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Last updated:08 March 2016

Mary Macarthur

Mary Macarthur

Credit: Bassano, London

Mary Macarthur, born in Glasgow in 1880, initially followed her father in supporting Conservative politics and was a member of the Primrose League. She became an important trade unionist after being impressed by a Shop Assistants’ Union meeting she attended whilst writing for a local newspaper in Ayr. Within a year she was elected as the Union president in Scotland and by 1902 was the first female representative on the Union’s National Executive. When she moved to London in 1903 she shared accommodation with Margaret Bondfield who was then Assistant Secretary of the Shop Assistants’ Union. Mary became the Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League and substantially increased the membership and successfully organised women workers all over the country. In 1904 she travelled to the International Congress of Women in Berlin and was able to develop international links through her fluency in French and German.

In 1906 she founded the National Federation of Women Workers and worked initially as the President but then later as the General Secretary.  The setting up of the NFWW was in response to her analysis of the weakness of small-scale unions which could take action on behalf of women workers but did not have sufficient funds to provide strike pay. The NFWW lasted until it amalgamated to form the National Union of General Workers in 1921 and was the most successful body for the promotion of women’s trades unionism.  In this she was aided by the success of The Woman Worker, a monthly publication which she founded in 1907 and which subsequently became weekly.  In the first issue Mary saw the aim of The Woman Worker as being ‘to teach the need for unity, to help improve working conditions, to present a monthly picture of the many activities of women Trade Unionists, to discuss all questions affecting the interests and welfare of women.’  Although an inspirational editor, she later gave up the post in order to concentrate upon her activism.

Mary helped establish the ‘Sweated Industries Exhibition’ in 1906, was a founder member of the Anti–Sweating League and notably gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Working in 1908.  Her evidence was gathered in poor parts of London and in the course of such research she caught diphtheria and spent six weeks in hospital.  

As a consequence of the pressure exerted by Mary and organisations that she worked with, 1909 saw the passing of the Trades Board Act which regulated ‘sweating’ industries and introduced a minimum wage.  The first dispute that followed the Act was that of the Chainmakers in Cradley Heath. The NFWW put forward the case of the Chainmakers successfully and defeated the employers. The publicity campaign highlighted ‘the white slaves of England’ and noted that the oldest chainmaker was a woman still working at the age of 79.  Mary’s experience as a journalist meant that the presentation of the dispute resulted in widespread support. One notable feature was that she ensured that the Pathé News film of the dispute was shown in cinemas and music halls all over the country.  

Mary was a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) National Council from 1909 to 1912 and married a fellow member of the Council, Will Anderson, in 1911.  Will subsequently became the MP for Sheffield Attercliffe during the First World War and once she had the vote Mary stood in Stourbridge, but was defeated. (One suggested reason she lost was that she had to stand and be on the ballot paper as ‘Mrs W.C. Anderson’).

During the First World War Mary worked in the cause of unemployed women workers and was on the organising body of the Central Committee for Women’s Employment, an endeavour established by Queen Mary. She also fought for better conditions and wages for women munitions workers.  From 1916 she was a member of the official Reconstruction Committee, a body set up to give advice on the employment of women after the war.  Mary pressed for, and achieved, a report which recommended paid training, annual holidays, a maximum working week and a minimum wage.

Such diverse work encouraged a tripling of female trade union membership during the War.

After the end of the War Mary was on the Labour Party National Executive but her work was interrupted when Will died as a result of the flu epidemic of 1919.  She continued to campaign, notably in order to establish the International Labour Organisation (ILO) but the following year she died at the age of 40 from stomach cancer.

An important part of the legacy of Mary Macarthur was the setting up of holiday homes for working women. By 1948 there were three establishments at Ongar, Stansted and Poulton-le-Fylde but in later years the homes were sold in favour of a Holiday Trust, an organisation which still operates.

The Working Class Movement Library has material to come in and read on the life and politics of Mary Macarthur. The biography by Mary Agnes Hamilton [Shelfmark B12] is a sketch of her life and the Chainmakers’ Strike is well covered in Breaking their chains by Tony Barnsley [I35].

Works such as Women in industry [A13], Women and the Labour Party [A14] Women of today [A11] and War against poverty [[ILP – Box 1] are also available.  

Material on the Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust and the Educational Ttrust can be found at Women Box 3 & Box 4 respectively. The National Federation of Women Workers’ paper, The Woman Worker (Sep 1907, 2-30 Dec 1908, Jan 1909-Jan 1910) is shelved at D48 as is Women folk: with which is incorporated The woman worker (2 Feb-29 Jun 1910).

The history of The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-1921 by Cathy Hunt is to be found at shelfmark C50.