Margaret Bondfield (1873-53) was the first female member of cabinet, and among the first women MPs not come either from an aristocratic background or 'take over' her seat from her husband, being elected with the first generation of women Labour MPs.
In the second of our Women’s History Month Profiles, Becky Ridgewell profiles industrial organiser, suffragist and parliamentarian Margaret Bondfield
Margaret Bondfield (1873-53) was the first female member of cabinet, and among the first women MPs not come either from an aristocratic background or ‘take over’ her seat from her husband, being elected with the first generation of women Labour MPs in 1923.
Her background as a campaigner for full adult suffrage, as opposed to merely extending the vote for more prosperous, propertied or higher-class women, made her unpopular with many middle class suffragettes – Bondfield’s goal was always that there would one day be full adult suffrage that would cut across divisions of class and sex.
Bondfield, the eleventh child of a textile worker, left her Somerset home at an early age and worked as a draper in Brighton, leading to her being active in the Shop Assistants’ Union. A crucial moment in her life was befriending customer Louisa Martindale, feminist and doctor who would go on to investigate the problems of prostitutes in a groundbreaking study, Under The Surface, grounding the high number of prostitutes in lack of female economic opportunity.
Martindale lent her protege books and introduced her to fellow radicals both of which helped shape her political views. However, Bondfield’s rise was due to her trade union activity and expertise in the industrial condition of women, publishing research from 1898 onwards and regularly giving evidence to parliamentary commitees. In 1910 she served on the Liberal Government’s Advisory Committee on Health Insurance and led the charge to secure maternity benefits for women.
She broke again with established feminists of the National Union of Women Suffragist Societies and even the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union, in opposing World War I. The more mainstream groups used the war to advance women’s rights, claiming that they wanted to ensure that women could contribute more fullly to the war effort. Bondfield instead helped set up the Women’s Peace Crusade along with other members of the Women’s Freedom League.
In 1923 having achieved so much already she became among UK’s first female Labour MP in the 1923 election. All the female MPs prior to Bondfield had been Conservative, Liberal or Sinn Fein and frequently were aristocrats, most of who had not fought in the suffrage movement. So Bondfield winning a seat represents a new chapter of politics in Britain; a chapter that allowed women from humble beginnings with a background in union activism to join the elite at Westminster.
In 1929 Bondfield became the UK’s first female cabinet minister in Ramsay McDonald’s Government and had the thankless task of being Minister for Labour, being forced to make unpopular decisions during the financial crisis of 1931. She did, however, refuse to join Ramsay’s National Government in the same year, losing her seat in the following general election.
She fought to get back into parliament, standing for various seats but her health was failing her and when the Second World War was declared she gave up the fight to become an MP once more. Bondfield’s Westminster career may have been short-lived but as a parliamentarian, an activist and a campaigner she was a true pioneer of her day.
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