As March was Women’s History month, we have decided to observe it by shining the spotlight on Margaret Bondfield, who is virtually unheard of today but made history in 1929 by becoming the first woman cabinet minister and privy counsellor. In an era where social mobility is seen to be grinding to a halt and sectors such as media, publishing, acting, modelling and politics are becoming nepotistic and resemble Third World banana republic cliques, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time the barriers were even higher and the odds were greater against someone with disadvantages succeeding in life.
And yet, Margaret Bondfield in her indomitable and determined way battled through both gender and class barriers, rising beyond her working class roots and the limitations imposed on women by society. She was born on 17 March 1873 in Chard, Somerset to a lace maker father and the daughter of a Congregational minister. Her father had progressive views and a strong social conscience, something that he passed on to his children especially to young Margaret and after leaving school and spending a year as a pupil-teacher, she moved to Brighton for better employment opportunities.
Bondfield found work in a succession of drapery stores in Brighton and her impressions of these shops were mixed. Overall she noted the poor working conditions, the long hours (sometimes 80 hours in a week), indifferent employers and the lack of privacy due to the system of “living in” where shop assistants, like those in service were given board and lodging by their employers. Later she moved to London to join her brother who had found employment in the capital, and while there was more work for an experienced shop assistant like her, she found that the conditions were no better than in Brighton.
Her own political views were shaped by various factors: among them her experience in working in the retail sector, her strong Christian faith and her association with people who held progressive views. The first of these was Louisa Martindale, the daughter of a local businessman who met Bondfield while being served at the shop where the latter worked. Martindale lent Bondfield several books on the labour question and years later a grateful Bondfield credited Martindale as a great influence in her life.
As a shop assistant in London, she joined and became an active member of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen, and Clerks (NUSAWC) which led her to meeting the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb Through their influence, Bondfield both joined the Trades Unions Congress (TUC) and the Independent Labour Party (ILP).
When Bondfield joined the NUSAWC, shop assistants comprised a small portion of the union and it was part of her work to inform fellow shop workers of the benefits of union membership. However, her attempts over all were not really successful as it was an uphill battle trying to convince workers to join a union. Many shop owners decreed union membership to be a sackable offence and the long hours left little time for anything but work, much less social activism – and somewhat to her disgust, young women workers were more interested in their social and love lives. Furthermore, unions were male dominated and the majority of them didn’t want women as members so more women preferred to join co-operatives instead.
She also began writing a series of expose articles for the union journal under the pseudonym of “Grace Dare”. This investigative work continued when she joined the Women’s Industrial Council (WIC) and her reports became the basis of their study exposing unscrupulous employers, which was published in 1898, as well as the basis for her part in campaigning for better pay and conditions in the retail sector. Reformers had long been documenting abuses against those in the retail sector and campaigning for reforms but Bondfield’s exposés demonstrated how conditions and pay were still appalling despite some progress made in the field of employment legislation. It became clear that the war was far from over, but her time at the WIC and the report she helped produce led to pressure on Parliament to regulate shop work: leading to the 1899 Seats for Shop Workers Act and the 1904 Shop Hours Act to regulate trading hours.
Several of her exposes dwelt on what we would call today “health and safety” issues faced by shop workers as well as the practice of “living in”. In a report to the Royal Sanitary Institute Congress held in Glasgow in 1904 entitled The Effects on Health of Women’s Employment in Shops, Bondfield raised concerns about breaks only giving employees enough time for their meals and not much else such as getting fresh air. In addition, she also pointed out that dust was a constant problem and in shops that closed late, fumes from gas jets caused respiratory issues in the long term.
Finally there was clothing. Female shop assistants were hampered by their uniforms, which conformed to the fashions of their day with ankle length skirts and corsets, and presented problems due the nature of working in shops – not only serving customers and standing on their feet for long periods of time but also lifting and carrying of boxes and stock. As Bondfield wrote:
“In the matters of clothing there is great need for reform. The regulation dress of the shop assistant must be black (a most unserviceable colour) it must also be stylish. The skirt usually sweeps the floor, the undergarments afford no proper covering for the chest, the ‘fitting’ corset does its deadly work in preventing the proper expansion of the lungs, and the thin, cheap shoes afford no protection to the feet but rather aggravate the soreness and inflammation caused by dust, standing and lack of opportunity to properly bathe them.”
The other main target was the “living in” system where employees were provided with board and lodging by their employers. While this ostensibly meant that shop assistants could save money, the reality was different as the quality of homes depended on who was managing it. If the food served was of at least decent quality then a shop assistant was able to save money by only spending 6d to 1s 6d (between £1.08-3.28 in today’s money) for their breakfast and supper top ups. In houses that didn’t provide well-cooked or good food, a woman had to spend 3s to 5s (£6.46-10.77) per week on top ups which could eat into her salary which based on Bondfield’s estimates was only between 2 1/2d to 3 1/2d (between £86-129) per month.
