Vanguard November 1915

Position of Women After the War

Source: Vanguard, November 1915, J.D.M. (c), p. 7-8;
A paper read by J.D.M. at a Co-operative Women’s Conference.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

What is the present position of working women? It is of them I want to speak, convinced, as I am, that the settlement of their problem will bring in its train the emancipation of all women. In industrial development we find one exceedingly distinct and well-marked tendency that has operated continuously since the capitalist era commenced, and that is, the displacement of skilled hand-labour by machine processes, which has meant the doing away with long years of training and apprenticeship as requirements of the normal workmen. An unskilled man by the aid of machines could produce wealth in less time, i.e., cheaper, than ever the experienced craftsman had done. He was doomed. His pitiful struggles against the machine monster were unavailing. Economic forces relentlessly crushed him out of existence or thrust him into the ranks of the unskilled. It is true that in certain lines of manufacture skilled craftsmen still linger, but in all the menace of the labour and skill-saving machine is to be discerned. Trade Unionism may retard but can never ultimately prevent the completion of this process. But when machines are introduced, as a rule they make the work physically lighter, and it becomes possible to employ women or children instead of men. The employer has no particular preference for women rather than men as workers; he takes women because they can be bought more cheaply. Women’s labour has another attractive feature from the employer’s point of view; women are weaker and less able to resist oppression than men. Of course there are operations in which the woman is a more effective labourer than the man because of her physical characteristics such as nimble fingers and delicate touch. In such cases women are absolutely to be preferred to men because they are more productive and therefore more profitable. To what extent are women occupied in industry In Mr. J.A. Hobson’s “Evolution of Modern Capitalism” there is a very instructive table- in this connection:-

 Male and Female Employment in Manufactures, 1841-1891.

Fuel, Gas, Chemicals5,80030066,4006,300
Fur, Leather, Glue1,6002,40059,10018,200
Wood, Furniture, etc.147,5004,900253,60023,300
Paper, Floorcloth, Waterproof8,9003,2008,60034,200
Textiles, Dyeing346,200257,600430,500585,600
Food, Drink, Smoking82,7008,000173,10050,200
Watches, Instruments, Toys19,6005,50044,6005,500
Printing, Bookbinding21,1001,800102,10019,100

These figures show in the clearest possible fashion that the employment of women has been increasing at a far more rapid rate than that of men. In the case of the textile and dress groups the position in 1891 was exactly the reverse of what it had been in 1841; in the earlier year men had outnumbered women, while in the later year women outnumbered men. With the aid of the census returns of 1901 and 1911 it is quite possible to bring these figures up to date, and to show that there has been no slackening off in the tendency towards the displacement of men by women. But I do not wish to weary you with figures. Suffice it to say that women have continued to increase in numbers in the industries already mentioned, and have penetrated into some occupations in which they were almost unknown in 1891; such as iron and steel trades, tinplate manufacture, brassfounding and finishing, manufacture of gasfittings, clerical and commercial occupations, teaching, etc.

