Sunday, 3 February 2008

Women in the Economy: Unionism and Protection

By the end of the nineteenth century it is possible to see the sexual division of labour clearly in operation. Women were concentrated into a few low paid industries -- where the great majority of employees were female -- and in domestic service. Outworkers and domestic servants were isolated and divided workers and were to remain outside any co-operative protection or trade unionism. For the most part, feminist[1] activity concentrated on the reality of the working woman’s situation and on the necessity that brought it about rather than on theoretical arguments in favour or against women’s work of this kind. It was largely a pragmatic and practical concern with the organisation of benefit societies and unions, with working conditions or wages, with the evils and miseries of outwork that motivated organisation within the working classes. Interested middle class women ran many of these organisations, though there was significant working class input as well. This section will consider two big issues that confronted feminists after 1850: the organisation of women into trade unions and the question of protective legislation revived by government in the 1880s.

Women in trade unions

Trade unions in this period were male-dominated and most had the interests of male trade unionists at heart[2]. Unions were threatened by the way in which female labour was being used to undercut male wages and to ‘dilute’ male craft skills. Their reaction did not help women workers but does not explain the lowly place of women in the labour market. Women’s trade unions tended to have their most marked successes in recruiting in periods when male union activity was riding high. In 1832 1500 women card-setters at Peep Green Yorkshire came out on strike for equal pay. The Lancashire cotton mill women were active in trade unions. In 1859 the North East Lancashire Amalgamated Society was formed for both men and women and in 1884 the Northern Counties Amalgamated Association of Weavers was established for male and female workers. But the most significant development was the emergence of separate women’s unions. Thus the Women’s Protective and Provident League [WPPL] was established in 1874 at a time when men’s unions were enjoying some success, both in membership terms and in establishing their legality. Similarly it was in the brief period of ‘new unionism’ in the late 1880s and early 1890s when unskilled labour became politicised that the Women’s Industrial Council [WIC] and a score of women’s unions were established. The late nineteenth century saw considerable industrial action by women: the famous Bryant and May’s matchgirl strike of 1888 but also the Dewsbury textile workers in 1875, the Aberdeen jute workers in 1884, Dundee jute workers in 1885 and Bristol confectionery workers. Women’s unions, under the inspiration of the League, campaigned for better wages and working conditions. It is a reflection of this era of separate female unions that in 1906 there were 167,000 members of all unions and that by 1914 this had risen to nearly 358,000.

A host of disincentives stood in the way of the successful unionisation of women. Male unions at this stage were barely acceptable and themselves faced the problems of recruitment and of sustaining membership. The economic competition that women posed as a cheaper labour supply further determined men not in unionising women but in deterring their existence in the workplace. The sporadic nature of women’s work, interrupted by pregnancies and domestic duties, might mean that in many cases work for women was simply a strategy for survival. Constant interruption added to poor pay and monotonous work would certainly not encourage women to invest energy in their identity as workers; their concentration in the less skilled sectors of employment not only further discouraged any such identity but made them vulnerable too. Unskilled unions were late in taking off because such workers were, by virtue of their lack of skill, expendable. Agitation could this be easily nipped in the bud. In addition, the high number of women whose source of income derived from occupations such as outwork or domestic service, where congregation with their peers was precluded, were without any means of organisation. Many working women were isolated through their work and essentially untouched in this organisational context.

The Women’s Protective and Provident League [WPPL] was established in 1874. Throughout its principal function was to offer help to working women in their own setting up of unions. It was never a trade union itself but a mechanism for pooling funds, expertise and experience. It offered sickness benefits and a host of related activities. It has been criticised for offering welfare instead of militancy and it was certainly far more of a propaganda and educational body. This should not, however, obscure our understanding of its political significance. Its initial gains were no more than modest. Its overall membership fluctuated wildly, though in 1884 there were less than a thousand women in its unions. Nonetheless in that time the League had succeeded, albeit temporarily, in organising a number of London trades from boot and umbrella makers, tailoresses and laundresses to feather and flower workers and box makers. Its activities extended beyond London to other industrial centres like Dewsbury and Leicester. Emma Paterson, who had founded the League, died in 1886 and control passed to Lady Emilie Dilke. Under her leadership many of the former policies of the WPPL were abandoned and a more militant approach adopted. The name was changed to the Women’s Trade Union and Provident League in 1889 and to the Women’s Trade Union League two years later. It sought more secure funding with the introduction of a scheme of affiliation for unions with a female membership and also sought to broaden its appeal outside London and by 1891 had seventeen London unions and six provincial affiliates.

