Margaret Bondfield (Re) Discovered by Dr. Paula Bartley

In our latest post, Dr. Paula Bartley reflects on some of the archival challenges of studying women’s history in her latest excellent book, Labour Women In Power: Cabinet Ministers in the Twentieth Century.

One of the many challenges facing  historians of women is lack of source material. So much of the evidence of women’s lives, including those of famous women, has simply disappeared. In 1929, ninety years ago, Margaret Bondfield became the first ever female Cabinet Minister. Yet, little has been written about this ground-breaking individual. One reason is that her archive simply vanished. Ross Davies, a “Times” journalist set out to write her biography but could not finish it because Bondfield’s archive had gone missing.

Sometimes archives pop up in the most surprising places. Thanks to the internet, I managed to discover where Margaret Bondfield’s papers were. They were in America,  held at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie. It is remarkable that the papers of a working-class and trade unionist British woman ended up in an elite women’s college in up-state New York but it was a gift explained by Bondfield’s love of America and of her friend, Helen Lockwood, Professor of English at Vassar College.  Bondfield and Lockwood probably became close during the Second World War, met whenever possible and wrote to each other regularly. Their letters are affectionate, starting with ‘my beloved Margaret’ or ‘my dear Helen’, and ending with either a ‘lovingly Margaret’ or ‘my love to you always, Helen’. These were unusual terms of endearment from Bondfield who was generally very formal, addressing women as ‘Dear Miss or Mrs’ rather than by their first name.

Undoubtedly, Margaret Bondfield felt at home in America. She visited the country many times: in 1910, in 1933, 1938–1939 and in 1942–1943. Each time she enjoyed the experience, glad to be away from a class-ridden male-dominated Britain, glad to be with women who championed women’s rights. Bondfield felt cherished by trade union friends like Rose Schneiderman who was ‘terribly excited at the news’ of her visit and could not ‘begin to tell you how much it will mean to have you with us again. … There is so much to discuss with you’. On April 24 1938, Bondfield was guest of honour at the Women’s Trade Union League Annual Meeting, a meeting with 2000 delegates. The organisers had fixed the date at a time Miss Bondfield could attend, a reflection of how well regarded she was in the USA. The compliment was returned: the visit gave Margaret Bondfield ‘much pleasure to meet really efficient women who treat their jobs seriously as do the best men’ .

In June 1949, Bondfield returned to her favourite country, where she stayed with her friend Helen Lockwood, lunched with Eleanor Roosevelt who lived nearby and conferred undergraduate degrees at Vassar College. In the 1950s, Lockwood and Bondfield worked together on a manuscript of Bondfield’s travels and ‘talked a great deal about what remained to be done’. When her friend died, Lockwood hoped to ‘carry out her wishes’, by working with Bondfield’s executors to write a memoir. Bondfield’s nieces who were the executors gave her ‘full freedom’ to use the papers. Dutifully, Lockwood wrote to the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz about publishing her friend’s recollections. However maybe because Bondfield had already published an autobiography, Gollancz turned down the proposal and the book never materialised. When Lockwood died in 1971 Margaret Bondfield’s papers, consisting of 14 large boxes of biographical material, family material, Labour Party documents including her election campaigns, trips to Russia and America and miscellaneous material including unpublished manuscripts of poems and stories were donated to Vassar College where they remain, still largely unread. Thanks to a grant from the college, I was able to spend some time at Vassar reading them – and now they have been re-discovered a full-length biography of the first British female Cabinet Minister should now be written.

Paula Bartley is a feminist historian who has written widely on, and promoted, women’s history. She is the author of The Changing Role of Women (1996), Prostitution (1999), Votes for Women (2007), and also biographies of Emmeline Pankhurst (2002), Ellen Wilkinson (2014), and Queen Victoria (2016). Buy her latest book, Labour Women in Power here