If Margaret Bondfield, who, in her day, was the most senior and recognisable woman in the Labour and trade union movements, could see this year’s version of Labour Conference she would be amazed, and not just by the technology. But she might also have felt real pride as Angela Rayner, the new Deputy Leader of the Party took to the virtual stage.
Margaret Bondfield – ‘Our Maggie’, as she was known – was one of the first examples of a female working-class political activist who was made in her trade union. Born in 1871 into a poor and numerous family in the West Country, she was sent at the age of fourteen to be apprenticed as a shopworker in Brighton, where an older sister lived.
In her autobiography, Margaret gave a depressing account of the shopwork system and campaigned against it all her life. Shop staff worked very long days, often not finishing until nine or ten o’clock at night, and many had to live in dormitories provided by their employers. There was no protection for the workers, and no privacy. At Margaret’s shop the women’s dormitory was on the ground floor, and she vividly remembered being terrified by drunk men banging in the windows during the night because they were under the impression that a shopgirl was much the same thing as a prostitute. A shopworker who was sacked lost his or her accommodation as well as a job, and was easily replaced. Shopworkers were very patchily organised and had next to no industrial muscle; at no point during her time in Brighton did it occur to Margaret to join a union, even though she met radicals and a few socialists and hated the life she had to live.
At nineteen she left Brighton and went to London, where she began a grim three-month long search for work. The West End shops would not employ her because they wanted tall, slim women and she was petite and not at all ‘willowy’. There was no unemployment benefit of any kind, and at some points she was so weak from lack of food that she almost fainted in the street. But she persisted, and eventually got a job at a shop near Fitzroy Square. One day she bought a bag of chips for her lunch and wandered round the Square reading the newspaper in which they were wrapped. By chance, there was a letter from the Secretary of the Shopworkers’ Union who, in Margaret’s words, was: ‘urging shop assistants to join together to fight against the wretched conditions of employment. I was working about 65 hours a week for between £15 and £25 per annum, living in. Here I felt was the right thing to do, and at once I joined up.’
Soon she was deep into industrial activism, and in no time she was the union’s Assistant Secretary. She turned out to be an excellent public speaker, and she travelled the country recruiting, organising and inspiring. When she spoke at the TUC to support the founding of what became the Labour Party she was just twenty-four years old and widely seen as a rising star of the movement. She later recalled with affection the encouragement and support she received from her union, and remained an active trade unionist even after the focus of her work had shifted into politics. In 1923 she became the first woman to chair the TUC, and six years later the first ever female Cabinet minister. Throughout, she retained her sense of herself as a working-class woman, coupled with a faint surprise at finding herself where she was. ‘Some woman’ she said, when she was elevated to the Cabinet, ‘was bound to be first. That I should be was the accident of dates and events.’
So it is that, when Angela Rayner said in her speech on Saturday that ‘I was made in our movement. I never went to university, but when I joined my union I found an education and a vocation’ it is possible dimly to hear Margaret Bondfield cheering her on from the distance of another age. Politics are very different now from in 1900, if only because women can vote and Labour women are a significant presence in Parliament. But for working-class women in low-paid employments the challenges are not dissimilar. Angela Rayner does not channel Margaret Bondfield – in many respects they are very different women – but, together with a handful of other women, they do walk the same path. Let’s hope that many more follow them.
You can read more about Margaret Bondfield and other socialist and trade unionist women from Labour’s early years in my book, The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History, available from good bookshops and online, or direct from the publishers, (Bloomsbury).