The 1890s saw both a growth of women’s trade union membership and the creation of several new women’s organisations. The Women’s Trade Union Association [WTUA] was founded in 1889 by women dissatisfied with the stance of the WTUL, amongst them Clementina Black, Amie Hicks, Clara James and Florence Balgarnie. Its aims differed little from the parent body and it was to be a short-lived venture merging in 1897 with the Women’s Industrial Council then three years old. In 1870 some 58,000 women were members of trade unions but by 1896 that has risen to 118,000, a figure representing some 7.8 per cent of all union members. Unionism was strong in the textile and especially cotton industry where women often outnumbered male operatives. Women had since the 1850s been incorporated in mixed unions. The common characteristic of all these organisations was their concern with the singularity of women’s position and women’s requirements in the worlds of work and leisure and even within the working class home. These spheres could not be divorced given the disrupted employment patterns of most women workers. Even when the WTUL opted for a policy of encouraging women into unions of mixed rather than single-sex membership in the 1890s, other specifically female issues remained central planks of their overall philosophy. Given the extensive nature of women’s exploitation, feminist activity was necessarily split into a series of autonomous but linked campaigns.


The question of protective legislation

Legislation restricting or prohibiting women’s work in certain area like the mines or limited their duties or hours of work featured prominently in the factory reforms of the 1830s and 1840s. In these decades legislation was a consequence of a preoccupation with the effects of work on children. When the issue was revived in the 1880s with women’s employment as its primary target the political context was of a very different complexion. Despite the ability of women’s organisations to lobby parliament, state intervention in areas of social and economic concern was a growing reality despite voices raised in support of the values of individualism. The extension of the factory Inspectorate after 1878 and the appointment of women inspectors signalled a more serious intention of enforcement by the authorities than had the earlier, more permissive, acts[3].

The issue was a difficult one for feminists dividing them less along class lines than along lines of political belief. Three positions emerged in the debate. First, there was outright laissez-faire opposition to any proposals that restricted women’s freedom. Secondly, some women saw restriction as a progressive and humane response of the state. Finally there were those who applauded the principle of protective legislation but only where its application was not on the basis of gender. The reaction of working women varied but there is little doubt that the impact of government reform was an unwelcome reality for many late Victorian and Edwardian working people. The significant point is that women were legislated for without consultation. There was a total neglect of their views. It was a case of men legislating for women.

Women, from markedly different ideological camps, agreed that there was clearly a need to curb the excesses of employers whose interpretation of the free market was detrimental to the health and safety of their workers. They also broadly agreed where government legislated for mixed employment as in the 1878 Factory Act. But the 1878 Act specifically exempted workplaces exclusively employing women and the sweated trades were left untouched. The problem that the anti-legislation lobby had was that in championing women’s rights to all available employment, they came close to sanctioning work that clearly endangered health and safety. Working class women were at the bottom of the economic pile, forced into distasteful jobs by economic necessity and forced out of them by the ethics of another class and another gender. It was not until the first decade of the twentieth century that the sweated trades and shop assistants were brought under legislative control. This took place in 1909 and 1912 respectively. Feminism in this period was a wholly urban movement, predominantly middle class, clustered for the most part round the larger towns and London where industrial conditions could be easily observed. Domestic service, the largest employer of female labour, and agricultural work, despite the governmental investigation of this area in the 1840s, were largely untouched.

The interest shown by so many better-off middle class women in tackling the problems of industrial conditions and practices rather than the home lives of women is significant. Their choice of organisations offered help in establishing autonomous unions rather than merely philanthropic aid and often pious moralising. There were certainly class tensions between the middle class activists and working class women. However, despite the mistakes the failures and lapses into the philanthropic mode, feminist organisations in this central area of working class women’s work represented a serious attempt at broadening the notion of sisterhood beyond the parameters of class.


[1] By ‘feminist’ I mean those women who argued for changes in the role of women in society and an extension of the opportunities open to them.

[2] B. Drake Women in Trade Unions, London, 1921 reprinted by Virago, 1984 is the classic starting-point on this subject. See also: Norbert C. Soldon Women in British Trade Unions 1874-1976, Gill & Macmillan, 1978, Eleanor Gordon Women and the Labour Movement in Scotland 1850-1914, OUP, 1991 which focuses on the jute industry in Dundee and Judy Lown With Free and Graceful Step? Women and industrialisation in nineteenth century England, Polity, 1987. Anne Taylor Annie Besant: A biography, OUP, 1992 is now the standard work on a critical figure in the development of women’s trade union rights, birth control and women’s rights generally.

[3] Mary Drake McFeely Lady Inspectors: The Campaign for a Better Workplace 1893-1921, Blackwell, 1988 is a useful study of how women fared as factory inspectors.

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