Norah Carlin Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Norah Carlin

Wives, mothers and fighters

(June 1984)

From Socialist Review, No. 66, June 1984, pp. 5–6.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The miners’ strike has seen both very backward sexist attitudes from some miners and a wonderful mobilisation of miners’ wives and girlfriends to help win the strike.

The best story of the last month was the one about the policeman who looked into a car carrying Yorkshire miners’ wives to a picket in Nottinghamshire. “Right, ladies, on you go,” he said. “We’re looking for pickets, but we can see you’re not pickets.”

Miners’ wives and girlfriends all over the country have been organising to support the strike. They have moved from setting up soup kitchens and collecting money to demonstrating and actual picketing. In all this, they have re-established in a very public way the solidarity of working class women with their men when their families’ livelihood is at stake and their communities under threat.

This solidarity among miners’ families is far from new, and militant action by miners’ wives goes back a long way. In 1844, women drove off Cornish scabs from a striking colliery m Durham: In Lancashire in 1868 and 1881 they also helped to drive away blacklegs and addressed large open-air meetings in support of the strikers. At Murton in Durham in 1910 men, women and children together raided stocks of coal at the pithead to heat their homes during a strike.


The commonest kind of action by women during miners’ strikes, however, was always the harassment of local scabs outside their homes with “rough music” – banging, shouting, parading with flags on clothes props or dressed in funny costumes. The tradition is centuries old, and it happened as late as 1935 in the Durham area.

So it should not come as a surprise that women have been involved in the current strike. But the miners’ history and traditions are often represented as being hostile to women from at least the time of the 1842 Mines Act that banned women from underground work. The “traditional” working class family with the full-time housewife and large numbers of children was strongest in mining communities, and it is a pattern which we now see as oppressive for women.

There can be no denying that present-day miners are often sexist, with naked pin-ups in miners’ papers and strikers on demonstrations chanting “Show us your tits” at passing young women.

But young married miners minding the kids while their wives travel to picket lines, and the enthusiastic welcome given to women’s contingents on recent demonstrations, show that there is another side to the picture.

Not all miners support the most aggressive sexist behaviour: at one college, where a handful of the miners who were staying there while picketing a nearby port harassed women students, the majority admitted that they were against it. (The important thing in this case is that the students who argued with the miners were supporting the strike, not criticising the miners from a remote and hostile position.)

Some of the “sexist” comments heard in Nottinghamshire have been part of the argument between strikers (and their families) and scabs (and their families). Scabs telling women to go home to their kitchens, and strikers accusing the scabs of being under their wives’ thumbs, are reaching for convenient insults rather than attacking women as women.

To see the history of the miners as simply sexist is a great mistake. The role of women in this history has often been controversial, and the controversies have often got caught up in outside arguments about women, sexuality and the family. But an understanding of nineteenth century mineworkers and their families shows that they cannot be interpreted in simple terms of antagonism between men and women.

Most male miners supported the banning of women from underground work in 1842. These women had worked in appalling conditions and in the most backward pits in a few areas only. Most of the women interviewed by the parliamentary commissioners hated the work and longed to be rid of it. No one except the local coal owners and the most doctrinaire opponents of state interference believed that such barbaric exploitation should be allowed to continue.

But the 1842 Act threw these women out of work all at once and with no compensation. Their families needed their wages, and there was no prospect of alternative employment for most of them. In those areas where women did work underground, both men and women miners had reservations about the Act – the division of opinion was not between women and men so much as between areas where women worked underground and those where they did not.

Some miners’ spokesmen did adopt the argument that work underground was a “moral danger” for women. This idea was born of middle class prurience, fascinated and shocked by women and young girls working scantily-clothed and in trousers in close proximity to men. This was the aspect of women’s mine work most luridly publicised by the illustrated press, and it was taken up by some miners from the areas where women did not work and by union officials.

Men who worked alongside women surely knew that there was no opportunity for sexual contact at work, and that husbands, brothers and fathers were usually around for protection!

Later in the century, the 1842 Mines Act came to be seen as having introduced the pernicious principle that working class women were not to be treated as adults – it was the first piece of industrial legislation not confined to children. It did become the springboard for later attempts to regulate women out of all “unfeminine” occupations. But at the time it was seen mainly as establishing the valuable principles that the state could set a limit to exploitation, and that women were entitled to protection of their health and safety – both of which principles were later to be extended in the direction of men’s work.

The problems of miners’ families in the nineteenth century are underestimated by those who see women’s right to work as the only principle at stake. Miners’ work was not only dirty, it was often damp as well: clothes had to be washed and dried daily, and hot water available for washing and bathing.

In many families, husbands and sons would be working different shifts; in others, disabled miners would have to be cared for. Servicing the family was a full-time job, heavy indeed though not as heavy as pit work. The division of labour between men and women was regarded as desirable not only by miners but by most working class men and women a century ago.

