I am here to celebrate GRACE DARE – this was the name Margaret Bondfield used in 1896 when she went under-cover to investigate the conditions of life of shop workers. Most shop-workers of the period lived in hostels provided by their employers, and despite Victorian prudery it is clear that the exploitation they experienced was not only economic. They were fed adulterated and sub standard food, fined for any minor breach of rules – but they were also subjected to the kind of treatment which has recently gone public in Hollywood. In other words, to keep your job, you had to put up with sexual harassment and worse. GRACE (Margaret) was not some privileged professional, under cover for a few weeks. She was a shop worker – a country girl come up to London from Somerset. But her bravery in putting herself and her livelihood at risk won respect. Her Union, the Shop Assistants Union, promoted her to being its assistant secretary when she was only 25 years old. She became a sought after figure – was made chairman of the first all women’s trade union federation, and she also chaired the National Adult suffrage society.
Unlike the suffragettes, Margaret did not engage in direct action- nor did she seek the vote only for those women who could qualify by virtue of property ownership or University education. She was a genuine democrat – in a long line from the Levellers of Cromwell’s time through to the Chartists – she believed that the vote belonged to every adult, whether male or female. At the time when she was arguing that case, only half of all men in the UK had a vote. The changes the suffragettes were seeking, would have left the majority of women in the same un-enfranchised position.
When first Grace (Margaret) came to Northampton in 1915, women’s suffrage was taking a back seat to the needs of War. Price inflation was punishing working class families hard and women working outside the home and still trying to feed their family had it hardest of all. Margaret spoke on the Market Square – arguing for rationing so that basic needs could be met. Yet it came as a surprise to many that she was selected to fight one of two Northampton seats in a by election in 1920. The National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, representing the majority employed group in the town, was forwarding Labour candidates in both Northamptonshire and Leicestershire and it was assumed that they would have first pick in Northampton.
It was the Northampton Independent Labour Party (the Momentum of its day) which supported Margaret (known by then as “our Maggie”) for the seat.
It took a couple of tries, but she made it into the minority Labour Government of 1924, to become the first woman ever to be a British Government minister (as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Labour). She was the first working class woman to serve in Government in Britain. By 1926 she had moved on from Northampton a safer seat and by 1929 had become the first Woman Cabinet Minister in a British Government.
Margaret Bondfield had a short lived parliamentary career, disappointing herself and many of those who supported her. The austerity recipes adopted by Ramsey MacDonald and then his desertion of Labour for a Coalition with the Conservatives, disappointed the hopes of working people for change and took their toll on Margaret ‘s optimism but not her loyalty. Margaret remained loyal to her Labour values and socialist vision. She campaigned on the door step in 1945 and lived to see the first majority Labour Government. It was a great day for Grace Dare, the Somerset country girl who spoke up for her fellow workers. She continued to campaign and to advocate for working class women and their families until her death in 1953.
Northampton can be proud of its willingness to choose Grace Dare to represent us and we should make sure that “our Maggie” is a role model for our town’s children: the Somerset girl who stood up for worker’s rights, the activist who championed working women, the democrat who paved the way for women in parliament.
Dr Marie Dickie. OBE