One outstanding feature of the industrial system is that women, for doing the same work as men, are generally paid less. The real reason for this appears to be that as a rule men have a family to support and therefore must get more. Of course, many women have dependants to keep also, but they only form a minority of the women occupied in industry, arm therefore their needs do not determine the level of wages. On the other hand many women could not exist upon their own wages without the help that is given to them by their fathers or brothers. Parasitic textile trades are set up in colliery districts for the purpose of employing at low wages the daughters and sisters of miners, who on account of the relatively good wages they receive, are able to subsidise their female relatives. Then again in the lower middle-class the women have a predilection for clerical and commercial jobs. Many of them get only pin-money for their work as typists, etc., and wages in all these lines have just about fallen to zero. Most women only look upon their industrial employment as temporary. They all expect sooner or later to pass into that state of permanent bliss – marriage; with the result that they devote so much thought to the problem of catching a man that they have none to spare for the bettering of their jobs. But the age at which people marry is gradually rising, the number of men whose economic position is so insecure as to prohibit them from marrying is growing, and so the chances of a woman drawing a blank in the lottery are continually increasing. Therefore women would be wise to give over chasing dreams of impossible happiness, and come down to the necessary work of organising themselves in trade unions in order to be able to demand better wages than they are receiving. Women are notoriously hard to organise. The Board of Trade returns for 1913 state that there were 3,993,769 members of trade unions, and of these only 356,763 were females. Whereas, according to the census of 1911, there were 4,830,734 females occupied in England and Wales, showing how trifling is the number organised. But of those organised, 258,732 are members of the textile unions, that is to say 60 per cent. And it is worthy of note that the working conditions and average wages of women in the textile industry are on the whole better than in any other. It is quite true that the low wages paid to women in many occupations hardly permit them to pay any trade union contributions. But even taking that into account there seems to be a flightiness among young women workers which is just as great an obstacle to organisation as poverty. I have had experience of a few strikes in which women were concerned. And whilst it must be admitted that women fight well and can be roused to great enthusiasm as long as the strike is on, they seem to relapse and become indifferent more quickly than do men when it is over. The solution of this problem seems to be presented in the cotton trades, viz., the union of men and women in the same organisation. Purely women’s unions have not been very successful up till now, and do not seem likely to be so for a considerable time, until say a fair number of women have had a training in the art of organising, and the mass of women have acquired an elementary knowledge of the principles of trade unionism. To come down to the concrete, then; what wages do women receive? James Haslam, in an article on “Woman in Industry” in the Co-operative Annual shows that in a large number of industries women receive on the average the same wages as lads. An enquiry into the earnings of operatives in the textile trades was carried out by the Board of Trade in 1906, and resulted as follows:-

 Average Weekly Earnings of Operatives.
(Last week of September, 1906).
 Lads and MenBoysWomenGirlsAll work people
 s. d.s. d.s. d.s. d.s. d.
Cotton29 611 618 810 19 7
Woollen and Worsted26 108 1013 108 415 9
Linen22 47 810 96 712 0
Jute21 710 1113 59 814 3
Silk25 88 211 26 413 2
Hosiery31 59 514 37 915 11
Lace39 612 813 57 122 4
All industries28 110 515 58 1117 6

This shows the average wage of a woman in the textile trade to be 15/-, and we can be certain that in the collection of the statistics every endeavour would be made to make the figure appear as generous as possible. A similar enquiry was carried out in the clothing trades with the following result:—

 Average Weekly Earnings
 s. d.s. d.
Dress, Millinery (workshop),50 1113 10
Dress, Millinery (factory)31 815 5
Skirt, Blouses, etc., 29 1013 4
Tailoring, ready made,31 1112 11
Boot and Shoe, ready made,28 813 1
Corset,28 1112 2
Straw Hat and Bonnet, 36 719 10
Laundry (workshop),22 612 9
All industries,30 213 6

In this group of trades women’s wages are fully 100 per cent, below those of men and amount on the average to less than 14/- per week. These industries that have been enumerated are, needless to say, not the “sweated trades.” Take, for instance, the light, agreeable, distinctly feminine occupation of chain-making, in which, prior to the passing of the Trade Boards Act, 4/6 per week was a prevailing wage. Or tailoring, where before State interference, 10 per cent. Of women tailors received less than 8s per. week, and 20 per cent. less than 10/-. Or paper-boxmaking, where over 100,000 women over eighteen years of age received less than 10/- per week. Legislation has improved conditions in many of these lines within recent years by fixing minimum rates. But Parliament is always loath to interfere with property, and when it is compelled by public outcry to deal with Social scandals, handles then with conscious moderation. That may perhaps be the reason why the minimum rate for lace and net finishers was fixed at23/4d. per hour. And people ask in face of these facts, why vice is increasing! Fortunate are the girls and women who are not entirely dependent on their own earnings; they may escape the yawning gulf of crime and dishonour that swallows up so many of their unfortunate sisters. The other day I took part in a strike of women employed in a bleach-field. These women were being paid as low as 7/6 per week for a full working week. Some of them were continually having their wages supplemented by poor relief. Nobody could be more respectable than the owner of this bleach -field. He is a religious man, but it is quite evident from his smug, self-contented look that his conscience-never troubles him as to the wages that he pays his workers. We cannot wait until the employers become better men, that is too slow a process; we can only get justice now by kicking it out of them.

