Margaret Bondfield, the daughter of William Bondfield and Anne Taylor, was born in Chard, Somerset on 17th March 1873. Margaret was Anne's eleventh child and her husband was at that time was sixty-one years old. William Bondfield had worked in the textile industry since he was a young boy and was well known in the area for his radical political beliefs. Philip Williamson has argued: "Her parents gave her a nonconformist faith and ethic, a strong sense of the dignity of work, and a belief in an active female role, while contact with philanthropists and preachers encouraged her to read widely about social, ethical, and spiritual issues."
At the age of fourteen Margaret left home to serve an apprenticeship in a large draper's shop in Hove. She later recalled: "When I first went to Brighton for a holiday in 1887 I had the chance of a job as apprentice to Mrs. White of Church Road, Hove, a friend of my sister Annie. I eagerly grasped this opportunity of earning my living. I did not see my home again for five years. Mrs. White successfully ran one of those old-fashioned businesses where the relations between the customer and assistant were of the most courteous and friendly, and the assistants, of whom I was the youngest, were treated like members of the family."
Margaret Bondfield became friendly with one of her customers, Louisa Martindale, a strong advocate of women's rights. Margaret was a regular visitor to the Martindale home where she met other radicals living in Brighton. Louisa Martindale lent Margaret books and was an important influence on her political development.
In 1894 Margaret went to live with her brother Frank in London. Margaret found work in a shop and after a short period was elected to the Shop Assistants Union District Council. In 1896 Clementina Black of the Women's Industrial Council asked Bondfield to carry out an investigation into the pay and conditions of shop workers. Bondfield's report was published in 1898, the same year she was appointed assistant secretary of the Shop Assistants' Union.
As a result of her work for the Women's Industrial Council, Bondfield became known as 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). During this period she met Mary Macarthur: "I saw a thin white face and glowing eyes, and then I was enveloped by her ardent, young hero-worshipping personality. She was gloriously young and self-confident It was a dazzling experience for a humdrum official to find herself treated with the reverence due to an oracle by one whose brilliant gifts and vital energy were even then manifest." As a Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) executive member, she recommended Macarthur as organizer and in 1906 they established the first women's general union, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW).
Margaret Bondfield made the decision to concentrate on her career. In her autobiography, A Life's Work (1948): "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".
Bondfield was chairperson of the Adult Suffrage Society. In 1906 she made a speech where she said: "I work for Adult Suffrage because I believe it is the quickest way to establish a real sex-equality... I have always said in my speeches and in conversation that these women who believe in the same terms as men Bill have a perfect right to go on working for that Bill, and I say good luck to them and may they get it! But don't let them come and tell me that they are working for my class."
Unlike some members of the NUWSS and the WSPU, Bondfield was totally opposed to the idea that initially only certain categories of women should be given the vote. Bondfield believed that a limited franchise would disadvantage the working class and feared that it might act as a barrier against the granting of adult suffrage. This made Bondfield unpopular with middle class suffragettes who saw limited suffrage as an important step in the struggle to win the vote.
Fran Abrams the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003) described a debate she had with Isabella Ford over the issue of women's suffrage: The young Margaret Bondfield tore to shreds the argument that a limited women's franchise was the way forward. Industrial organisation would improve women's lot much more efficiently than votes, she said. If women were to have the vote at all, they should have it as part of a much more radical move towards universal suffrage for both men and women." Sylvia Pankhurst did not agree with this assessment: "Miss Bondfield appeared in pink, dark and dark-eyed with a deep, throaty voice which many found beautiful. She was very charming and vivacious and eager to score all the points that her youth and prettiness would win for her against the plain middle-aged woman with red face and turban hat... Miss Bondfield deprecated votes for women as the hobby of disappointed old maids whom no-one had wanted to marry."
In 1908 Bondfield resigned from the Shop Assistants' Union and became secretary of the Women's Labour League. Bondfield was also active in the Women's Co-operative Guild which was campaigning for minimum wage legislation, an improvement in child welfare and action to lower the infant mortality rate. Her biographer, Mary Agnes Hamilton, commented that "any deficiences... are offset by her personal charm."
In 1910 the Liberal Government asked Bondfield to serve as a member of its Advisory Committee on the Health Insurance Bill. Bondfield's efforts were rewarded when she persuaded the government to include maternity benefits. Bondfield also influenced their decision to make the benefit the property of the mother.
Two days after the British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, Millicent Fawcett announced that the NUWSS was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Although the NUWSS supported the war effort, it did not become involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces.
The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."
After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.
Bondfield disagreed with the position that the NUWSS and WSPU took during the First World War. She joined forces with the Women's Freedom League to establish the Women's Peace Crusade, an organization that called for a negotiated peace. Other members included Charlotte Despard, Selina Cooper, Margaret Bondfield, Ethel Snowden, Katherine Glasier, Helen Crawfurd, Eva Gore-Booth, Esther Roper, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Margaret Nevinson, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Mary Barbour.
In October 1916 Bondfield joined with George Lansbury and Mary Macarthur to set-up a new National Council for Adult Suffrage. The main plan was to persuade the government to reconsider its plans for a limited extension of the franchise. At the time, the Manchester Guardian commented: " She is a little woman but her pleasantly toned, deep voice has great carrying power. I have often seen her sway an audience and lift it for the moment to the height of some great idea by the force of her own feeling and deep sincerity."
In 1923 Margaret Bondfield became one of the first women to enter the House of Commons when she was elected as Labour MP for Northampton. When Ramsay McDonald became Prime Minister in 1924 he appointed Bondfield as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour. One political commentator described her as: "Small in stature with dark hair, wide brows, and bright dark eyes, she reminded her hearers of a courageous robin as, in her clear, resonant, musical voice she told them that the unions must get together for political action if they were to achieve their larger aims."
Bondfield welcomed the passing of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act. She commented in the House of Commons: "Since I have been able to vote at all I have never felt the same enthusiasm because the vote was the consequence of possessing property rather than the consequence of being a human being... At last we are established on that equitable footing because we are human beings and part of society as a whole."
When Ramsay McDonald became Prime Minister for a second time in 1929 he appointed Bondfield as his new Minister of Labour. Bondfield therefore became the first woman in history to gain a place in the British Cabinet. In the financial crisis of 1931, Bondfield upset many members of the Labour Party when she supported the government policy of depriving some married women of their unemployment benefit. However, she refused to join McDonald's National Government and lost her seat in the 1931 General Election.
As Fran Abrams has pointed out, this brought an end to her career in the House of Commons: "Her seat lost and her parliamentary career at an end, Margaret suffered a complete breakdown. She was ordered to bed with fibrositis - generalised muscle pain - for which she underwent painful treatment, but it was clear she was in poor emotional as well as physical shape. After a long rest she spent several months touring the US before returning to fight Wallsend again in 1935 without success. She was then adopted as Labour candidate for Reading, but she gave up her candidature when it became clear the election would be long delayed by the Second World War."
Margaret Bondfield died at Verecroft Nursing Home, Sanderstead on 16th June 1953.