Margaret Bondfield

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The Right Honourable
Margaret Bondfield
Margaret Bondfield 1919.jpg
Margaret Bondfield in 1919
Minister of Labour
In office
8 June 1929 – 24 August 1931
Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald
Member of Parliament
for Wallsend
In office
21 July 1926 – 27 October 1931
Member of Parliament
for Northampton
In office
6 December 1923 – 29 October 1924
Personal details
Born 17 March 1873
Chard, Somerset, England
Died 16 June 1953 (aged 80)
Sanderstead, Surrey
Nationality British
Political party Labour

Margaret Grace Bondfield (17 March 1873 – 16 June 1953) was an English Labour politician, trades unionist and women's rights activist. She was the first woman elected to the general council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the first woman to chair the TUC's executive council, and the first woman to hold cabinet office when she was appointed Minister of Labour in the Labour government of 1929–31

Bondfield was born in humble circumstances and received limited formal education. She began her career, aged 14, as an apprenticed embroideress, after she which she worked as a shopgirl, at first in Brighton and later in London. She was shocked by the long hours and general working conditions of shop staff, particularly the "living-in" system, and became an active member of the shopworkers' union. She began to move in socialist circles, and in 1898 was appointed assistant secretary of her union, the National Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen, and Clerks (NAUSAWC). In the early years of the 20th century she became a leading light in several women's socialist movements: she helped to found the Women's Labour League (WLL) in 1906, and was chair of the Adult Suffrage Society. Her standpoint on women's suffrage – she favoured extending the vote to all adults regardless of gender or property, rather than the limited "on the same terms as men" agenda pursued by the militant factions – often put her at odds with the suffragist leadership; she described her position as that of a socialist rather than a feminist.

After leaving her union post in 1908 Bondfield continued to investigate and report on women's working conditions, as organising secretary for the WLL and later as women's officer for the National Union of General and Municipal Workers (NUGMW). She was elected to the TUC council in 1918, and was its chair in 1923, the year that she was first elected to parliament. In the short-lived minority Labour government of 1924 she served in the non-cabinet post of parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Labour. Bondfield's term of cabinet office in 1929–31 was marked by the unemployment and financial crises that beset the MacDonald government. Her willingness to contemplate cuts in unemployment benefit alienated her from much of the labour movement, although she did not follow Macdonald into the National Government that assumed office when the Labour government fell in August 1931. In the general election of October 1931 she was defeated, and never again held parliamentary or government office.

Bondfield remained active in NUGMW affairs until 1938, and during the Second World War was chairman of the Women's Group on Public Welfare. In 1948 she was appointed a Companion of Honour. She died aged 80 in 1953; biographers have noted that despite her years of service to the labour movement and her successes in breaking gender boundaries to high office, she has not been greatly honoured by the movement – a residue of her years in office when, according to a later female cabinet minister, Barbara Castle, she had "sailed very near the winds of political betrayal".[1]


Childhood and family[edit]

A modern (2009) photograph of the main street in Chard, Somerset, Bondfield's home town

Margaret Bondfield was born on 17 March 1873 in the Somerset town of Chard. She was the tenth of eleven children, and third of four daughters born to William Bondfield (1814–1901) and his wife Ann, née Taylor, the daughter of a Congregational minister.[2] The Bondfield and Taylor families had been settled in the West Country for generations; Margaret's ancestors had fought in the Monmouth rebellion of 1685.[3] William Bondfield was by trade a foreman lacemaker, with a long history of political activism. As a young man he had been secretary of the Chard Political Union,[n 1] a centre of local radicalism that the authorities had on occasion suppressed by military force. He had also been active in the Anti-Corn Law League of the 1840s.[2]

