Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) was the first woman cabinet minister in Britain. Born in Chard, Somerset, the eleventh child of Anne Taylor and William Bondfield, she was a textile worker with left-wing views. She began an apprenticeship at the age of fourteen in a draper’s shop in Brighton and soon got involved in the union.
photo: TUC Library Collections
She was a strong campaigner against the practice of 'living in' where shop workers were forced to live in the shop premises often in awful conditions. Margaret Bondfield was herself a live-in assistant and her pamphlet Socialism for Shop Assistants highlighted the degradation of the system: “The utter absence of privacy at any time night and day is far too common.”
Protest against the living-in system
In 1896 the Women’s Industrial Council commissioned her to investigate the pay and conditions of shop workers. In 1898 she was elected assistant secretary of the Shop Assistants’ Union.
Food provide for shop workers was often miserable with bread and margarine a staple diet. In the “oversexed atmosphere”, abuse of young shop women was common. Fires often broke out in the cramped conditions and in 1906 questions were raised in Parliament after two assistants were killed in Camborne in Cornwall. Margaret Bondfield took up the cause through her union activities and shops were forced to end the practice. She also argued for a socialist alternative where men and women would be engaged in a service to the community and would acquire a new dignity and purpose in life.
She was President of the TUC General Council in 1923 and in the same year waselected Labour MP for Northampton but lost her seat in 1924. She won again in 1926, in a by-election in Wallsend. In 1929 Bondfields was appointed Minister of Labour by Ramsay MacDonald, the first woman to be a Cabinet Minister.
Magaret Bondfield leaving Number Ten
She supported changes to unemployment benefit to eight shillings a week, earning her the nickname ‘eight-bob Maggie’.
After she lost her seat in the 1931 general election she became chair of the Women’s Group on Public Welfare. She also wrote a number of books including: Socialism for Shop Assistants (1909), Why Labour Fights (1941) and A Life’s Work (1949).
Margaret Bondfield speaking to a TUC Women's Conference in Bournemouth in 1926
Plaque to Margaret Bondfield in her home town of Chard
See more: History of USDAW