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Issue 53 - Mary Macarthur 1880-1921

Scotland Magazine Issue 53
October 2010


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Mary Macarthur 1880-1921

Leading the feminist movement.

Born when women’s suffrage and the feminist movement first began to appear in Britain, Mary Macarthur became a leading inspirational figure during her fight to win fair recognition for women both as citizens and workers.

In some ways she was unlikely in this role. Born in Glasgow on 13th August 1880, to a family of shop-owners. In 1895 her father opened a drapery shop in Ayr and Mary was employed as a book-keeper.

Her father was a supporter of the Conservative Party and was totally opposed to Socialism and trade unions. So it was probably as a spy that he sent Mary to a meeting of the Shop Assistants’ Union in 1901, but he got more than he bargained for when Mary was converted to the trade unionist cause. Perhaps even worse for Mr Macarthur, she fell in love with Will Anderson, an active member of the Independent Labour Party.

On the advice of her friend, Margaret Bondfield, Mary attended the union’s national conference at Newcastle in 1902 and was elected to the executive. Writing about the experience many years later, Margaret Bondfield said that even then she had been conscious of a great feeling of excitement, that such an enthusiastic leader as Mary Macarthur was part of the union.

Will Anderson proposed marriage, but Mary put principle before passion. She pursued her career and moved to London in 1903, where she became Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. She was involved in the Exhibition of Sweated Industries (1905) and the formation of the Anti-Sweating League (1906).

In 1906 she founded the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW).

It had long been an ambition of Mary’s to be a writer, and in 1907 she founded the Women Worker, a newspaper for female trade unionists. The newspaper later became a weekly publication and had a wide readership.

Her success and growing reputation as an expert led her to give evidence to the select committee on home work in 1908. But she must have been a thorn in the side of government ministers, in view of her unceasing involvement in strike action.

In 1909 she led a strike of women chainmakers, securing a minimum wage and ensuring that the employers did not delay the increase in salary. Only two years later she organised 20 simultaneous strikes around London.

Mary was uncompromising in her pursuit of fairness for women. Seeing the relationship between poor wages and a lack of organisation, she made it her lifelong mission to give women a more powerful collective voice.

For all this, she was not opposed to men. Will Anderson finally convinced her to marry him in 1911, when Mary was 31 years old.

Tragically, Mary’s first child died at birth.

However, two years later in 1915 she gave birth to a healthy girl, Anne Elizabeth.

She was not the sort of woman to stop working when she became a mother.

Margaret Bondfield later recalled how, in 1916, Mary had secured a pay rise for munitions workers at a factory in the Newcastle area. When the pay rise did not appear as promised, the workers organised a “stay-in strike”, knitting socks for soldiers at war. Bondfield refers to a telephone conversation between Mary Macarthur and Winston Churchill, then Minister of Munitions, which resulted in prompt payment (including backpay) of the women’s increased wages.

Alongside her trade union activities, Mary was heavily involved in the Independent Labour Party and women’s suffrage. She campaigned tirelessly for women’s right to vote, and opposed proposals to allow a restricted vote for certain categories of women. Unwilling to compromise, she held out for true equality, though full voting rights for women were not achieved until 1928, after Mary’s death.

She was devastated by the death of Will Anderson in 1919, and did not outlive him by long. She contracted cancer in 1920 and died at home on 1st January 1921, aged 40.

For such a short life by today’s standards, Mary Macarthur had achieved a great deal and had made a lasting impression on immeasurable women’s lives.

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