While Margaret was still an infant, William, who was around 60 years old when she was born, lost his job and was unable to find regular work. The family suffered hardship, with the threat of the workhouse a constant fear. Nevertheless William and Ann did their best to ensure that their children were educated and prepared for life.[3] Margaret later protested that she was not the bookworm who, as described by her family, would "read anything I could get hold of, from The Boys Own Paper to Grandpa's Old Sermons"; she was more, she said, a lover of nature and the outdoors.[5] She was a clever child, whose skills at reciting poetry or playing piano pieces were often displayed at town events and Sunday School outings. Until the age of 13 she attended the local elementary school; secondary education, at that time exclusively private, was beyond the family's means, but Margaret continued at the school for a while, in the role of pupil-teacher. This was not her vocation in life, and in 1887, at the age of 14, she left Chard to begin an apprenticeship at a draper's shop in Hove, near Brighton.[3] Although Margaret never lived at home thereafter, she inherited from her parents an abiding nonconformist faith, a belief in the dignity of labour, and an active female role in promoting these principles.[6] In her later career, religion was a key element within her political agenda, as she fought for social and moral change:[7] ""We could not think religion and not think of the needs of the poor".[8]

Early career[edit]


Brighton in the 1890s

In 1887, aged 14, Margaret left Chard to take up an apprenticeship with Mrs Taylor, who ran a drapery and embroidery business at Brighton in Sussex. This was a pleasant period; Mrs Taylor treated her young staff like family members, relations between customers and assistants were cordial, and Margaret recalled happy hours "spent at a window ... smocking lovely silks for babies' frocks". This idyllic introduction to shop life was short-lived. Her apprenticeship complete, she worked as a living-in assistant in a succession of Brighton drapery stores, where she quickly encountered the realities of shop staff life: unsympathetic employers, very long hours, appalling living conditions and no privacy. In such circumstances, merely keeping clean was a challenge. Bondfield would later write: "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".[9] She found some relief at the home of a wealthy customer, Louisa Martindale who, together with her daughter Hilda, befriended Margaret and offered her hospitality during her rare free time. The Martindales were liberals with a strong social conscience, and advocates for women's rights; they found Margaret "an eager, attractive and vividly alive girl", and lent her books that began her lifelong interest in labour and social questions. Margaret described Mrs Martindale as "a most vivid influence on my life ... she put me in the way of knowledge that has been of help to many score of my shop mates".[10]

Beatrice and Sidney Webb, circa 1895; they were among Bondfields early socialist acquaintances

Bondfield's brother Frank had established himself in London some years earlier as a printer and trades unionist,[11] and in 1894, having saved £5, she decided to join him. She found London shopworking conditions no better than in Brighton,[12] but through Frank her social circle soon widened. She met Amanda Hicks, an active trade unionist who in turn introduced her to H.M. Hyndman of the Social Democratic Federation.[2] She became a keen member of the National Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen, and Clerks (NUSAWC), sometimes missing church on Sundays to attend union meetings.[13] Her political and literary education continued at the Ideal Club, where she met Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and other socialist luminaries, under whose influence she joined the Fabian Society and later the Independent Labour Party (ILP).[2][14]

Meanwhile, Bondfield's discontent with the shopgirls' lot intensified. She later recalled being sent out late in the evenings to check that rival shops had closed, before her employer would allow her to put up the shutters.[15] Typically she might work between 80 and 100 hours a week for 51 weeks in the year.[16][n 2] Bondfield began to record her experiences, in a series of articles and stories that she wrote for the shopworkers' monthly magazine, The Shop Assistant, using the pseudonym "Grace Dare".[12]>[18] She wrote surreptitiously, at night: "I would light my half-penny dip [candle], hiding its glare by means of a towel and set to work on my monthly article".[19] In 1896 Bondfield was recruited by Lillian Gilchrist Thompson of the Women's Industrial Council (WIC) to work as an undercover agent, obtaining positions in various shops and reporting on every aspect of shop life, from hiring to firing. Her accounts of squalor and exploitation were published in articles under the "Grace Dare" name, in both The Shop Assistant and the Daily Chronicle newspaper, and provided the basis for a WIC report on shopworkers' conditions published in 1898. [20]