Another alleged advantage to living in was the belief that it protected young people from moral danger but as they frequently lived far away from home and immediate dismissal meant they lost their accommodation as well and had very little cash on hand to find new lodgings. The lodgings themselves as Bondfield observed were deficient from a hygienic standpoint – air space varied from 500 to 700 cubic feet per person, fireplaces were blocked and windows at night were closed or only open half an inch so there was little to no ventilation. Washing accommodation was also limited and only in the best houses were bath rooms provided. So health and safety was not only an issue in the work place but even in the living quarters.
Bondfield’s main objection to the living in system crucially was that it infantilised the employee and prevented them from taking responsibility for their own lives and destinies. As she wrote in her autobiography A Life’s Work:
“The system robs the assistant, whether man or woman, of the sense of personal responsibility which is developed by ordering and controlling one’s own life. When out of employment the worker is at the same time homeless, with little or no cash, and without knowledge of the cost of living.
The herding together of large numbers of either sex, restricted as to the most ordinary intercourse with the opposite sex, creates an unnatural and vicious atmosphere which is morally dangerous to both men and women.
The surveillance of adults is humiliating and degrading to manhood and womanhood alike; they are hedged in with petty house rules after business hours, being compelled to go to bed to order, to extinguish the light to order and so forth.” (pp. 69-70)
Bondfield’s attack on the “living in” system was tied to her views on female suffrage. The suffrage movement of both suffragists and suffragettes attempted to appeal to the retail sector but as majority of retail employees were young and would not meet the property threshold, they would certainly be excluded if the vote was extended to women under the terms of the 1886 Reform Act. Bonfield’s view differed from that of the suffragists and suffragettes – it was her belief that the right to vote should be universal and be extended to all men and women regardless of wealth and property.
While Bondfield penned her exposes and also campaigned for universal suffrage, the movement against “living in” reached its turning point in 1907 when 24 workers staged a walk out at Daniels and Co, a drapers in Kentish Town, north London. The walk out became headline news and after 16 weeks, the management gave in, anxious not to lose staff to stores with better working conditions and practices. “Living-in” was gradually abolished for male workers but employers insisted on retaining it for female workers on the grounds that it protected their moral welfare. Bondfield retorted that if women were to become “useful, healthy women” and in time “healthy wives and mothers”, they needed, as a matter of urgency to “begin to live rational lives”. “Shopgirls didn’t need cosseting; they needed independence, shorter hours and better pay.”
The sometimes appalling conditions faced by female shop employees also made its way to the West End stage. Bondfield was asked to be a consultant to a play by Cicely Hamilton – Diana of Dobson’s. As Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley noted, “In the first scene of Diana of Dobson’s, five shopgirls undress for bed above a Clapham drapery store. The curtain rises on a dormitory ‘in darkness except for the glimmer of a single gas jet turned very low’. As the jet is turned up, it reveals ‘a bare room [with] very little furniture except five small beds ranged against the walls – everything plain and comfortless to the last degree.’ According to Bondfield, ‘it was the real thing, with boxes under the bed, clothes hanging up on hooks, the general dinginess.’ Less real was stage heroine Diana’s temporary escape from her life as low paid shopgirl, courtesy of a surprise inheritance and a Swiss holiday adventure.” Nevertheless the play was a hit and did present to audiences of the trials and tribulations faced by the women who served them behind the counter of a shop.
Gradually “living in” for women was also abolished and there was some improvement to the pay and conditions for shop employees following the examples of enlightened employers and shops such as Harry Selfridge and John Lewis. Women finally won the right to vote in 1920 but it was only extended to women above the age of thirty and it would be another nine years before women were to be able to vote on the same terms as men.
In 1923, Bondfield was elected to Parliament but lost her seat when the Labour government collapsed the following year. Two years later, she returned to Parliament as MP for Wallsend via a by-election and in 1929 retained her seat. When Labour won a majority in the House of Commons in 1931, she made history by becoming the first female cabinet minister. Her appointment was headline news around the world and was also subject of lengthy profiles and newsreels. Coming off the heels of the Great Depression, Bondfield had no illusions about her position as she acknowledged that “[it] was no sinecure. The urgency, the difficulty, the complexity of the work puts this ministry high among those that require not only intelligence but courage; and this was particularly true at the juncture at which I took up office in 1929.” (p. 279)
She also saw that her appointment to the cabinet demonstrated how far women had come in her own lifetime. No longer were their only options to be wives and mothers but increasingly they could seek employment, go to university, enter professions that were once only the preserve of men and even become an MP and cabinet minister:
“When I accepted the Ministry of Labour, I did so knowing well it touched much more than merely my own self – it was part of the great revolution in the position of women which had taken place in my lifetime and which I had done something to help forward. Some woman was bound to be the first. That I should be was the accident of dates and events.” (p. 276-7)
Her appointment to the cabinet also meant that she was the first woman to be elevated to the Privy Council which allowed her to be styled “The Right Honourable”. Travelling to Windsor to be sworn in, Bondfield recalled that it was a highly significant day for her:
“The special train left Paddington at 10:30am. For the first time I began to enjoy the event. All the porters and travellers were so jolly and friendly – cheering, blowing whistles from the engines at the station as our train came through. At Windsor station I was at once taken charge of by a footman and put in a carriage to wait in solitary state while he hunter for my less easily identified companions. This gave the photographers and the crowd a chance to be nicely personal. The drive in the State carriages through cheering crowds to the Castle was delightful: such a lovely setting.
