Labour Women in Power: Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) and Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947)


Guest blogger this week is Dr Paula Bartley, author of Labour Women in Power – Cabinet Ministers in the Twentieth Century published by Palgrave Macmillan.

margaret bondfield

British Labour delegation to Russia 1920.The delegation comprised Ben Turner, Ethel Snowden, Tom Shaw and Robert Williams from the Labour Party; Margaret Bondfield, Albert Purcell and H. Skinner from the TUC.

In 1899 Margaret Bondfield was the only woman delegate at the Trades Union Congress. It was her first conference but she ‘surprised and delighted the Congress with her stirring speech 1.  She made two speeches at the conference: one proposing a vote of thanks to foreign delegates; another supporting a resolution to set up a Labour Representation Committee, a committee which eventually grew into the Labour Party. In 1923 Bondfield became the first woman to Chair the Trade Union Congress, the first woman to hold a ministerial post and the first woman to be a Cabinet Minister. 

Margaret Bondfield was Minister of Labour in charge of unemployment benefits. Unfortunately in 1929 the Wall Street crash precipitated an economic depression, the Labour Party split over how to solve it and when elections were called in 1931, Bondfield lost her seat and never  returned to Parliament.

Ellen Wilkinson and Cecil Malone, TUC Congress, Bournemouth, 1926

Ellen Wilkinson and Cecil Malone, TUC Congress, Bournemouth, 1926
Ellen Wilkinson was national organiser for the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers and MP for Middlesborough East during the General Strike. She spent the nine days travelling round the country speaking at public meetings and sending enthusiastic reports back to the TUC. She later wrote a novel ‘Clash’ about her experiences.

Like Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson was sponsored by her trade union as its parliamentary candidate. She was first elected in 1924 and as a Labour MP and trade unionist she travelled round the country during the 1926 General Strike garnering support. At one time she ‘addressed a meeting of 3000 people’ in Hull where ‘the spirit was admirable’ 2.  During the 1930s she fought against fascism, helped organise the Jarrow March and during the war co-authored the Labour manifesto Let us Face the Future . After the war, as we know, Labour won a landslide victory. The new Prime Minister Clement Attlee appointed Ellen to the Cabinet as Minister of Education.  She was the first female Minister of Education and the second woman to become a Cabinet Minister. 

1  TUC Congress Report, 1899,  p64, TUC on-line.
2  Memo by Ellen Wilkinson to TUC committee, 1926, TUC online.


Running a class on Community Action


Photo of class in reading room
I helped run two classes recently for the Media and Communities module at the University. In the first class I delivered a lecture on the TUC, and the role of trade unions, highlighting the historical significance of trade unions for worker’s rights. Then I talked about the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, a network of working class writing groups   that thrived during a period of significant social, economic and political change in the UK especially through the 1970s and 1980s, and represented a significant counter-cultural movement. I provided examples about adult literacy, gender, migration, trade union activity and labour history. We have the UK’s largest collection of publications and recordings. 


The second class took place in the Special Collections Reading Room which houses the TUC Library. After an introduction I took the students through our exhibition about the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike, which illustrated the broad and diverse support for the strike, with panels dedicated to trade unions, trades councils, and various community groups. There were also recent publications and music that illustrate the continued passion that the subject inspires. We then had an activity based around examples of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, which included testimony about working life and trade union activity, and community action. The exhibition is available as a download and for loan.