Union official[edit]

Cartoon showing Bondfield addressing a NAUSAWC recruitment meeting, July 1898

In 1898, on the basis of her first-hand knowledge of shopworkers' conditions, Bondfield accepted the job of assistant secretary of NUSAWC,[2][6] which that year became "NAUSAWC" after amalgamating with another shopworker's union.[21] From this time onward, although only 25 years old, she subordinated her life to her union work and to the wider cause of socialism. She described her feelings: "I had no vocation for wifehood or motherhood, but an urge to serve the Union ... I had the dear love of friends".[22] At the time the unions' membership, at under 3,000, represented only a small fraction of shopworkers, and Bondfield gave priority to expanding this total.[n 3] For months she travelled the country, distributing literature and arranging meetings when she could—a difficult task, given the apathy of many shop staff, and the outright opposition of shopowners. She had mixed results: in Reading and Bristol she had no success, defeated as much by the shopworkers' sense of superiority over other workers as the employers' hostility, while in Gloucester, she thought, "it should not be difficult to organise every shop worker".[24]

In her union capacity, Bondfield reported on shop working conditions to the Economic Journal of September 1899, and to a House of Lords select committee on shop hours.[6] In 1899 she was the first woman to serve as a delegate to the Trades Union Annual Congress, that year held in Plymouth,[25] and participated in the historic vote that led to the formation in 1900 the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), forerunner of the Labour Party.[26] When the LRC was formed the following year, the NUSAWC, now with more than 7,000 members, was one of the first unions to affiliate to the new body.[27]

Mary Macarthur

In 1902 Bondfield met Mary Macarthur, some eight years her junior, who was chair of the Ayr branch of NAUSWAC. Macarthur, the daughter of a wealthy Scottish draper for whom she worked as a book-keeper, had held staunchly Conservative views until her attendance, in 1901, at a meeting to discuss the formation of a NAUSWAC branch of the Shop Assistants' Union. This experience transformed her into ardent trades unionist.[28] Bondfield later wrote of their first meeting: "I saw a thin white face and glowing eyes, and then I was enveloped by her ardent, young hero-worshipping personality [whose] brilliant gifts and vital energy were even then manifest".[29] In 1903 Macarthur moved to London where, with Bondfield's recommendation, she became secretary of the Women's Trade Union League.[30] The two became close comrades-in-arms during the next two decades, in a range of causes affecting women. The historian Lise Sanders suggests that Bondfield's more intimate friendships tended to be with women rather than men;[31] Bondfield's biographer Mary Agnes Hamilton described Macarthur as the romance of Bondfield's life.[32]

Despite Bondfield's energy and industry, reforms to shopworkers' conditions were slow to arrive. The year 1904 saw the passage of the Shop Hours Act, which made partial provision for limiting shop hours.[n 4] In 1907 the first steps were being taken to end the Victorian "living-in" practice, which affected two-thirds of Britain's 750,000 shopworkers. Initially, living-out privileges were only given to male employees; Bondfield campaigned for equivalent rights for women workers, arguing that if shopgirls were to become "useful, healthy ... wives and mothers", they needed to live "rational lives".[33] As part of her campaign against living-in, Bondfield advised the playwright Cecily Hamilton, whose shop-based drama Diana of Dobsons appeared that year. Bondfield described the opening scene, in a dreary, comfortless girls' dormitory over a shop, as very like the real thing.[34]