In these brief notes the position of women prior to the war has been surveyed. Let us consider now what has been the effect of war. Naturally, the withdrawal of millions of men from production into the army has meant that women have had an opportunity of entry into many occupations hitherto closed to them. We are told that this is only a temporary measure which will be withdrawn when peace appears. I cannot bring myself to believe it. If we remember that there never was any vital reason why women should not do many jobs from which they have been excluded, except the hostility of the trade unions, then we will cease to wonder at the ease with which they have adapted themselves to many situations in which even yet they seem so strange and out of place. The trade unions are being legally rendered impotent by means of the Defence of the Realm Act and this new Munitions Act. Many people think this is quite right and proper. But these are only the ones who in order to meet the immediate danger that they fear, are willing to risk the depression of working-class conditions for the next fifty years. I am not of that mind. To me it seems essential that under all conceivable circumstances the trade unions should remain free to act, for otherwise the workers have no means whatever of protecting themselves against the greed and tyranny of the employers. The facts are, however, against my wishes. The trade unions are powerless and are likely to remain so after the war is over. This regulation that they are undergoing just now is probably the introduction to a system of Compulsory Arbitration such as exists in Australia, under which it will be illegal to strike. Now, in many of the new jobs that are being done by women, there is no physical exertion that is excessive for a healthy women, neither is there any mental strain for which they are unfitted; the social barrier to their continued employment, the trade union, is, or will become powerless; the employers are satisfied because their work is being done cheaper than before; and now the question arises what power is going to displace these women and put the men back into their jobs after the war is over. There is no such power. In my opinion women are now permanently employed on cars, railways, and in engineering shops, and the jobs that they are doing are permanently lost to men. And so the war will strengthen the normal tendency of capitalism towards replacing men by women, and, unfortunately, the standard of life of the working-class seems likely to continue to fall from this reason. The only way in which this tendency could be counteracted, would be by women demanding and enforcing the same wages as were obtained by men. The slaughter of men is going to vastly increase the number of widows and other women who will have dependents to keep. You may think that the Government will make adequate provision for the widows and other sufferers by the war. If it does so it will be the first time in the history of this or any other country. These women will absolutely need the same income as men formerly had. Will they get it? Possibly, but only if they take an interest in things outside of the walls of their own homes, and become capable of taking collective action for their own protection. It presupposes a revolution in the minds of many women. You will know better than me whether that is likely. Then take the case of women who have permanently disabled men to support. “Government Pensions” you interject. Yes, but it remains to be seen how adequate these pensions will be. It seems to me fairly probable that the woman with a disabled husband will require to go out and work order to supplement shall we say, the Government allowance. Another effect of the war will perhaps be a reduction of the number of marriages through the killing of so many young men. In that case women more than ever will be compelled to look upon the factory, not as a wayside station, but as the terminal. All these things should reach upon women in such a way as to make efforts at amelioration more sustained and effective than in the past. The conclusion is forced upon me that though women are going to have more than their share of suffering in the future, yet it will not be entirely without recompense. As women enter out into production in huger and huger numbers; as they take their place alongside of men, their importance to society will come to be more fully realised. Not merely as pro ducers of wealth but as producers of men. Women themselves will become more conscious of the decisive part that they play in human development, and will no longer be content to sit at the feet of the male sex, or should we say remain under the heel? They arise in their power and demand their rightful position as equal friends and comrades of men. Then there will be no question of treating women as inferiors by refusing them the vote or in any other way. For woman with practice will acquire just as great an influence over society in the future, as she has to-day in the home. That influence will, I am convinced, be used for the humanising of this mankind which is to-day wallowing in filth and beastliness.