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International Socialism, Autumn 1981


Janet Vaux

Feminists in the labour movement


From International Socialism, 2 : 14, Autumn 1981, pp. 124–127.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The general truth behind the attacks by Zetkin and Kollontai on contemporary women’s rights movements is that civil rights struggles are reformist; they don’t really change things, but leave the basis of a divided class society intact. It is quite usual, and I think correct, to say that the 19th century women’s rights movements were a struggle on the part of bourgeois women to get equal rights with bourgeois men. But, at this time, the working classes were also struggling for many of the political and educational rights enjoyed by bourgeois men. There was a natural alliance – if only insofar as gains by one group could encourage the other – and the conservative establishment did everything it could to create divisions between the various groups. So the Chartists, for example, dropped the universal suffrage demand in favour of male suffrage, supposed to be a more viable demand. Some of the women’s suffrage movements, in similar fashion, opted for demanding the vote for propertied women only, ‘as a tactic’.

But according to Tony Cliff (ISJ 2 : 13) the women’s rights movement were not reformist but reactionary. He seems to mean not that some feminists, or even some tendencies, were reactionary (which is true); but that bourgeois feminism was essentially reactionary. He claims that the bourgeois feminists were entirely hostile to the interests of working class women, and tended to create damaging diversions in the political direction of socialists who had any connections with them (such as Svlvia Pankhurst).

I would like to argue, instead, that although the women’s rights movements were primarily geared towards the interests of middle class women, their example and the impact of feminism on the labour movement, was on the whole progressive. I will do this by looking at just one example – the Women’s Trade Union League, started by Emma Paterson (as the Womens Protective and Providence League) in 1874. Paterson was a labour movement bureaucrat and feminist committed to the principle of self-organisation for working women. The League’s initiative in encouraging women to form unions, and pushing the trade union movement to commit itself to equal pay instead of a campaign to exclude female labour, was vital to involving women in the trade union movement.

Cliff argues that the women’s unions set up by the League were a symptom of ‘liberal bourgeois feminist influence’ (i.e. the fact that they were separate women’s unions) or ‘craftism and bureaucracy in the men’s unions’ (i.e. excluding unskilled women workers). That is to say they existed because of the divisive influence of feminism and/or craftism. Either he is saying that the best way to deal with the special interests of any group (women workers) is to ignore it organisationally – or he is denying that women workers are a distinct group. (In fact, I think, he’s saying both.) If women workers are not a distinct group, it of course further weakens the claims of feminism to have any great relevance to class struggle.

The reference to craftism is to an argument that women were excluded from the majority of trade unions in the 19th century not because they were women, but because they were unskilled workers. Lindsey German also argues this in her article in IS 2 : 12.

Now it is certainly true that the exclusion of women from trade unions was based in craft unionism. Part of the purpose of a craft union is to exclude as many other workers as possible; its aim is to maintain both the skills and skilled status of its members. It is not directed towards uniting, organising or mobilising wage labourers. But this does not remove the fact that women were excluded from the unions as women, and quite specifically so.

Furthermore, in the early 19th century it was not just the traditional craft unions which excluded, and even expelled, women. So did some of the new factory operatives’ unions. For example, the Manchester Spinners and Manchester Small Ware Weavers’ societies both had female members until the spinners’ strike of 1818 (when men and women received equal strike pay). But women were expelled after this, apparently for ‘failing to observe trade union conditions’. [1] The cotton spinners’ Grand Central Union of the United Kingdom specifically excluded women (‘... the union shall include only male spinners and piecers’), though they urged women to form their own unions.

The short lived socialist unions – the Grand Consolidated National Trade Union of 1833–4 – did have a number of women’s lodges. Some of these lodges, such as the Ancient Virgins and the Female Gardeners, were prominent in the Oldham riots. However the only operatives unions which never excluded women were the cotton weavers. And here the industry was dominated by women and had equal (very low) pay for women and men.