From 1904 onwards, Bondfield was increasingly occupied with the issue of women's suffrage. In that year she travelled with Dora Montefiore of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) to the International Congress of Women in Berlin, but she was not in sympathy with the essentially feminist aim of the WSPU, which was to achieve the vote for women on the same basis that it was given to men. Since this basis largely excluded the working class, Bondfield saw no benefit for the women that she represented through NAUSWAC. Instead, she aligned herself with the Adult Suffrage Society (ASS), which campaigned for universal suffrage, men and women alike, irrespective of wealth or property.[30] In 1906 she became Chair of the society, and campaigned in favour of a bill introduced to parliament by Sir Charles Dilke that provided not only universal suffrage but allowed for women to become MPs. The bill was "talked out" in the House of Commons, but Bondfield's support antagonised many in the WSPU, who considered the bill a distraction from their feminist agenda. Universal suffrage became the official policy of the nascent Labour Party, although few of its leaders took any practical steps towards achieving it. Keir Hardie thought that the ASS was a front for anti-suffragists and existed solely to oppose the WSPU.[35] In 1907 Bondfield told the audience in a public debate that she worked for Adult Suffrage because she believed it is the quickest way to establish real sex equality. She wished good luck to those fighting for a "same terms as men" bill, but "don't let them come and tell me that they are working for my class".[36] The strains of her duties and constant campaigning began to undermine Bondfield's health, and in 1908 she resigned her union post after ten years' service, during which NAUSAWC membership had risen to over 20,000.[2] Her departure, she said, was "alike a grief and a deliverance".[37]

Women's Labour League[edit]

"In view of the Reform Bill promised by the Government, this Conference demands that the inclusion of women [in the extended suffrage] shall ... become a vital part of the Government measure, and further declares that any attempt to exclude women will be met by the uncompromising opposition of organized Labour to the whole Bill."

(WLL resolution to the Labour Party Conference, 1909. At the conference, Bondfield agreed to the deletion of the last four words.)[38]

On leaving NAUSAWC, Bondfield spent a few months as a freelance lecturer before resuming her political and campaigning activities.[39] The main focus of her energies during the following five years was the Women's Labour League (WLL), which she had helped to found in 1906.[6] The League had been formed as a pressure group, its principal aim being "to work for independent labour representation in connection with the Labour Party, and to obtain direct labour representation of women in Parliament and on all local bodies."[40] The president of the League was Margaret MacDonald, wife of the future Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald;[41] Bondfield had known the MacDonalds since the 1890s, through their mutual work for the Women's Industrial Council.[2] Bondfield became active in WLL affairs after 1908, and in 1909 and was elected to its executive committee.[42]

As an affiliated organisation of the Labour Party, the WLL was entitled to submit motions to the party's annual conference. With a government suffrage reform bill under discussion, the WLL agreed to put forward to the 1909 Labour conference a motion that committed the Labour Party to oppose in parliament any suffrage extension bill that did not specifically include women. However, while the party was largely sympathetic to the principle of universalsuffrage, it was unwilling to risk losing the possibility of an extended male suffrage. When Bondfield tabled the WLL motion at the Labour conference, she was persuaded by Arthur Henderson to amend the wording of the WLL motion into a watered-down version.[38] Many suffragists were outraged; the WSPU accused the WLL, and Bondfield in particular, of treachery. Fran Abrams, in a biographical sketch, writes that Bondfield "was prepared to argue loud and long for adult suffrage, but she was not prepared to damage her relationship with the Labour Party for it".[35]

Since the passing of the Qualification of Women Act in 1907, women had been eligible to vote in and stand as candidates in municipal elections.[43] In accordance with the principles of the WLL, several of its members contested the London County Council elections in 1910; Bondfield stood in Woolwich, unsuccessfully (she contested the same seat in 1913, with a similar result).[39][14] The League was very active in all types of elections, supporting and canvassing for candidates of either gender who spoke out for women's rights. Such canvassing activity gave Bondfield a broader insight into the lives of the poorest of families, causing her to write: "Oh! the lonely lives of these women, hidden away at the back of a network of small, mean streets!".[44]

