Pioneering women: Margaret Bondfield, 1873-1953

6 August 2018

By Kate Elms

Portrait of Margaret Bondfield by Bassano Ltd, 10 February 1922. Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London

Portrait of Margaret Bondfield by Bassano Ltd, 10 February 1922. Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London

Did you know that the UK’s first female cabinet minister started her working life in Sussex? Margaret Bondfield, elected Minster for Labour in 1929, was born in Somerset in 1873 but, at the age of 14, she moved to Hove where she was offered work at Mrs White’s ladies’ and juvenile outfitters in Church Road.

This seems initially to have been a positive experience. In a biography written by Mary Agnes Hamilton, a pioneering woman in her own right, Margaret is quoted as saying,’I was apprenticed to one of those old-fashioned businesses where the relations between customer and server were of the most courteous and friendly, and the assistants, of whom I was the youngest, were treated like members of the family.’

During this time, she was befriended by Louisa Martindale, a customer of Mrs White’s and a well-known local suffragist. Louisa had moved to Brighton to ensure her own daughters, Louisa, born in 1872, and Hilda, born 1875, received a good education and the opportunity to pursue fulfilling careers, and she opened up her home in Stanford Road to young working women on Saturday afternoons. Margaret had grown up in a family that valued social justice, and this chance to mix with like-minded people helped to develop her political ideas.

When Mrs White retired, Margaret moved to Hetherington’s, a much larger establishment in Western Road. There she had a different experience of working life, with long hours and cramped living conditions. In the 1891 census, she is listed as the youngest resident (aged 18) in a household of eight female draper’s assistants, none from the local area, in a small house owned by William Hetherington in Stone Street, Brighton. It has been said that the Victorians invented late-night shopping – premises were often open until 10pm at night and young staff worked up to 74 hours per week, while the ‘living-in’ system gave them no privacy or freedom.

Extract from Margaret Bondfield's obituary, published in the Brighton Herald, 20 June 1953

Extract from Margaret Bondfield’s obituary, published in the Brighton Herald, 20 June 1953

Moving to London in 1894, Margaret seems to have drawn on her own experience, becoming active in the Shop Assistants’ Union, campaigning for equal pay and better conditions for workers. She joined the London District Council of the Union and began to contribute articles to Shop Assistant, a publication launched in 1896. In the same year, she was asked by the Women’s Industrial Council to investigate the pay and conditions of shop workers. Her subsequent report and elevation to Assistant Secretary of her Union meant that by the age of 25, her political potential was being noticed in wider circles. She was recognised as the leading authority on shop workers, giving evidence to parliamentary select committees and was often the only female delegate to speak at conferences.

In 1908, she turned her attention to the Independent Labour Party and some of the broader issues it faced, including healthcare and pensions. She was involved with numerous organisations, including the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the National Federation of Women Workers and the Women’s Peace Council; supported equal suffrage for men and women, which put her at odds with the Women’s Social and Political Union; and continued to campaign for equal pay.

In 1923, she was elected as MP for Northampton and became the first female chair of the TUC. And in 1929, she became Minister of Labour in Ramsey Macdonald’s government, the first woman to hold a cabinet post. It was a difficult time, defined by the depression following the Wall Street Crash, and Margaret became a controversial figure who was seen by some to have betrayed the principles of her own party. She retired in 1938 and died in 1953.