The question of equal pay is crucial. The existence of women’s rates is enough on its own to show that women were not in the same position as all other unskilled workers. In the 1830s the cotton spinners ran an unsuccessful campaign for equal pay. But the question was not seriously tackled again till the rise of the women’s unions.

If sexism wasn’t the basic cause of attempts to exclude women from work, it was still the easy way out for trade union officials faced with the competition of low paid, unorganised women workers. So a certain Mr Juggins, secretary of the Nut and Bolt Makers, campaigned hard for the exclusion of women from his industry. His report to a Parliamentary Committee in the early 1880s appears to flow from the full strength of Victorian prurience: it was, he said, ‘a disgrace to the nation’ that ‘half nude women engaged in work with half nude men’. [2] Based on this report, he put a resolution to the TUC of 1882, ‘against the iniquitous system of female labour’.

Yet his objections had miraculously melted away the following year, when he seconded a motion by Clementina Black (Women’s Trade Union Council) that ‘where women do the same work as men they shall receive equal pay’. Juggins explained that ‘nothing but equal pay for women could cure the evil, and they had therefore resolved to organise women as soon as possible’.

In fact, the initiative towards organising women had already been taken when Emma Paterson set up the Women’s Protective and Provident League in 1874. Outside of the Lancashire cotton unions, which had a drive to organise women in the early 1870s, this was the first systematic attempt to organise women in unions, in a period when thousands of unskilled workers were beginning to join them. Paterson started the League after visiting America and ‘seeing some successful unions in New York consisting of and managed by working women, of which the two largest were the Parasol and Umbrella Makers’ Union and the Women’s Typographical Society’. [3] The function of the League was to encourage women to form trade unions, with an emphasis on self-help in the particular form of provident funds for sickness, etc. Like many of her contemporaries in the trade union movement, Paterson hated and discouraged strikes. Nonetheless, one of the League’s earliest successes was to help a strike of women woollen weavers in Dewsbury, where an active union was then formed of about 1,000 workers.

The League, under Paterson, was not simply interested in women as (potential) unionists. There was a clear streak of feminism evident in Paterson’s growing insistence on self-organisation, and the opposition to protective legislation. The League came into conflict with the rest of the trade union movement over protective legislation – and behind the conflict was the legacy of distrust sown by the past exclusionist policies. For Paterson also (though maybe not for some other feminist opponents of protective legislation), the issue was that it was overridingly important for women to win their own gains and not be given them on a Parliamentary plate. It is worth looking at the conflict over protective legislation in more detail.

In 1873 a Bill initiated by the TUC, to give women a 9-hour day in the textiles industry, was defeated by a feminist campaign. To add insult to injury, the defeat was engineered by the likes of Henry Fawcett, a Liberal philanthropist and strong feminist, whom the trade union movement was learning to rely on to manoeuvre legislation through Parliament. One of the reasons for the anti-feminism which shook the trade union leadership in the following years was undoubtedly the fact that, on this issue, the feminists stole a march on the Parliamentary road. [4]

The basic argument behind the feminist campaign was that women workers should be free to compete on equal terms with men – shorter hours for women would, they said, mean less work and loss of wages. It has often been said that this argument merely reflects the needs of middle class women, struggling for an equal footing in the professions. However, it is clear that working class women were also at a severe disadvantage in competing for work.

Against the feminists, it has to be pointed out that the 1873 Bill has a recognisable place in the general struggle for shorter hours. It followed a number of strikes in 1871 and 1872 over the demand for a 9-hour day – strongest in the London building trades – and this demand had been met for most artisans by the end of 1872. The 1873 Bill would have set the same hours for the textile industry and, Sidney Webb claims, not just for the women but also for the men, through a time-honoured ploy in the industry of gaining conditions ‘behind the women’s petticoats’.

