Day 32 of Colourisation Project – June 8
On this day, 8 June 1929, Margaret Grace Bondfield became the first female Cabinet Minister in the United Kingdom.
Bondfield along with Dorothy Jewson and Susan Lawrence was one of the first three female Labour MPs to take seats in the 1923 Parliament. In 1924 she was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour. Five years later in 1929, Bondfield became the first woman in history to gain a place in the British Cabinet.
Born in 1873, Bondfield worked her way up from draper’s assistant to assistant secretary of the Shop Assistants’ Union. In 1896 at the request of the Women’s Industrial Council, she published a report after carrying out an investigation into pay and working conditions for shop assistants. In 1908 Bondfield resigned from the Shop Assistants’ Union and became secretary of the Women’s Labour League.
Bondfield became more and more involved in trades union activities. She became an executive member of Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and in 1906 with her colleague and close companion, Mary McCarthur established the first women’s general union, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). By 1923 she was elected as the first woman Chair of the Trades Union Congress.
Bondfield’s union and political career was set against the backdrop of the suffragette movement. Women over 30 got the vote in 1918 but universal suffrage did not come till 1928. Bondfield focused her work on the economic and social welfare of women and was elected chairperson of the Adult Suffrage Society, the campaign for which she worked so tirelessly.
Photo: Bassano Ltd, whole-plate glass negative, 1922 [NPG x19248] – Coloured by Loredana Crupi
In her 1948 autobiography, A Life’s Work she writes about this focus: “I concentrated on my job. This concentration was undisturbed by love affairs. I had seen too much – too early – to have the least desire to join in the pitiful scramble of my workmates. The very surroundings of shop life accentuated the desire of most shop girls to get married. Long hours of work and the living-in system deprived them of the normal companionship of men in their leisure hours, and the wonder is that so many of the women continued to be good and kind, and self-respecting, without the incentive of a great cause, or of any interest outside their job… I had no vocation for wifehood or motherhood, but an urge to serve the Union”.
By 1931, Bondfield’s political career was over, although she did run again (unsuccessfully) in 1935. During the war years she was chairperson of the Women’s Group on Public Welfare and spent much of this time lecturing in the United States and Canada on behalf of the British government.
In 1936 Bondfield had the unique distinction of being the only woman present at the Accession Council which proclaimed King George VI’s accession to the Throne upon the abdication of King Edward VIII.
In 1948 she was appointed a Companion of Honour, before retiring to a nursing home in Surrey where she passed away in 1953 at the age of 80.