Fitzgerald, Mary (1885–1960), South African trade unionist and socialist, was born in Ireland; her maiden name, and precise place and date of birth are not known. Emigrating with her father to the Cape Colony (1900), she worked as a typist for the British army at the Castle, Cape Town. By 1902 she married John Fitzgerald, and moved with him to Johannesburg in the Transvaal; they would have five children. Employed as shorthand-typist in the head office of the recently established Transvaal Miners’ Association – a craft union of skilled white workers in the Witwatersrand gold mines, mostly fellow immigrants from English-speaking countries – she was radicalised by observing the appallingly high mortality rates owing to miners’ phthisis. She attracted attention locally as a public speaker and agitator during the 1907 Rand miners’ strike against increases in the supervisory workload of skilled workers. Over the next fifteen years she was prominent as virtually the only leading woman trade-union activist throughout the most radical and confrontational period in the history of South Africa's white labour movement. From 1909 until its demise in 1912, she contributed to the Voice of Labour: A Weekly Journal of Socialism, Trade Unionism, and Politics, South Africa's only nationally distributed socialist publication. She became co-editor alongside the paper's founder, Archibald (‘Archie’) Crawford (1883–1924), a Glasgow-born fitter and turner who, after military service in the South African war, worked in the Pretoria railway workshops until dismissal for trade union agitation. Qualifying as Johannesburg's first woman master printer, she became co-owner with Crawford of a printing plant, which printed the Voice of Labour, trade-union pamphlets, and socialist tracts. She also co-edited (1909–10) the pioneering feminist journal, Modern Woman in South Africa, under the auspices of the Women's Enfranchisement League. Linking working-class concerns with the struggle for women's suffrage and equality, Fitzgerald in her journalism attacked woman's subordinate role in the household, excoriating marriage as a form of servitude, and advocating that husbands pay their wives wages for domestic work.
In the early 1910s Fitzgerald was identified with a coterie of militant socialists pursuing a more radical ideology than that espoused by the mainstream South African Labour Party. Their position regarding the critical race issue, however, was ambiguous, contradictory, and inconsistent. Against a background of skills dilution, increased automation, and mining company initiatives to replace highly paid white workers with low-wage black labour, white miners in the 1910s were relying less on skill-possession to protect their privileged position, and more on race, advocating colour bars to limit certain jobs to white workers only. Though shunning racist rhetoric, and reluctant on grounds of socialist principle and theory to endorse racially exclusive policies by government, employers, political parties, or trade unions, Fitzgerald and her comrades organised only among the white workforce (whom they regarded in practice as the skilled proletarian vanguard), declining to engage in positive recruitment of black and coloured workers.
Opposing the elitist craft unionism that dominated the movement, Fitzgerald supported the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose revolutionary syndicalism was inspired by the American-based body of the same name. A fiery exponent of militant direct action, during an IWW-led strike of Johannesburg tramway workers (1911), she led groups of women who sat on tracks to prevent the movement of trams by scab labour. Emulating the tactics of police, who used pick handles to break up strike meetings, during the ensuing municipal elections she led armed attacks on meetings of anti-labour candidates, earning thereby the enduring nickname ‘Pickhandle Mary’. Supporting Crawford's advocacy of combining revolutionary industrial unionism with electoral politics, she was active in the launch (May 1912) of the short-lived United Socialist Party, which soon collapsed amid ideological squabbling. She helped incite the 1913 miners’ strike by leading marches from pit to pit to call out the men. When the dispute escalated into a general strike threatening the stability of the fledgling South African state, Fitzgerald – interpreting the situation as an opportunity for syndicalist revolution – led a vanguard of militant women (the ‘Pickhandle Brigade’) who enforced the strike with attacks on the transport network; she and Crawford vehemently opposed the settlement agreed by moderate trade-union leaders. Pregnant with her fifth child by John Fitzgerald, she accompanied Crawford to Britain when he was deported for one year for his alleged role in a January 1914 general railway strike.
On their return from Britain in 1915, Fitzgerald and Crawford both charted courses more in the labour and political mainstream, which included open support for racially biased policies, and industrial action to protect jobs of white workers (including the mass of newly employed, largely unskilled Afrikaner workers). Elected to Johannesburg town council, the first woman to hold public office in the municipality (1915–21), Fitzgerald highlighted the widespread sweating of garment workers; during 1921 she served as deputy mayor. Under the auspices of the powerful South African Industrial Federation (SAIF) – of which Crawford was secretary from 1915, alienating militants by his readiness for negotiation and compromise – she founded in 1918 the Women's Industrial League (WIL), an all-white body that concentrated on organisation of waitresses, hospital laundry workers, and female workers in the Pretoria mint. In 1921 she led WIL members who seized a Johannesburg social club, expelled the coloured waiters, and forced management to hire white women. She strenuously opposed the growing influence within the labour movement of South Africa's fledgling Communist Party (which opposed colour bars). She attended the 1921 conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva as official adviser to Crawford, who represented South Africa as a government-appointed delegate.
After divorcing her husband (the marriage had long been strained owing to his unhappiness with the intensity of her activism), she married Crawford in 1919; they had one daughter. Though drifting away from public activity (she declined to stand for re-election to the town council in 1921), in February 1922 she addressed a Johannesburg demonstration supporting the white miners’ strike. When the dispute escalated into pit seizures and the armed conflict of the bitter Rand revolt, Crawford as SAIF leader counselled acceptance of wage cuts to protect jobs and prevent pit closures. After Crawford's untimely death from enteric fever (December 1924), Fitzgerald abandoned public life altogether. She died in 1960. The market square in Johannesburg's Newtown was officially named in her honour (1986) and extensively renovated as a major outdoor venue for arts activities (2001).