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100 Years: Margaret Bondfield Appointed as the First Female Government Minister

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Authored by Rex Cleaver
Published on 24th January, 2024 7 min read

100 Years: Margaret Bondfield Appointed as the First Female Government Minister

Today (24/01/2024) marks 100 years since Margaret Bondfield became the first female government minister in Britain. Bondfield’s appointment as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Labour (Thomas Shaw) marked the beginning of a prolific political career. Formerly a prominent trade unionist and leading advocate for the cooperative movement, as well as for women’s suffrage, Bondfield later became the first female Cabinet Minister and first woman to sit on the Privy Council.

Born in 1873 in Chard, a busy industrial town in Somerset, Bondfield grew up in a working-class family, the tenth of eleven children. The daughter of a local lacemaker, Bondfield and her siblings received limited formal education. Nevertheless, Bondfield, or “Maggie” to her friends and family, was known for being a prestigious child who could recite long passages of poetry and play complex piano pieces with ease. Employment opportunities in Chard were, however, scarce. Following a brief stint working as a teaching assistant at her local school, a job that paid just three shillings a week (about £12 today), Bondfield decided to leave Somerset in search of work. 

Having previously visited some of her relatives based in Brighton, a rapidly growing city — at that time a popular coastal destination for day-tripping Londoners thanks to the railways — Bondfield decided to head there with the hope of finding employment. When she was 14 years old, Bondfield was offered an apprenticeship with a draper business. It was here that Bondfield began to get politicised.

While Bondfield was treated relatively well by her employers, she quickly became aware of the miserable conditions endured by other female apprentices. Most ‘shop girls’ at the time were subject to the ‘living-in’ system, whereby they were forced to live on shop premises and at the beck and call of the owners. Typically, they received terrible wages, worked long hours (80–100 hours a week was the norm), and endured poor living conditions. Incensed by all of this, Bondfield joined her local shopworkers union, coming across an advert for the group on a piece of newspaper used to wrap some local fish and chips. In 1896 Bondfield was recruited by the Women’s Industrial Council (WIC) as an undercover reporter. She began to record her experiences of the punishing ‘living-in’ system, writing for the monthly shopworkers’ magazine, The Shop Assistant, under the pseudonym “Grace Dare”. In her articles, Bondfield explained how “insanitary conditions, [alongside] poor and insufficient food were the main characteristics of this system”. She highlighted how the whole system was pervaded by an “undertone of danger”, and how in “some houses both natural and unnatural vices found a breeding ground”.[1] These articles would later provide the basis for a WIC report on shop-working conditions published in 1898.[2] 

The Sketch, 28 November 1894 The same year the WIC’s report was published, Bondfield accepted the job of assistant secretary of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen, and Clerks (NUSAWC). Having relocated to London in 1894 to join her brother Frank, Margaret’s social and political circles began to widen. Working tirelessly to improve the conditions of shopworkers, Bondfield travelled the country, campaigning and distributing literature for the NUSAWC. In her memoirs she recalled how during this period, she "had no vocation for wifehood or motherhood, but an urge to serve the Union”. [3] 

Bondfield became increasingly involved in trade unionist and socialist causes. In 1899 she was the only woman delegate to the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and in 1906 she co-founded the Women’s Labour League (WLL). The principal aims of the latter organisation were to secure representation for women in parliament. Arguing for universal representation for all, regardless of gender or property, the WLL distinguished itself from the larger suffragist groupings of the time — these tended to campaign for the granting of the vote to middle and upper-class women, excluding those from working-class backgrounds. 

Having previously contested a seat on the London County Council, and again as a Labour Party candidate for Northampton, Bondfield finally won her seat in parliament in 1923, representing Northampton for the Labour Party. In doing so, she became one of three female Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) elected in the 1923 general election, alongside Dorothy Jewson and Susan Lawrence.

 Appointed Parliamentary Secretary when Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour Party government in British history in January 1924, Bondfield supported the first Cabinet that contained ministers from working-class backgrounds. Despite her pioneering achievement in garnering a ministerial position, Bondfield’s political career got off to a rocky start. After just nine months in office, relations between Labour and the Liberals broke down. MacDonald resigned after losing a vote of no confidence and the scandal surrounding the Zinoviev letter, a fake document that was designed to discredit the Labour Party by suggesting collaboration with the Soviet Union, discredited the party to the average voter. All of this resulted in a massive Conservative victory. Bondfield subsequently lost her seat.   

The National Archives Bondfield returned to parliament five years later when MacDonald formed his second Labour government. Now a seasoned trade unionist, having been elected as the first woman chairman of the TUC in 1923, Bondfield was aptly appointed Minister of Labour — the first woman to sit in the Cabinet, and Britain’s first female Privy Counsellor — a significant step forward in politics for women. As Minister of Labour, Bondfield’s role was largely concerned with dealing with rising unemployment levels, as well as securing funds for unemployment benefits. Coinciding with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, Bondfield’s role became increasingly challenging. Her efforts to address unemployment and economic difficulties generated criticism, particularly from the TUC, which disagreed with her support for a government bill which cut unemployment benefits for married women. An unpopular policy with voters, Bondfield lost her seat amid the 1931 ‘Crisis’. Following increasing internal divisions within the Labour Party over austerity measures and economic challenges prompted by the Great Depression, MacDonald led the formation of a new National Government, largely comprised of Conservative MPs. Refusing to follow MacDonald, Bondfield, along with three-quarters of Labour MPs, was forced to leave her seat. 

While Bondfield’s role in the government was over, she continued to campaign passionately on labour issues and for social justice well into her later life. She founded the Women’s Group on Public Welfare in 1938. This sought to shed light on poverty and suggested several radical ideas, such as the creation of a National Health Service and a minimum wage. Bondfield later toured the US and Mexico, studying labour conditions and delivering lectures for the British Information Services. 

A tireless campaigner, Bondfield was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1948, a reward for her efforts in improving worker conditions. A year later she published her autobiography, A Life’s Work. She died in 1953 in Sanderstead, Surrey. Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party at the time and a former Prime Minister, gave the address at her funeral. 

Bondfield’s unwavering resolve propelled her from humble origins to a pioneering political career. She played a huge part in the extension of women’s rights throughout the early to mid-twentieth century. As the first woman to hold numerous, traditionally male-dominated political and trade union positions, Bondfield’s work laid the foundation for subsequent generations of women who continue to strive for equal opportunities. 


[1] Margaret Bondfield, The Shop Assistant, cited in Glyniss Cooper, A Century of Female Revolution: From Peterloo to Parliament (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2020), 183.

[2] Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley, Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter (London: Hutchinson, 2014), 95.

[3] Margaret Bondfield, A Life’s Work (London: Hutchinson, 1948), 36. 

Authored by Rex Cleaver

Rex Cleaver

Rex is an Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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