When the issue broke out again at the TUC of 1877 there were three representatives of women’s unions at the Congress (including Paterson). The cotton unions had put up a resolution to restrict female labour, for incorporation in a forthcoming Factory Bill. Paterson led the attack on the resolution, and said she was less and less able to believe male unionists when they said they didn’t wish to exclude women: ‘She was somewhat startled the previous day to hear three delegates declare that when they got this Bill passed they would next try to get a Bill to remove women from certain branches of work (agriculture and chainmaking) altogether’. [5]

Paterson argued that the trade unions should ‘help women by combination to increase their wages, and not attempt to drive them out of work altogether’. She was supported by Mrs Mason, a working seamstress representing 3,000 seamers and stitchers: ‘She was placed in a position of being compelled to earn a few shillings because her husband was not able to support the whole family... As a working woman she would like to do her best the same as every woman should to support the house’.

The male response was patronising and self-important: ‘They knew it was very natural for ladies to be impatient of restraint at any time ...’ said the secretary of the Parliamentary Committee, but the men ‘had the future of their country and children to consider’. The resolution was passed by a large majority.

Later in the week, Paterson spelled out that the real issue was self-organisation: Nothing was further from her desire than that women should work for an indefinite number of hours in factories and workshops. The difference of opinion was only as to the best mode of securing the much needed shortening of working hours – combination or legislation. If the work were better paid, women would be glad enough to work for shorter hours. What she dreaded was too much reliance placed on legislation.’ Sidney Webb, one of the strongest opponents of the feminists, was always scornful of the idea of putting combination before legislation, for a weak group of workers like women – much as he was scornful of putting any form of industrial action before legislation.

In line with Paterson’s perspective, the women’s trade unions retained an anti-protection position until the laundresses’ campaign for shorter hours in the 1890s. It is difficult to disentangle the threads of a genuine battle for conditions and of exclusionism in the 19th century trade union movement. However, Paterson was surely right that women workers fighting for their own rights would be in the best position to secure conditions, wages, and their jobs. I have no intention of trying to claim that Paterson was a revolutionary socialist. But her feminism did put her a bit ahead of some other trade union leaders in understanding the importance of self-organisation.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that self-organisation is the issue here, not separate organisation, and very definitely not a separation of struggles. Paterson wanted rank and file women workers to be able to fight for their own rights; and if women were to unionise, they had little choice but to form their own unions. The fact that the women’s unions were separately organised probably did give them a clearer voice to push the union movement (slowly) into a commitment to equal pay. And just because the women’s unions helped to unionise women and to argue for equal pay, they brought women workers closer to men in the more basic struggle against the bosses.

Lindsey’s swift skid from ‘separate organisation’ to ‘separation of struggles’ [6], is not backed by the example of the Women’s Trade Union League. Nor is Cliff’s allegation that the feminists in the League made a principle of separate organisation. Separate organisation was not, anyway, a principle of the 19th century women’s rights movements, and most of them seem to have included some men. For example, the Board of Paterson’s League, referred to by Cliff as ‘lady philanthropists’, had maybe a majority of gentlemen philanthropists, as well as a couple of male union bureaucrats. That self-liberation sometimes requires separate organisation has only been apparent since women (and blacks) won many formal legal rights.

It is a slander first put about by their opponents in the conflict over protective legislation that the League introduced ‘divisive feminism’ into the union movement. In fact it is worse than a slander to say the feminists were divisive. It’s a bleeding cheek.


1. Cf. Barbara Drake, Women in Trade Unions, London 1920, p. 4.

2. Ibid., p. 20.

3. Quoted ibid., p. 10.

4. Cf., for example, the chapter on The Women’s Rights Opposition Movement in Hutchins and Harrison A History of Factory Legislation, first published in 1903. The authors represent the current of the women’s trade union movement which was by then hostile to feminism. They suggest that maybe the Conservatives were now more the natural ally of the union movement than the Liberals (i.e., to get Bills through Parliament)!

5. Drake, op. cit., pp. 16–17.

6. Ibid., p. 33.

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