On arrival we immediately rehearsed under the direction of Hankey, who looked the most worried person; but with very little delay the Lord President and the PM were given audience, and the rest of us formed a horseshoe line, with myself at the end of the line. The Lord President then called the names of the five new members, who advanced together to about two yards of the King, knelt on right knee and took the oath of allegiance by holding the brand-new red Testament (presented for permanent retention to each one) while Hankey read the declaration. Then, in turn, each went forward to kneel on King George V’s footstool holding out the right arm. The King placed his hand upon it to be kissed. Why my turn came, he broke the customary silence to say:
“I am pleased to be the one to whom has come the opportunity to receive the first woman Privy Councillor.”
He smile as he spoke was cordial and sincere. My colleagues as I were very pleased that HM noted the precedent so amiably. We then had the ceremonial handshake, which begins at the top and goes around the line, and retired to the room where the Lord President received the oath of office from the new Cabinet Ministers. Light refreshments were served to a buffet, and then we went back to 10 Downing Street for an informal Cabinet Meeting. Sir Maurice Hankey said that everything had gone perfectly.” (pp. 277-8)
As mentioned earlier, Bondfield did not have any illusions about her position. She soon found herself confronted with the problem of unemployment and was forced to make unpopular decisions which she based on fact rather than sectional interests in order to confront the issue: especially with regards to moves to distinguish between those who were genuinely unemployed and a seeking work while those who were unwilling to do so. In 1931, the Labour government collapsed and was replaced by a National government. Bondfield lost her seat and from 1932 until her death in 1953 was not re-elected to Parliament but remained active in the trade union movement with emphasis on the plight of women workers.
Bondfield was part of the generation of trade unionists and Liberal-Labour MPs whose beliefs were rooted in a strong Christian faith, politically liberal and pragmatic when it came to policy. She was also strongly conservative (with a small c) in her beliefs which is a hallmark of working class identity. She was of the view that women should be able to take on a more active role in society in order to become fully-fledged citizens. Although she did not marry and have children herself she believed that motherhood wasn’t simply staying at home to raise children and keep the household in order but that it played an important role in the development of the nation and society. As a trade unionist and MP, Bondfield herself met and spoke to mothers of all classes high and low about which she later wrote:
“This experience deepened my reverence for motherhood, and strengthened the conviction which I have always had, that, whatever else a woman may do (and I would not bar her from any form of service), her highest contribution to civilisation will be in the quality of motherhood and of the influence with which she surrounds the young life.
All of us who are called to do public work must strive to give the home-maker the help she needs from the community and in the equipment of her workshop – the home, so that she, too, will have her quota of leisure, and exercise her share of civic responsibility as a well-informed citizen.” (p. 24)
When Bondfield wrote her autobiography in 1948, her aim was not to celebrate her own achievements but she hoped that her experiences “may be of some service to the younger generation who would grow up in a new order of society which they can help to build.” Despite her years of service to the Labour party, Bondfield has not been highly regarded within it – her willingness to contemplate cuts to unemployment benefit while serving in the National Government of 1931 alienated her from many in the party, although her funeral was attended by Clement Attlee, the then leader of the Labour party.
Photo of Margaret Bondfield:
Margaret Bondfield. A Life’s Work (London, 1948)
Margaret Bondfield. What Life Has Taught Me (London, 1948)
Margaret Bondfield. The Effects on Health of Women’s Employment in Shops (Royal Sanitary Institute Congress, Glasgow 1904)
Margaret G. Bondfeld and Kathlyn Oliver. Shop Workers and the Vote and Domestic Servants and Citizenship (London, 1911)
Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley. Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter (London, 2014)
Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid. “Currents of Radicalism, 1850-1914” in Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds) Currents of Radicalism: Popular radicalism, organised labour and party politics in Britain, 1850-1914 (Cambridge, 1991) pp. 1-19
Matthew Worley (ed). The Foundations of the British Labour Party: Identities, Cultures and Perspectives (Surrey, 2009)