman's Demonstration against war was held in the Kingsway Hall on Tuesday, 4th August, and when we came out the Guards were on the way to Dover. The die was cast. We were at war.
In each of the countries at war, the Militarist Jingoes declare that they will not rest content short of smashing and dismembering enemy countries. Even if such a policy, instead of setting at defiance the clearest lesson of history, were just and expedient, nine months of war under modern conditions have demonstrated that the possibility of attaining this result is exceedingly remote. But so long as this fear of dismemberment and crushing humiliation holds a nation in thrall, it will go on fighting to the last ounce of resistance and the last drop of blood.
Just as mutual distrust and fear and misunderstanding helped to cause the war, so they may now operate against all efforts towards an honourable and lasting peace, and the great crime against the people will continue unchecked, bringing ruin to all lands and desolation and murning to countless homes.
In March 1915 the Board of Trade issued a proclamation asking every woman, who was able and willing to take employment, to register at the Labour Exchange. This ill-considered action threatened to flood the labour market with volunteers willing to take employment on any terms, regardless of the consequences to the normal wage-earner. The Workers' War Emergency Committee held a conference presided over by Mary Macarthur at which a number of resolutions were adopted.
We pointed out that in the interests of the higher patriotism no emergency action should be allowed unnecessary to depress the standard of living of the workers, or the standard of working conditions. We therefore asked: (1) That all women registering for war service should join the appropriate Trade Union; and that this be a condition for their employment for war service. (2) That men and women should receive equal pay for equal work.
In January a special National Conference urged the Labour Members of Parliament to oppose conscription. When it met, the Annual Conference condemned conscription but declined by a small majority to demand the repeal of the Act which had just been passed, setting up Conscription for the first time in modern English practice.
The Conscription Act was passed within a few months of the opening of the great military offensive of 1916, which revealed to the world the appalling scale of of the losses that the nation would have to endure. One of the great scandals of the First World War was the attitude of mind (an old one coming down from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) which regarded human life as the cheapest thing to expend. The whole war was fought on the principle of using up man-power. Tanks and similar mechanical help were received with hesitation and repugnance by commanders, and were inadequately used. But man-power, the lives of men, were used with freedom.
It could only be a matter of time before Margaret Bondfield became involved in the debate over women's suffrage. Already her union work had brought her into contact with Charlotte Despard, later to become president of the Women's Freedom League, and in 1904 she travelled to the International Congress of Women in Berlin with Dora Montefiore, the Women's Social and Political Union representative at the event. But Margaret never accepted the militants' line on the suffrage, let alone their tactics. She was first and foremost a socialist - indeed she had briefly flirted with the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, of which Charlotte Despard was a member, and had spoken on its platforms in London. In 1904 Margaret "came out" as an adult suffrage campaigner, in opposition to the more explicitly feminist WSPU. Sylvia Pankhurst was asked by the Fulham Independent Labour Party to debate the issue on a public platform with Margaret Bondfield as her opponent. Sylvia, then a student and inexperienced as a speaker, asked Isabella Ford to stand in for her. The young Margaret tore to shreds the argument that a limited women's franchise was the way forward. Industrial organisation would improve women's lot much more efficiently than votes, she said. If women were to have the vote at all, they should have it as part of a much more radical move towards universal suffrage for both men and women...
Sylvia admitted that in her heart she, too, was a believer in adult suffrage. But the incident led to a lifelong personal dislike of Margaret, fuelled by indignation that she should have subjected Isabella Ford to such humiliation. Sylvia's reaction also reflected the more widespread animosity of the WSPU to anyone who opposed its precise stance on the suffrage. So committed was the suffragette movement to its aims, and only to its own precise aims, that through the years it split several times with those who failed to toe its line. Charlotte Despard would break away in 1907 in protest at the despotism imposed on the union by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. In addition to the Pethick-Lawrences Sylvia herself would be expelled later. It would have been hard for any of the WSPU's leaders to claim any convincing political or moral argument for opposing the universal franchise, but they opposed the adult suffragists almost with the passion that they opposed the Liberal government.
Miss Bondfield appeared in pink, dark and dark-eyed with a deep, throaty voice which many found beautiful. She was very charming and vivacious and eager to score all the points that her youth and prettiness would win for her against the plain middle-aged woman with red face and turban hat... Miss Bondfield deprecated votes for women as the hobby of disappointed old maids whom no-one had wanted to marry.
I know there is not one member of this howling crows that would willingly send their men-folk to an unnecessary death, but that is what you are doing by your attitude… Russia has shown us the way out, and has asked the people of this country to take our stand on the side of democracy and peace… The people who are asking us to save our children today because there is a war on are the people who have doomed us to live under conditions which cause our babies to die.
Since I have been able to vote at all I have never felt the same enthusiasm because the vote was the consequence of possessing property rather than the consequence of being a human being... At last we are established on that equitable footing because we are human beings and part of society as a whole. To me the enfranchisement of women is not so much a question of rights as of opportunity - not a privilege but an obligation to add their share to the common stock in the building of ever-nobler forms of social life... It is an entire mistake, and I always said it was a mistake on the part of some of the ultra-feminist suffragists, to argue the specific woman point of view in connection with political questions.
When Ramsay MacDonald crossed the floor of the House of Commons to form his National Government, Margaret did not support him. It was inevitable that she would lose her seat. Attacked by the Tories for allowing the Unemployment Insurance Fund to run out of control, and by the left for failing properly to provide for those out of work, it would have been a miracle if she had been re-elected. Even if she had been popular with her constituents, which she was not, she would have struggled. As it was the entire Labour government, with the exception of George Lansbury, lost their seats.
Her seat lost and her parliamentary career at an end, Margaret suffered a complete breakdown. She was ordered to bed with fibrositis - generalised muscle pain - for which she underwent painful treatment, but it was clear she was in poor emotional as well as physical shape. After a long rest she spent several months touring the US before returning to fight Wallsend again in 1935 without success. She was then adopted as Labour candidate for Reading, but she gave up her candidature when it became clear the election would be long delayed by the Second World War. During the war, reversing the role she had played in the First World War, she supported the government and toured America again lobbying for US support for the Allies.