Mary MacArthur: the unstoppable power of organisation


Mary MaCArthurKathryn Perera’s

History of Labour Women

In the history of the Labour movement, there are shining stars and hard grafters. Mary MacArthur (1880-1921) was both. By the time of her premature death, she had organised more than 300,000 women into the trade union movement; stood as a Labour candidate for parliament; produced groundbreaking reports that forced the government to implement welfare measures; and inspired the most important generation of female politicians in the Labour movement’s history. The scope of her achievements supports Margaret Bondfield’s impression, on meeting Mary for the first time, that she was a person of genius.

Born into a middle-class Glaswegian family, at first Mary followed the Conservative politics of her family. Living a comfortable existence and working as the company book-keeper for her father’s business, she found no reason to challenge his lifelong hatred of socialism. Her chance attendance at a political meeting, aged 21, turned that worldview on its head. That night, she heard several socialist speakers explain the dire conditions of workers in low-paid employment. Their impassioned plans to establish a local branch of the Shop Assistant’s Union prompted Mary’s Damascene conversion to the cause. The conversion was so startling that within months Mary was Chair of the Union’s new branch in Ayr.

From that time on, Mary became a regular face at local left-wing meetings. On one such occasion she encountered a young man, William Crawford (“W.C.”) Anderson, a self-educated, working-class journalist, who was then becoming heavily involved in the Independent Labour Party (“ILP”). It was a classic (and severe) case of love at first sight. Yet Mary remained determined to proceed with caution. She was grateful for W.C.’s contacts in the ILP; and she was keen to learn from his friends, notably fellow Scots Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. But she had no intention of compromising her personal freedom by agreeing to marriage. As much as W.C. pursued her, Mary was adamant. For the time being, work would come first.

That work was focused increasingly on the position of working-class women. By the early 1900s, Mary had become convinced that – valuable as existing trade unionism was – there was an overwhelming need to organise women. The scale of the task was enormous. To even suggest the idea of unionisation, Mary had to overcome immense resistance among women themselves. Scattered and isolated in home industries, many received low rates of pay yet were suspicious of trade unionism. The few union organisers who had tackled the issue previously had been disheartened by the lack of progress. As one noted in his union branch minutes:

“Trade unionism means rebellion and the orthodox teaching for women is submission. The political world preaches to women submission just…as it refuses them the parliamentary franchise, and therefore ignores them as human beings.”

Mary’s approach was to keep things simple. She rejected the idea that there was any inherent feminine incapacity to ‘recognise the necessity for corporate action’, or that marriage was an insurmountable obstacle to trade union membership. Rather, the basic reason for women’s unwillingness to join a trade union was economic. Balancing home and work, they barely had the resources to get through a normal day, let alone to plan grander ambitions:

“While women are badly paid because of their unorganised condition, they remain unorganised mainly because they are badly paid.”

Mary dedicated her life to breaking that cycle. Rising rapidly through the ranks of her union, by 1903 she was the first woman on its national executive. As well as her trade union activities, she worked closely with Keir Hardie to raise the profile of women’s trade unionism within the ILP. Her work on the Exhibition of Sweated Industries in 1905 and her central role in founding the Anti-Sweating League in 1906 brought national attention to the scandal of unorganised female labour.

Though important, the scattered nature of Mary’s early work highlighted an abiding problem. Women had no dedicated voice within trade unionism; as such, they lacked a focal point around which to build their power. While the existing Women’s Trade Union League united women-only unions from different trades, it did not provide a united platform for all women. By its very nature, the WTUL excluded the thousands of women who were refused admission to their appropriate trade unions because of male opposition. To address these problems, in 1906 Mary founded the National Federation of Women Workers. It was to be a general union open to “all women” from whatever branch of industry they came.

Initially, the Federation met with widespread resistance within the traditional trade union movement. The idea of ‘organised women’ was viewed, at best, as an annoyance and, at worst, as a threat to the status of all trade unions. Most union men were appalled at the idea of women invading ‘their’ territory. As the feminist campaigner Ethel Snowden noted, most men viewed women trade unionists as a dilution of their brand. She recorded the conclusion of one male colleague:

“the status of his Union would suffer in the eyes of politicians if it were known that it contained a large percentage of non-political, non-voting members…”

Notwithstanding these objections, Mary persisted. At the heart of her leadership of the Federation was the campaign for a ‘legal minimum wage’. Mary pioneered this concept as the most critical step for addressing women’s economic helplessness. The idea – and Mary’s repetition of it on platforms across the country – hit a nerve. By the end of its first year the Federation boasted seventeen branches in Scotland and England and about two thousand members. By encouraging trade unions with women members to affiliate to the Federation, she drastically increased its membership over the following two years.

