By Gerry Breen
An Irish woman, Mary Fitzgerald, who became known as ‘Pick-handle’ Mary, was a fearless fighter for workers’ rights in South Africa and is considered to have been the first female trade unionist in the country. She was also the first woman printer and the first woman city councillor.
Mary Sinnott was born into a farming family near Cleariestown, Co. Wexford, on 4th August, 1883, and after attending the Presentation Convent School in Wexford she qualified as a shorthand typist.
Her father, Thomas, got a job in America as a representative for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, before moving to Cape Town as the company representative. In 1900, he returned to Wexford and travelled back to Cape Town with Mary before making plans for his wife, Margaret, and the rest of the family to follow.
Mary got a job working at British military headquarters as one of the first female shorthand typists in South Africa. When her mother and the rest of the family arrived in Cape Town, Margaret Sinnott found work as a dressmaker while Mary’s brother, Dennis, got a job on the tramways.
Unfortunately, Dennis had a fall from the top of a tram and died of his injuries. His friend, John Fitzgerald, visited the bereaved family and was attracted to Mary. His romantic feelings were shared by Mary and they married in St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Later, Mary and her husband moved to Johannesburg, where Mary became a typist for the Mine Workers’ Union. She witnessed the appalling conditions of the miners and soon became actively involved speaking at union gatherings.
Mary was described as a short, quietly spoken woman but, apparently, when she addressed meetings on the subject of the terrible conditions under which the miners worked and spoke of the diseases they suffered through inhaling mine dust, she was a mesmerising orator and created an indelible impression.
Mary became editor of a radical publication known as The Voice of Labour, and she was a pioneer in organising unions for women and in the fight for women’s votes and for equality of pay and opportunity.
Of course, she wasn’t content to address meetings and urge others to take action, she was prepared to lead whatever action she advocated, and she was absolutely fearless in the face of intimation by mine owners or the police.