Alongside her WLL duties, Bondfield mainatained a range of other involvements. The Adult Suffrage Society was relaunched in 1909 as the People's Suffrage Federation (PSF), under the leadership of Margaret Llewellyn Davies.[45] Bondfield spent part of 1910 in the United States, lecturing on the suffrage with her PSF colleague Maud Ward, and studying labour problems.[35][46] At home, her work for the Women's Co-operative Guild on maternity and child welfare led to her co-option by the Parliamentary Standing Committee which piloted the introduction of state maternity benefits and other assistance to mothers.[14][47] Her investigation on behalf of the WIC into the working conditions of married women in the textile industries in the North of England led her to join most of the Labour leadership in a "War against Poverty" campaign.[39] In 1910 Bondfield accepted the position of chair of the British section of the Women's International Council of Socialist and Labour Organisations.[48]

Between 1908 and 1910 the WLL and the WIC co-operated in an investigation of work practices for married women. Bondfield carried out the fieldwork in Yorkshire. The relationship between the two bodies was sometimes fractious, and when the report was due to be published, there were disagreements over how it should be handled. As a result of these and other clashes, Bondfield, MacDonald and the other League women resigned from the Council.[49] In 1911 Bondfield assumed the role of the WLL's Organising Secretary,[50] and spent much of then year travelling: she formed a WLL branch in Ogmore Vale, Glamorgan,[51] reformed the Manchester branch,[52] and found time to advise laundrywomen engaged in a dispute in South Wales.[53] The sudden death of Mary MacDonald in September 1911 added considerably to Bondfield's workload; the strain, together with internal animosities within the WLL, led her to resign her position in January 1912. The League made strenuous efforts to retain her, and only in September did its committee reluctantly accept her departure. An attempt to re-engage her in 1913 was unsuccessful, and Marion Phillips was appointed to succeed her.[54]

Campaigns and war[edit]

From 1912 Bondfield became associated with the Women's Co-operative Guild (WCG). She became a member of the Guild's Citizenship Subcommittee,[55] and later campaigned with its founder, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, in investigations related to minimum wage rates, infant mortality and child welfare.[14] She also assisted the Guild's education and training programme, lecturing on "Local Government in Relation to Maternity".[56] Freedom from her WLL responsibilities enabled Bondfield to be more directly involved with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), of which she had been a member since the 1890s; in 1913 she joined the party's National Administration Council.[6] Bondfield spoke at the mass anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square rally on 2 August 1914, organised by her ILP colleague George Lansbury. Among other speakers were Keir Hardie, Henderson, Hyndman and the docker's leader Ben Tillett.[57] On the outbreak of war a few days later, Bondfield joined the Union of Democratic Control which, while not pacifist, opposed the use of war as an instrument of national policy.[58] She was also a member of the Women's Peace Council. In March 1915 she attended a conference in Berne, Switzerland, organised by the Women's International of Socialist and Labour Organizations, which called for a negotiated peace. Later in the war the government, concerned by Bondfield's association with peace organisations, prevented her from travelling to similar gatherings in Sweden and the United States.[46]

Bondfield had helped Mary Macarthur to found the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906. This organisation was dedicated to the unionisation of women, and by 1914 had more than 20,000 members.[59] In 1915 Bondfield became NFFW's organising secretary.[60] Together with Macarthur, Phillips and Susan Lawrence, she established the War Emergency Workers National Committee, to watch over working women's interests during wartime.[46] The same trio formed the Central Committee for Women's Employment, which organised relief work for the female unemployed.[61] As the result of an investigation into the wages paid to munitions workers, she reported in the Daily Chronicle that in one factory women were being paid two-and-a-half pence an hour to make hand grenades (roughly 1p per hour in post decimal coinage).[62] Bondfield campaigned for a £1 a week starting minimum wage for women, whatever the nature of the work, and for equal pay with men for equal work.[63]

