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Item of the Month – July 2014

Archive July 2014 Margaret BondfieldMargaret Bondfield – photograph of the first female Cabinet Minister

Margaret Grace Bondfield (1873-1953) was a trade unionist, feminist and the first female Cabinet Minister.

She was born in Chard, Somerset, on 17 March 1873 and was an apprentice in retail shops. She moved to London in 1894 to continue working as a shop assistant and appalled by working conditions, joined the National Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks. She was soon elected as a member of the London District Council and then a full time assistant secretary to the union. She worked closely with Mary Macarthur in the Women’s Trade Union League, the Adult Suffrage Society and the National Federation of Women Workers. She was a strong supporter of universal suffrage. She resigned from her position in the union due to ill health in 1908 and took up freelance lecturing in its stead.

Once she regained her health she returned to active Labour politics, standing as an Independent Labour Party (ILP) candidate in 1910 and 1913 for Woolwich but was defeated. She became organising secretary of the Women’s Labour League in 1911 and devoting energies to the Women’s Co-operative Guild. She spoke publicly about her opposition to the Government’s involvement in World War I, being involved in the War Emergency Workers’ National Committee.

Post-war, she became heavily involved in the International Labour Organisation, becoming the first official UK representative on its governing body in 1924. As a member of the Labour Party she became an MP in the 1923 general election. She lost her seat a year later but was soon elected as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Labour, focusing on unemployed women. She continued her trade union work, being elected to General Council of the Trades Union Congress in 1925 becoming involved in the General Strike of 1925. She was appointed Minister of Labour in 1929, seeing her become the first woman Cabinet Minister and Privy Councillor. She fell out of favour within her circles due to the Government’s inadequate handling of growing unemployment in 1929 and 1930 and her support for reducing unemployment benefits in 1931. She lost her seat that same year and her candidacy was again defeated in 1935. She retired from her union work in 1938 and conducted lecture tours in Canada and the United States for the British Information Services. She died on 16 June 1953.