The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
In 1929, Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) became the first woman to be appointed to the Cabinet. It was another 16 years before the second appointment—that of Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947). Both were Labour MPs; both born to working-class families with self-educated and non-conformist fathers; both active in trade unions, the women’s movement and suffrage groups; both campaigned on social inequality; and both keenly chronicled the lives of working people.
Margaret Bondfield took her first job as a shop assistant at 14, which set her on a path to political activism. Shocked by the long hours and working conditions of shopworkers, she began to record her experiences of shop life for the monthly magazine of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen, and Clerks. In 1896, the Women’s Industrial Council recruited her, and used her accounts in its 1898 report on the poor working conditions endured by shopworkers.
In 1910, Bondfield became an adviser to the Liberal Government on the National Insurance Bill, which became an Act in 1911, leading to improved maternity benefits for mothers. The introduction of state maternity pay owed much to that work.
As chair of the Adult Suffrage Society, she campaigned for universal suffrage, believing that the campaign for votes for women excluded many members of the working class. In 1918, she became the first woman to chair the TUC General Council.
Bondfield became MP for Northampton in 1923. In early 1924, she became the first woman Minister when she was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. She lost her seat in the general election of October 1924, but returned to the House in 1926, when she won Wallsend in a by-election.
In 1929, Bondfield was promoted to Minister of Labour, and became the first woman Cabinet Minister and Privy Counsellor. She lost her seat at the 1931 election and failed to win it back in the election of 1935. Her commitment to public service remained and she continued to campaign for Labour locally and to chair the Women’s Group on Public Welfare.
Ellen Wilkinson grew up in a working-class Methodist household in Manchester. She always had unshakeable confidence and spoke with great passion and fire. Known by some as “Red Ellen”, in the early 1920s, she was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Her political views were moderated over her lifetime, but she maintained her belief in class struggle.
Wilkinson became MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924. The focus of her speeches, which were often spirited, was on the lives of working people. In June 1926, for example, she brought to the House a rope and chain that was used by miners to haul coal tubs along narrow passages underground, noting the injuries caused by the rope: “the flesh is rubbed and septic sores are the result.”
Wilkinson lost her seat in the 1931 election, but went on to become one of the first woman press reporters to sit in the parliamentary Press Gallery. Re-elected in 1935, as MP for Jarrow, she became one of the leaders of the Jarrow Crusade, in which 200 unemployed men marched from Jarrow to London, bearing a petition to Parliament. Although never physically robust, Wilkinson walked most of the way with them. One of her breaks from the march was to address the Labour Party conference in which she reportedly told delegates, “Tell the Government, our people shall not starve.” In 1939, her book “The Town That Was Murdered” chronicled the suffering of the people of Jarrow. She also wrote novels to help her finances, including “The Clash” and “The Division Bell Mystery”, drawing on her knowledge of politics and the House of Commons.
Wilkinson became the first female Minister of Education in 1945, serving in Clement Attlee’s post-war Government, and was responsible for implementing the Education Act 1944, which provided universal free secondary education and raised the minimum school leaving age from 14 to 15.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Photograph of Margaret Grace Bondfield https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw65737
Second Reading of the National Insurance Bill https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1911/may/24/national-insurance-bill-1
British Pathé: “Another woman M.P. Miss Margaret Bondfield wins Wallsend by-election” https://www.britishpathe.com/video/another-woman-m-p-aka-another-women-mp
Ellen Wilkinson leading the Jarrow Marchers through Cricklewood in London https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw13237/Ellen-Cicely-Wilkinson-leading-the-Jarrow-Marchers-through-Cricklewood-in-London
Second Reading of Coal Mines Bill, 29 June 1926 https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1926/jun/29/coal-mines-bill