Although suffragist militancy largely lapsed with the outbreak of war, the issue of votes for women did not disappear entirely. In October 1916 a Speaker's Conference was convened to consider the issue and make proposals for postwar legislation. Through the newly formed National Council for Adult Suffrage, Lansbury and other prewar campaigners pressed for universal adult suffrage.[64][65] The Speaker's Conference recommendation, later embodied in the Representation of the People Act, 1918 offered a limited extension of the franchise, which gave the vote to women over 30 who were property owners or the wives of property owners, or were university graduates.[66] Bondfield described the Act, which excluded almost all working-class women, as "mean and inadequate ... creating fresh anomalies".[67]

National prominence[edit]

Lansbury, mocked in the press for his pro-Soviet stance; the cockerel is the symbol of betrayal

The end of the war in November 1918 saw Bondfield's election to the General Council of the TUC, the first woman to be thus elevated.[6] In the following months she travelled as the TUC delegate to conferences, first in Berne and later in Washington DC, where she surprised her audience, not just for her smallness of stature and mildness of manner, but because of the view she expressed that the peace terms being imposed on Germany were unjust.[65] Further travels followed: in 1919 she was a delegate to the American Federation of Labor Congress in Atlantic City,[68] and in April 1920 she was a member of a joint TUC-Labour Party mission to the Soviet Union.[69][n 5] A few months earlier, Lansbury had visited the incipient Soviet state and had been most impressed after meeting Lenin whom he judged to be "symbolic of a new spirit", "the father of his people" and "their champion in the cause of social and economic freedom".[71] Bondfield's reaction was different; while she did not support Western intervention in Soviet affairs, she became a firm opponent of communism, which she perceived as anti-democratic and dictatorial.[46] She subsequently opposed the application of the British Communist Party for affiliation to the Labour Party. Her socialism was as much ethical as economic; in his study of the early years of the Labour Party, Matthew Worley remarks that religion was crucial in her politics: "[P]olitical action was an extension into the practical realm of her Christian convictions".[72] She summarised her own philosophy thus: "We could not think religion, and not think of the needs of the poor".[73]

Among various public activities, Bondfield joined the governing body of Ruskin College, the Oxford-based institution founded in 1899 to provide higher education opportunities to working-class men.[14][74] She also became a Justice of the Peace.[6] She first sought election to parliament in 1920, as the Labour candidate for Northampton in a by-election. She was defeated by 3,371 votes, by the Coalition Liberal candidate, but managed to increase the Labour vote significantly.[75] At the general election of 1922 she was again adopted by Labour at Northampton, and as in 1913, turned to Shaw for help in the campaign. He was contemptuous of the Labour leadership for not arranging a more promising seat; nevertheless, he came and spoke for her, but her margin of defeat widened to 5,476.[76][77]

Following two years' of negotiation, in 1920 the NFWW voted to merge with the National Union of General Workers and become that union's Women's Section. Bondfield, who supported the merger, believed that as long as women could maintain their separate identity, it was better for men and women to work together. The secretary of the new section was to have been Mary Macarthur, but she died of cancer on 1 January 1921, the date that the merger came into effect.[78] Bondfield was appointed in her place and remained in the post until 1938.[65] To honour her friend, Bondfield helped to organise the Mary Macarthur Memorial Fund.[79] She added other responsibilities to her heavy schedule: chair of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women's Organisations (SJCIWO), membership of the Labour Party's Emergency Committee on Unemployment, and chair of the 1922 Conference of Unemployed Women.[14] In September 1923 she became the first women to assume the chair the TUC's General Council.[6][80]

In November 1923 Stanley Baldwin's Conservative Government fell. In the following month's general election Bondfield was elected in Northampton with a majority of 4,306 over her Conservative opponent.[81] She was one of the first three women—Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson were the others–to be elected as Labour MPs.[65] In an outburst of local celebration her supporters, "nearly crazy with joy", paraded her around the town in a charabanc.[82] The Labour Party had won 191 seats to the Conservatives' 258 and the Liberals' 158; with no party in possession of a parliamentary majority, the composition of the next government was in doubt for several weeks.[65]

Parliament and office[edit]

First Labour Government[edit]

The Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, depicted in a hostile Punch cartoon. The luggage label, marked "Petrograd", links him to Russia and communism.

