Mary McArthur

Demanding a minimum wage

She rebelled against her Tory family

Unlike several leading ladies of trade unionism, Mary wasn’t in the mill at 12. She was a Tory living a comfortable, middle-class life in Glasgow. But in 1901, 21-year-old Mary heard socialists describing the dire conditions faced by low-paid workers. She was converted. Within months, Mary was chair of the Ayr branch of the Shop Assistants’ Union and by 1903 she was the first woman on its national executive board.

She put women workers before her wedding

Mary and Labour party activist W.C Anderson had fallen hard for each other. But Mary wasn’t going to give up work and marry him – not yet. Women workers needed her. She brought the horrific realities of their lives to national attention through the Exhibition of Sweated Industries in 1905 and the Anti-Sweating League in 1906. Then, because women had no dedicated voice in trade unionism, Mary founded the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). It faced hostility from the traditionally male trade union movement – but that didn’t stop her.

She was a brilliant speaker

Mary captivated her audiences and inspired the next generation of female activists, Labour politicians Margaret Bondfield and Ellen Wilkinson among them. Margaret described Mary as “a person of genius”. Ellen remembered hearing her: “[With the male speakers] the girls were frankly bored. When, however, Miss MacArthur demanded a wage that would provide pretty frocks and holidays, the girls began to realise that there was something in trade unions … to the young priggish economics student it was all very shocking; but I have realised the value of her methods at many a work gate since.”

She championed a national minimum wage

Mary claimed: “While women are badly paid because of their unorganised condition, they remain unorganised mainly because they are badly paid.” She travelled the UK, urging workers to unionise and demand a legal minimum wage. As a result, the NFWW had 17 branches and around 2,000 members by the end of its first year. In 1910 Mary led women chain-makers in the Black Country in a victorious 10-week strike, transforming the lives of thousands of families. In 1911, she moved to London, roused Bermondsey factory workers from their starvation-wages slumber and co-ordinated around 2,000 of them in successful strikes.

She got women on the political agenda

By 1914 the NFWW had organised over 300,000 women. As men went to war and more women went to work, the women’s trade union movement had never been stronger. Mary wanted to make sure their improved conditions wouldn’t end when the war did. In 1916 she joined the Government’s reconstruction committee and, thanks to Mary’s persistence, in 1919 the committee recommended that women should have training, a minimum wage, a 40 hour week and two weeks’ holiday a year.

She could have been a Labour party star – but she ran out of time

Mary and W.C married in 1911 and had a daughter, Anne, in 1915. By 1918, W.C was a Labour MP and Mary was the most famous woman in the Labour movement. She ran for parliament – and lost. Perhaps because she was anti-war. Perhaps because the ballot paper named her as ‘Mrs W.C Anderson’ and she was better known as Mary MacArthur. She never had the chance to run again. In 1919, W.C died of influenza and in 1920 the heartbroken Mary discovered she had incurable cancer. She died on 1st January 1921, aged just 40.