As her political confidence grew, Mary sought new ways to put her unionist values into action. In 1910, after months of work at Cradley Heath (in the Black Country), she succeeded in co-ordinating a ten-week strike there among women chainmakers. The strike was a notable success, establishing the women’s right to fairer pay and changing the lives of thousands of workers who were earning little more than starvation wages. Sensing the need to keep momentum, Mary then took a daring decision. Unmarried, and therefore without the traditional support mechanisms of a normal middle-class woman, she moved to London and began to agitate among women factory-hands in Bermondsey. When Mary arrived in 1910, the average wage of Bermondsey women factory-hands was 7s to 9s a week and 3s for girls, compared with the average male workers’ £75 per year. In the summer of 1911 she co-ordinated a series of spontaneous strikes that erupted in Bermondsey, involving an estimated 2,000 women. Her successful leadership of various marches and rallies pressurised the employers into granting the strikers’ wage demands.

Mary’s magic lay in her skills as a communicator. In later life both Margaret Bondfield and Beatrice Webb noted that Mary could speak to women workers as if she was ‘one of them’. She knew how to ignite the self-interest of her listeners. In this way, she inspired some of the most important female activists of the next generation. Writing after Mary’s death, the Labour politician Ellen Wilkinson remembered how, in her youth, she had heard Mary speak at a recruiting meeting:

“[With the male speakers] the girls were frankly bored. When, however, Miss McArthur demanded a wage that would provide pretty frocks and holidays the girls began to realise that there was something in trade unions…to the young priggish economics student it was all very shocking; but I have realised the value of her methods at many a work gate since.”

Through such tactics, by the time war broke out in 1914 the Federation had organised more than 300,000 women out of a total female workforce of 5,000,000. It was a staggering achievement, yet more was to come. The war provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity. As men marched off to the trenches and women began to take their place, the numbers working in factories and therefore eligible to join a trade union exploded. Under Mary’s leadership, the increasingly confident women’s trade union movement pushed home the advantage amid a mass recruitment drive. At the same time, Mary worked to ensure that more lasting political changes would follow. From 1916, she served on the government’s Reconstruction Committee, which had been established to advise the government about the conditions of women’s employment after the war. Largely thanks to Mary’s insistence, the committee’s 1919 Report recommended that women should have a properly paid and organised training for industry; a minimum wage; a forty-hour week and a fortnight’s annual holiday. The status of women workers was planted firmly on the national political agenda.

But Mary’s work is only one part of her story, for W.C. Anderson proved to be a persistent young man. In a move of grand romance, he had followed Mary down to London in 1910 and stayed by her side ever since. Their marriage, in September 1911, was to be one of singular happiness and painful tragedy. Mary was left devastated by the loss of their first child at birth in 1913. The pain lessened only with the arrival of their daughter, Anne Elizabeth, two years later. By that time, W.C. had won a great election victory for Labour in Sheffield and the family juggled personal responsibilities with his busy parliamentary life.

With the enfranchisement of women in 1918 and the concession that women could stand for parliament, Mary’s political ambitions burst free. By then, she was the foremost woman within the national Labour movement and an obvious choice for selection. In 1918, amid great anticipation, she stood as the Labour candidate in Stourbridge…and lost. Some attributed this to the fact that, although she had campaigned as “Mary MacArthur”, the returning officer had insisted on describing her on the polling card as “Mrs W.C. Anderson”. In any event, like other pacifist candidates who refused to applaud the war, she suffered a fatal electoral backlash at a time of post-war euphoria. Her recompense was a seat on the executive of the Labour Party the following year. There seemed little doubt that Mary would stand for parliament again at the earliest opportunity.

It was not to be. The great influenza pandemic which swept the world between 1918 and 1921 killed an estimated fifty million people, far more than the war itself. Among its victims was W.C. Anderson, mourned by the Labour movement as a most-loved ‘future leader’. Mary was inconsolable. Their life together had provided a mere glimpse of happiness, but it was so short-lived. Barely a year later, she discovered that she was dying. It was cancer, aggressive and seemingly unstoppable. After two unsuccessful operations, Mary died at home on New Year’s Day, 1921. She was only 40 years old.

Mary MacArthur dedicated her life to women’s trade unionism. In doing so, she provided critical inspiration to the most influential generation of women in the Labour Party’s history, from Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson to Margaret Bondfield and Ellen Wilkinson. Simply put, she empowered others; a rare skill. She was, in Beatrice Webb’s neat words, ‘the axle round which the machinery moved’.

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