Mary Wollstonecraft, Annie Besant, Emily Wilding Davison, the Pankhursts – these are the names that spring to mind when you think about those who put women’s rights to equality on the map in Britain. Alongside them it was collective movements of striking workers, whether matchwomen at Bryant and May’s factory in the 1880s, or sewing machinists at Ford’s in Dagenham in the 1960s, or South Asian immigrant workers picketing Grunwick’s in the 1970s, who were surely in the front line of women’s fight for equality in Britain.
No doubt there are many other names to add, but, as we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we should be glad that one unsung heroine is finally getting recognised. Her name is Mary Macarthur. She features in Chapter 9 of my book Rebel Footprints, and turns up every so often in adult education classes I teach on London’s radical history. To most people, including social justice activists today, she remains an unknown or obscure figure. This afternoon I was privileged to be present as an English Heritage blue plaque was unveiled on her home in Woodstock Road, Golders Green, where she lived at the height of her involvement in struggles for equality and justice.
She was born in 1880 to a middle class Glaswegian family, running a successful drapery business. Her parents were Conservatives. And so was she. In her late teens, after the family moved to Ayr, she joined the party’s Primrose League. Working as a bookkeeper in the family business she became keen on journalism too. It was when she went to cover a meeting of shop assistants in Ayr, addressed by socialists and trade unionists, that she came face to face with stories of misery and exploitation of workers, especially women, in the workplace. She rebelled against the family’s political tradition and within months she was the secretary of the Ayr branch of that self-same union. By her mid 20s she was living in London and forming an organisation – the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) – that was to change the lives of so many women over a relatively short period.
At the turn of the 20th century, many men were suspicious and fearful of women workers. They saw them as rivals who would undercut men’s wages, and then, having done so, go off and have babies. In many mixed workplaces men refused to let women join the unions. which is where Mary Macarthur’s organisation came in. There was already a Women’s Trade Union League through which Mary was starting to organise all-women workplaces, but the NFWW went further. It was a general union that all working women could join, but it specifically targeted workplaces in which men were keeping women out of the union. Mary began to pressurise employers to recognise women’s demands through the NFWW. Around the same time she helped found the Anti-Sweating League which exposed the scandalous situation of many women, suffering appalling working conditions characterised by casualisation, piece-work, long hours, low pay and a hazardous working environment.
She involved herself in the national political scene too through another body – the Independent Labour Party (ILP). You might have anticipated I would to say “suffragettes” there, but like other pioneering women trade unionist activists, she was suspicious of the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, who contradicted the suffragettes own slogan “Votes for Women” by adding the small print, “on the same basis as men”. At this stage only 60% of men had the vote – on a property basis. A similar enfranchisement of women would add many middle and upper-class women, and just a proportion of working class women, to the voting register. The majority of new voters were more likely to vote Conservative. And Mary and close colleagues feared that enfanchising more Conservatives would act as a permanent barrier to a wider enfranchisement of working class women – and men. Mary’s own involvement with the suffrage campaigns was with those sections that stood for universal suffrage from the start. It was all or nothing.
It was her crucial organising role in a strike by chain-makers in Cradley Heath, Staffordshire, that brought Mary Macarthur to prominence at the time. In a bitter 10-week strike, in which she showed her tenacity, her determination, and her ability to communicate the strikers’ message to the wider public, she won a fair and guaranteed minimum wage for employees previously on piece-work. The wider community support she and colleagues had built meant that at the end of the strike there was a considerable surplus in the strike fund. This was used to create a local Workers’ Institute.
In my book I focus especially on Mary’s outstanding role a year later among thousands of super-exploited women workers in Bermondsey’s food processing factories. Over the course of two days in the summer of 1911, some 14,000 women in 21 factories rose up against their employers and joined a spontaneous strike. Their demands were clear but short on detail, as one striker famously told a reporter who enquired: “We are striking for pay Mister, and we won’t go in till we get it.”
On the second day of the strike Mary Macarthur, descended on Bermondsey to support the striking women. She commandeered the Labour Institute recently acquired by the local ILP branch and converted it into an organising and distribution centre for the strike. Donations of food came in and went out again together with strike pay to the women defying their employers. Together with the women’s representatives she planned the next steps to publicise their demands more widely and win.
Over the space of two weeks, striking women won better conditions in 18 of the 21 factories. In the three where they failed, the workers lost their nerve, worried that if they stayed out on strike they might find there was no job to return to. Mary felt that had they stayed out a little longer they could have won there as well. But overall it was a remarkable success, and meant that several thousands of pounds of company profits would be redistributed to the women in the coming year. This meant that they could look after their families a little more comfortably and even buy the occasional piece of new clothing. Over that two weeks, around half of the women who were striking joined the NFWW. They were putting in place more permanent structures should they need to negotiate over their conditions at a future date.
For Mary Macarthur the victory was about something even more valuable than the material gain. The women she said had acquired “… a new sense of self-reliance, solidarity and comradeship… making it certain that whatever the dangers and difficulties of the future they will never again be… without hope.”
For Mary personally, the next few years were years of hope, happiness, hardship and tragedy. She married a highly respected fellow member of the Independent Labour Party , William Anderson, who stood for and won a parliamentary seat in Sheffield. But their first child was stillborn. Through the First World War, Mary organised women into the NFWW, as women eventually claimed many roles vacated by male factory workers conscripted for war. She fought with employers for equal, or at least more pay and won some battles, but as ILP members and pacifists, she and William felt the pain of a war that saw workers across Europe murdering each other in a scramble for empire and markets by those who were not workers and did not have workers’ interests at heart. Mary and William had another child called Nancy in 1915. This child survived.
In the General Election shortly after the war, Mary also stood as a Labour candidate but all known pacifists fared badly in the immediate and temporarily euphoric post-war phase. Then in peacetime, shortly afterwards, her husband William died, struck down by the wave of influenza sweeping across Britain and other parts of Europe. In 1920 Mary herself, just 40 years old, was told that she was suffering from an aggressive cancer. She died in 1921 having achieved much but undoubtedly she had so much more to offer to the causes of women, trade unionism and socialism.
At the unveiling this afternoon there were moving tributes from James, a grandson she never knew, and members of the TUC Women’s Committee, one of whom described Mary as “a warrior of the class struggle”.
Nancy was orphaned but well looked after by friends, an extended family, and a new legal guardian, staying in the home where she was born, where the plaque was unveiled today. Nancy’s son, James – Mary’s grandson – recalled Mary Macarthur as a courageous and determined trade union fighter and also told us much about Nancy, his mother. Several members of James’ family and William Anderson’s family had travelled there for the unveiling. A leading sister of the movement was at last recognised for her great achievements. Let’s follow her example and take the fight for women’s rights and for socialism to the enemies of both.