PETER FROST introduces Margaret Bondfield who bravely campaigned for peace in the first world war
Suffragettes had fought hard for votes for women in the decades leading up to the first world war but, when war was actually declared, some leaders of the movement suspended the votes campaign to join in the jingoism of the war.
Some leaders demanded that all Suffragettes support the war effort. In return, the government released Suffragettes from prison.
Emmeline Pankhurst, who would later become a Tory parliamentary candidate, announced that all militants had to “fight for their country as they fought for the vote.”
After receiving £2,000 from the government, Pankhurst organised a demonstration in London.
The banners read: “We Demand the Right to Serve” and “For Men Must Fight and Women Must work.” Christabel Pankhurst started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country.
But not all suffragettes were taken in by the warmongering propaganda.
One, Margaret Bondfield, disagreed with this new policy. She helped to establish the Women’s Peace Crusade to campaign for a negotiated peace.
Today Bondfield is not much remembered, except perhaps among the socialists, anti-war campaigners and feminists of my local market town Northampton where she was elected, in 1923, as one of the three first-ever Labour women MPs.
Northampton in 1923
I’ve always had a soft spot for Bondfield. In 1909 she wrote a book called Socialism for Shop Assistants. I have never been able to find a copy, but that title alone won my heart to her.
She learned her early radical political ideas from her parents and by the age of 14 Bondfield left home to become apprentice in a large draper’s shop in Hove.
She became friendly with one of her customers, Louisa Martindale, a strong advocate of women’s rights. Through Bondfield she met progressive thinkers and discovered political books and periodicals.
In 1894 Bondfield went to live with her brother Frank in London where she found work in a shop. It didn’t take long before she was elected to the Shop Assistants Union district council.
In 1896 the Women’s Industrial Council asked her to carry out an investigation into the pay and conditions of shop workers.
The report was published in 1898, the same year she was appointed assistant secretary of the Shop Assistants Union.
By now, Bondfield was Britain’s leading expert on shop workers and gave evidence to the select committee on shops (1902) and the select committee on the truck system (1907).
With Mary Macarthur, she established the first women’s general union, the National Federation of Women Workers in 1906.
In 1908 Bondfield became secretary of the Women’s Labour League. She was also active in the Women’s Co-operative Guild, leading early campaigns for a minimum wage.
The guild also fought for an improvement in child welfare and action to lower the infant mortality rate.
In 1910 the Liberal government asked Bondfield to serve as a member of its advisory committee on the Health Insurance Bill. She persuaded the government to introduce maternity benefits.
In October 1916, Bondfield joined with George Lansbury and Macarthur to set up a new National Council for Adult Suffrage.
In 1929 prime minister Ramsay MacDonald appointed Bondfield as his new minister of labour. She was the first woman in history to gain a place in the British Cabinet.
In the financial crisis of 1931, Bondfield supported the government policy of depriving some married women of unemployment benefit.
It was not a popular move. She refused to join McDonald’s national government and lost her seat in the 1931 general election.
On the anniversary of WWI the Establishment has been honouring warmongers and jingoistic generals.
Let us instead honour Margaret Bondfield, who fought for peace and also achieved much more besides for the rights of women.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 7 August 2014.