When the Liberal Party chose not to enter a coalition with the Conservatives, and Baldwin decided not to govern without a majority, the way was open for the first minority Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald, which took office in January 1924.[83] Bondfield was chairing a TUC Council meeting when she accepted the post of parliamentary secretary to the new Minister of Labour, Tom Shaw.[65][n 6] This meant that she had to relinquish her union posts. Her decision to give up the TUC Council chair so soon after becoming the first woman to achieve this honour generated some criticism from other trade unionists.[85] In his biography of MacDonald, David Marquand suggests that the departure of Bondfield and other moderates shifted the TUC Council to the left, a swing that became more evident in the following months.[86]

Bondfield later described her first months in government as "a strange adventure".[87] The government of which she was now a part lacked experience, and the political background of industrial unrest and rising unemployment made life particularly difficult.[65] Bondfield's brusque personal manner offended some of her colleagues, although her biographer Mary Agnes Hamilton maintained that such deficiences were "offset by her personal charm".[88] She travelled to Canada during the autumn of 1924, as the head of a delegation examining the problems of British immigrants, especially as related to the welfare of young children.[89] When she returned to Britain she found the Labour government, which the essayist Ronald Blythe later described as "neither exhilarating nor competent",[90] in its final throes. On 8 October the government resigned after losing a confidence vote in the House of Commons.[91] Its chances of victory in the ensuing general election were fatally compromised by the controversy surrounding the so-called Zinoviev letter, a missive purportedly sent by Grigory Zinoviev, president of the Communist International, which called on Britain's socialists to prepare for violent revolution. The letter, published four days before polling day, generated a "Red Scare" that led to a significant swing of voters to the right, and ensured a massive Conservative victory.[92][93][n 7] Bondfield lost her seat in Northampton by 971 votes.[94]


After her defeat, Bondfield resumed her work for NUGMW and was re-elected to the TUC Council.[95] In 1926 she supported the TUC's decision to hold a General Strike, and also the decision to call it off after nine days.[96] Her priority was to seek re-election to parliament, and in 1926, following the resignation of Sir Patrick Hastings, she was adopted as the Labour candidate at Wallsend.[97] Campaigning on the basis of an uncompromisingly socialist election address, she won the by-election with a majority of over 9,000.[98] Meanwhile she had accepted appointment to the Blanesborough Committee, which the Conservative government had set up to consider reforms to the system of unemployment benefit.[95] Her private views, that benefits should be based on a solvent contributory insurance scheme and that entitlement should be related to contributions, were not widely shared in the Labour Party or the TUC.[6] When the committee made recommendations along these lines, she signed the report, which became the basis of the Unemployment Insurance Act 1927. Bondfield's association with this legislation marred her relationship with the labour movement, particularly in Wallsend where she had recently been fêted.[95]

Bondfield continued to campaign for full adult suffrage, largely through the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, whose conference she addressed in 1927.[14] On 29 March 1928, when a bill providing for full suffrage came before parliament, she termed the measure "a tremendous social advance", and added: "This Bill [lays] down for the first time that a vote is conferred not merely because women are women and men are men, but at last we are established on that equitable footing because we are human beings and part of society as a whole ... once and for all, we shall destroy the artificial barrier in the way of any women who want to get education in politics and who want to come forward and take their full share in the political life of their day".[99] Four million voters, most of them women, were added to the register. In the 1929 general election, held on 30 May, Bondfield easily held her Wallsend seat despite the intervention of a candidate representing unemployed workers.[95][98] The overall election result left Labour as the largest party with 287 seats, but without an overall majority, and MacDonald formed his second minority administration.[100]

Later career[edit]

Bondfield was appointed Minister of Labour by Ramsay MacDonald on 8 June 1929, the first time that a woman had been made a Cabinet Minister in Britain. She was defeated in the 1931 general election. Despite standing at Wallsend in 1935, she never returned to the House of Commons. In 1937, she was selected to be the Labour candidate at Reading, for an election expected in 1939 or 1940, which occurred only in 1945 because of World War II.

