According to the international Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), women still only comprise just over 20% of all parliamentarians across the world. Nordic countries lead the way as a region but there are still less than 50% female parliamentarians even there. Some ‘developed’ countries such as Australia (44th), the UK (59th) and USA (80th) also lag well behind their potential. More positively, there are continuing increases globally, not least in Africa, whilst the IPU estimates that gender parity in parliaments could, in theory, be achieved in 20 years on current trends. Such advances are slow but encouraging, building on the circuitous track made by pioneers…
Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) represents a fine example of those first wave feminists who, inspired by Christian Faith, broke through the political ceiling. For she was one of the first women elected to a national parliament in the western world. It was an interesting phenomenon. For although Britain was behind several other countries such as New Zealand and Australia (see later blog posts) in granting the vote to women, more British women were elected at an earlier date at a national level. Margaret Bondfield certainly led the way as one of the very first female Cabinet Ministers anywhere. She represented a generation of women who were formed in their convictions by Christianity, in her case lifelong Congregationalism. Politics was simply a way of practically extending Christian faith into the public realm.
Unlike a later Margaret who became the first British Prime Minister, Margaret Bondfield started from the bottom and always fought for others to be lifted up. Beginning work as a draper’s assistant at 14, she found conditions miserable and consequently joined the National Union of Shop Assistants at its formation. In 1899 she was the only female delegate to the Trades Union Congress, and became its first female chairman in 1923. Before the First World War she was organizing secretary of the Women’s Labour League and the National Federation of Women Workers. During the war she worked on the Central Committee on Women’s Employment and the War Emergency Workers’ National Committee. Afterwards, in addition to her parliamentary career, she served as vice-president of the International Federation of Working Women and on the governing body of the International Labour Office of the League of Nations. Within the women’s suffrage movement, she had also served as chair of the Adult Suffrage Society, which worked against the idea that only certain categories of women should have the vote. For, to Margaret Bondfield, christian feminism was not about securing a privilege but enabling the gifts of all.
God of Magnificat,
You put down the mighty and lift up the lowly.
We give thanks for Margaret Bondfield
and all who have been pioneers in breaking down political barriers.
Hear our prayer for all in political life today
that they may be servants of all in our communities,
opening doors to those who have been excluded.
Strengthen all women and men who share in political activity
that, irrespective of gender, class, race or creed.
your will made be done for all,
In the name of Jesus, our friend and brother, Amen.