The male miner regarded a “family wage”, sufficient to support himself, his wife and young children, as a necessity. Yet even in mining, a relatively high paid occupation, one wage was rarely enough. It was the older children in miners’ families who earned the extra wages. Miners’ families had more children than the average working class family right up to the 1930s. As long as the industry was expanding, employment for miners’ sons was virtually guaranteed.


This division of labour was advantageous to the miners’ families, and when times were good they enjoyed a comparatively high standard of living. The first Inspector of Mines, Tremenheere, who opposed the exploitation of women and children, also deplored the “reckless spending” of miners’ families on meat and poultry, fresh vegetables, beer and spirits, and “excursions in carts and cars”!

In some areas the miners’ daughters also contributed to the family income, being employed as “pit brow lasses” unloading, screening and sorting coal and moving tubs and wagons at the pit head. Most of these women were in their teens and twenties, though miners’ widows and wives supporting disabled husbands often joined them.

There were several unsuccessful attempts to ban women from pit brow work, but they survived until 1972 when the last two were made redundant in Cumberland. Once again, the most vigorous campaigners for abolition were middle-class moralists who denounced the work as “unfeminine” and the trousers worn in the Wigan area as immoral.

But they were joined by the National Miners’ Union and the miners’ Liberal MPs in the 1880s, while the growing women’s rights movement took up the women’s case and denounced “selfish” male miners for wanting the jobs for themselves.

Locally, feelings about the banning of women from surface work were mixed. The union agent for the Wigan miners who campaigned for the ban was later thrown out by the miners for failing to represent their views on this and other matters.

The question of women’s labour being cheap, which led many miners to support exclusion, was double-edged. Men demanded a family wage – but the women were contributing to the support of their own families. They had never received help from the miners’ union officially, though they sometimes supported miners’ strikes. When they organised themselves to strike for higher wages, as at Pemberton (Lancs) in 1867, they were on their own.

This changed only during and after the First World War, when the union decided at last to recruit the surface women: The miners’ 1919 claim included (and won) a substantial improvement in the women’s wages. It is no accident that this was at the height of the miners’ strength, in the year when they turned back the employers with what many regarded as a threat of revolutionary action.

But by the 1950s pit-head mechanisation was squeezing women out of jobs, and the wholesale pit closures of the 1960s and early 1970s wiped out all the remaining women mineworkers, except cleaners, canteen and office workers.

Some miners today seem to regard the exclusion of women as a fundamental moral principle – it is said that in 1982 some striking women hospital workers were kept waiting outside lodge meetings while they voted solidarity action. This tradition is probably strongest in the North-East, where women had long ceased to be employed at mines when the union took shape in the 1840s.

The prejudice is clearly outdated. If it came to a question of women working underground today, modern conditions and mechanisation, with the principle of equal pay for equal work, would prevent any return to the days before 1842. Since 1974 women have worked underground in the USA – 2,500 of them by 1979, most of them attracted by decent wages rather than by feminist principle, though equal rights legislation paved the way. It is not very practical, however, to argue that women should enter the mines in Britain at the moment, when the loss of so many jobs is threatened.


Few miners’ wives or daughters would want to go down the pit in any case – they know its hardships and dangers too well. But like most working class women today, many miners’ wives are full-time or part-time workers themselves.

Compared with their grandmothers, the lives of women in mining communities have been changed by the coming of pithead baths and showers, better housing with running hot water, bathrooms, washing machines and other modern conveniences. They have fewer children over a short period of time, and children do not become wage earners till they are almost grown-up by nineteenth century standards. Miners’ wives work when they can for the extra income their families need – they are no longer tied for life to the tin bath and the washing line.

Perhaps more slowly than other working class women, miners’ wives are beginning to break out of their “separate sphere”. But in many areas, the opportunities for women to earn good wages are still few and far between. Meanwhile, the miners’ role as bread-winner is threatened by redundancies and pit closures. It is hardly surprising that in this situation there are tensions, that miners cling to a macho image and insist on seeing women in traditional ways.

The important thing that the 1984 strike has shown is that these tensions do not and should not wipe out the tradition of unity between women and men in the struggle to defend the miners’ jobs. Miners’ wives may be workers themselves – one woman proudly described herself as “breadwinner and picket” for the duration of the strike – or they may be housewives, but by organising for action in support of the strike they can show that they have to be taken seriously and are not just passive appendages of the men.

The best way of fighting sexism is to show that women have to be taken seriously, as equals, by male workers. In the long run, women will have to be freed from economic dependence and being tied to the home, so as to be able to act and organise for themselves. But in the present situation, miners’ wives and girlfriends have shown just how much solidarity with the men on strike can do towards winning an equal place for themselves in the class struggle.

Norah Carlin Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 5 October 2019