Bondfield was the only woman present at the Accession Council which proclaimed King George VI's accession to the Throne upon the abdication of King Edward VIII. During the war, she was chair of the Women's Group on Public Welfare.[101] She was appointed CH in 1948.

Books by Margaret Bondfield[edit]

  • Socialism for Shop Assistants (1909)
  • The National Care of Maternity (1914)
  • The Meaning of Trade (1928)
  • Why Labour Fights (1941)
  • Our Towns: A Close-up (1943)
  • A Life's Work (1949)

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ A Chard Political Union tract, "Results of the Funding System", was published in the Chartist Circular of 23 November 1839. It attacked the mismanagement and corruption of government which had swelled the National Debt to £850 million which, if measured in gold sovereigns, "would load as many waggons as would extend for eighty miles".[4]
  2. ^ In 1873 the Liberal MP Sir John Lubbock had introduced a parliamentary bill to limit shopworkers' hours to ten and a half per day. The House of Commons rejected the bill, on the grounds that unlike factory work, shopwork "could hardly be considered fatiguing, much less unwholesome".[17]
  3. ^ Cox and Hobley, in their history of "life behind the counter", give the union's membership at the time as 2,000;[23] Frank Magill, in his Dictionary of World Biography, states a figure of 2,897.[2]
  4. ^ The Act gave local councils the power to fix trading hours, provided they could get the agreement of at least two-thirds of shopowners. Not until the Shops Act of 1911 did it become a statutory requirement that shopworkers had a half-day's holiday each week.,ref>Kay, J.A. et al (1984). "The Regulation of Retail Trading Hours". The Institute of Fiscal Studies. 
  5. ^ The members of the mission were: from the Labour Party, Ben Turner, Ethel Snowden, Tom Shaw and Robert Williams; from the TUC, Margaret Bondfield, A. A. Purcell and H Skinner; from the ILP Clifford Allen and R. C. Wallhead. The joint secretaries to the mission were Leslie Haden-Guest and Charles Roden Buxton. Bertrand Russell accompanied the party in a private capacity.[69][70]
  6. ^ According to Lansbury's biographer, Bondfield turned down the offer of a post in MacDonald's first cabinet.[84]
  7. ^ The Conservative victory resulted from the collapse of the Liberal vote; Labour obtained a million more votes than in 1923, and its share of the poll likewise increased.[93]


  1. ^ Barbara Castle, quoted in Abrams, p. 217
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Magill, p. 353
  3. ^ a b c Abrams, pp. 218–219
  4. ^ Results of the Funding System. Chartist Circular. 23 November 1839. 
  5. ^ Hamilton, pp. 35–36
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Williamson, Philip. "Bondfield, Margaret Grace". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition. Retrieved 21 August 2014.  (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  7. ^ Worley, p. 180
  8. ^ Bondfield, p. 353
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  46. ^ a b c d Magill, p. 354
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  50. ^ Abrams, p. 228
  51. ^ Collette, p. 84
  52. ^ Collette, p. 89
  53. ^ Collete, p. 66
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  64. ^ Shepherd, p. 229
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  66. ^ Representation of the People Bill: Clause 4, Franchises (Women) 94. Hansard. 19 June 1917. pp. col. 1633. 
  67. ^ Bondfield, p. 126
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  87. ^ Bondfield, p. 255
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  91. ^ Marquand, p. 377
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External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Charles McCurdy
Member of Parliament for Northampton
Succeeded by
Arthur Holland
Preceded by
Sir Patrick Hastings
Member of Parliament for Wallsend
Succeeded by
Irene Ward
Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland
Minister of Labour
Succeeded by
Sir Henry Betterton