In our latest blog Cathy Hunt reflects on writing the history of Mary Macarthur, a lesser known trade unionist.
In the summer of 2018 I was delighted to be asked by West Midlands History to write a biography of Mary Macarthur. Remembered and celebrated in the Black Country’s Cradley Heath for her involvement in the 1910 women’s chain makers strike, Macarthur’s name is well known in the region. Every year, the Women Chain Makers’ Festival is held in the Mary Macarthur Memorial Gardens in the town to commemorate the low paid women home workers whose courage and persistence resulted in the country’s first minimum wage. It is wonderful that the labour movement now has an annual event to commemorate women who struck for the right to a living wage and for better lives for their families. It is fitting that this takes place in Cradley Heath, where, thanks in no small part to the brilliance of Mary Macarthur’s leadership, the appalling conditions and exceptionally low pay endured by hundreds of thousands of women workers throughout Britain were exposed.
Outside the West Midlands, Mary Macarthur is, I think, rather less known. She’s been on my radar for a long time, but that’s because I’ve been researching women, work and trade unionism for an equally long time! She has been described as one of the finest trade union leaders this country has ever had, yet despite her lifelong involvement in the emancipation of women, she is nowhere near as famous as some of the women suffrage leaders who were also of her generation (although it is good to see her – she was an adult suffragist – on the plinth of Gillian Wearing’s statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square). I am therefore very pleased to be given the chance to place Mary Macarthur’s life and work more firmly in the national spotlight and to explore the life and times of the woman whose carefully acquired knowledge of industrial affairs and of the realities of women’s lives gained her widespread admiration. Her effortless ability to communicate made women in her audiences imagine she was speaking directly to them.
Her understanding seemed instinctive, but Mary Macarthur came from a middle-class background and at first glance would appear to have more in common with the benefactors of the Women’s Trade Union League (who employed her in 1903) – than the women industrial workers she organized. She was born in Glasgow in 1880 where her father ran a prestigious and successful drapery business. Her job as a book keeper in his shop brought her into contact with trade unionism at a young age, much to the surprise of her parents who, with rather more traditional values, probably did not anticipate a life of activism for their eldest daughter. Her boundless enthusiasm and obvious talents, however, were quickly recognized, first within the Shop Assistants’ Union in Scotland and then, after her move to London, when she was not quite 23, in the wider labour movement.
In 1906, when Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League, she set up the National Federation of Women Workers as an all-female general trade union for some of the country’s worst paid workers. It was small but it always punched well above its weight. As a colleague once remarked,
With the Federation and the Women’s Trade Union League, Mary Macarthur and Gertrude Tuckwell wrought miracles. With all their camp followers in attendance they were no more than a stage army, but they said they were the women workers of Great Britain, and they made so much noise that they came to be believed. (Woman Worker, February 1921)
As the union developed branches all over the country, it sent out a loud and clear message to the labour movement that women could – indeed, must – be trusted as reliable allies in the fight for better pay and conditions, instead of all too often being regarded by men as dangerous competition ready to undercut them and pull down wage levels. Employers also began to learn that their female employers were not as meek and mild and biddable as they had assumed, that women would not simply settle for what wages they could get and that when they bound together as one, they became strong and loud enough not to be pushed around.
At the Federation’s helm, Mary Macarthur went from strength to strength. Her job came with enormous responsibilities; it was up to her to recognize when industrial action might get results and when it was best to encourage women workers to bide their time and wait to fight another day. She did not take chances with women’s livelihoods. She knew well that an unsuccessful strike could spell economic disaster to hundreds of families reliant on women’s wages.
In the First World War, the Federation kept up a tireless vigilance to ensure that promises made to women munitions workers by government and by employers were adhered to. It horrified Macarthur when government and press implied that women should be grateful if they earned wages that were higher than those before the war or – worse still – that they were earning too much money and had no proper idea of how to spend it. It was odd, she said, that before the war there had been so little concern about women earning too little. She served on an array of government committees to ensure that women’s voices were heard at every opportunity and that women’s position in industry was protected.
Mary Macarthur was the first woman to be selected by any political party to contest the 1918 General Election, which was called immediately after the war. She fought an impassioned campaign for the Labour party in Stourbridge and although she did not win, warm local support ensured that she was re-adopted as a candidate and had a very good chance of going on to become the constituency’s first woman MP. Unfortunately it was not be, in 1920, she was diagnosed with cancer and despite two major operations, she died on January 1 1921.
There has been no full-length biography of Mary Macarthur since the one written by Mary Agnes Hamilton in 1925. As we approach the centenary of Macarthur’s death, it is time for a fresh look at this extraordinary woman and a focus not just on her work for the Union she founded but on the life that she led and the difference that she made.