Mary Macarthur was born in Glasgow in 1880. Her family were Conservatives and at first she shared the same political beliefs. In 1901 she attended a meeting to discuss the establishment of a branch of the Shop Assistants’ Union, which caused her to rethink her politics. The meeting inspired Mary to become an advocate of trade unionism and a member of the Labour Party.
Mary Macarthur is perhaps best known for founding the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906.
The NFWW was initially met with some resistance within the trade union movement. Many union men did not like the idea of women organising, and women themselves were often suspicious of trade unions. However, many women joined the NFWW from trades which did not allow women in their unions or from trades where no unions existed, and the union proved a huge success. By the end of its first year it had 17 branches in England and Scotland and had signed up about 2,000 members. Membership eventually reached a total of about 40,000.
In 1907 Mary began to publish a monthly paper called The Woman Worker. This also proved popular and it soon became a weekly paper, with a readership of 20,000.
Mary was an excellent leader. Contemporaries Margaret Bondfield and Beatrice Webb said that (despite her middle class background) Mary had the ability to speak to women workers as if she was one of them.
Mary campaigned for a legal minimum wage, and she also sat on the executive of the Anti-Sweated League which campaigned against sweated labour. She helped to organise the Cradley Heath women chainmakers when they went on strike in 1910. Chainmakers worked in poor conditions for low pay. They worked in sheds in their backyards and earned 5s for a 50-hour working week. The strike was a success securing fairer pay for the women chainmakers.
Mary continued to campaign for women workers’ rights during the First World War. She was the Women’s Trade Union League representative on the War Emergency Workers’ National Committee, and from 1916 she served on the government’s Reconstruction Committee, which was established in order to advise the government on the conditions of women’s employment after the war. Mary’s work on the committee resulted in a report of 1919 recommending that women should have a minimum wage and that they should work no more than 40 hours a week.
At the end of the war, Mary stood for parliament as Labour candidate for Stourbridge. She was defeated, but by 1919 she was on the executive of the Labour Party.
Mary died as a result of cancer in 1921, aged 40. During her brief life she was dedicated to campaigning for women workers and helped to give women a voice in the workplace and in politics.
Written for Sheroes of History by Charlene Price. Charlene can be found @NoLoveSincerer and
Find out more…
Find out more about Mary Macarthur and the Sweated Industries on this English Heritage website.
There is some much more detailed information about Mary’s life here.