Radical Women Workers of the World, Unite!

This is a video that was shared by Jeremy Corbyn’s Facebook page the other week, and I’ve included it on the blog because not only does it fit very neatly into the theme of this weeks discussion, gender and sexuality, but also because until I saw this video, I had never heard of the Match Girls strike, let alone hearing about how it stemmed from a protest by working class women.

When I looked further into it, there seemed to be a lot of focus on the middle class women that were present for the strike, in particular Annie Besant, who is regularly portrayed as being at the helm of the protests, rather than the working class women who actually felt the need to strike in the first place. I found this account, which was written for the Trade Union archives at London Metropolitan University, which gives almost no credit to the workers for their role in the strike past a small section at the beginning.

It cannot be denied that Besant was instrumental in assisting the match girls through organising protests, a 3 week work stoppage and the formation of a match girls union.  It does remain to be seen that had it not been for the worker’s direct action against the health problems caused by their workplace (see:’Phossy Jaw’ for  a very graphic example) and the initial pay disputes,(Haggard,2001,p.101) whether Besant would have ever adopted their cause.

What I have noticed when reading the historical accounts of social movements is that in a lot of cases,there is more focus paid to the middle class ‘saviours’ than there is to the workers who often times were crucial in establishing and running the grassroots campaigns for their rights.

 

Match Workers at the Bryant and May Factory, London, 1888

Match Workers at the Bryant and May Factory, London, 1888 (TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University)

The women’s movement is a great example of this, everything I ever learnt about the women’s movement through school was that it was middle class suffragettes that secured rights for all women. Unlike the Labour movement, which is proudly and historically a working class movement, the historiography of the women’s movement seems to erase the work done by, and the voices of, working class women.

This is a good example of collective identity , or lack thereof, within social movements. I think that a lot of the erasure of working class women from the women’s movement stems from the theory of ‘social cohesion‘, or rather from a lack of effort within the movement to uphold cohesion.

Social cohesion theory suggests that groups become aligned through a set of common goals and a shared identity but for this model to work a group hierarchy needs to be formed which accounts for the number of different identities within the group. (Turner in Tajfel,1982, pp.15-16)

At the grassroots level of the women’s movement, particularly beginning with the Bryant and May strikes, there does seem to be a sense that working class women can be part of the campaign but this becomes contentious when the movement tries to expand. When the women try to join the wider, male dominated labour movement, they were not well received by either the Trade Unions . (Raw,2009,pp.57-58) And when they tried to join the women’s movement they appear to have been overshadowed by middle class women.

The difference between the sexes, and the fight for workers rights, was such that, for the trade unions heading the campaign, maintaining the family dynamic was seen as crucial in appearing respectable enough to demanding a ‘family wage’,  women becoming independent of the family would jeopardise the male centred workers movement, and so the social cohesion that was needed to create a united front was not established.(ibid,pp.57-58)

Dock strike 1889, scene in East India Dock Road ( LCC Photograph Library.)

Most working class women could not miss work in order to attend marches, or afford to be the unmarried ‘women of leisure’ that the middle class protesters could , I think this fostered a belief that working class women were not progressive enough to be part of the mainstream campaign because they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) reject the traditional social contracts that were expected of them.

However this brings me back to my original problem of the middle class saviour role that many of these women played. One group that defied the conventions that working class women had no voice was the Women’s Co-operative Guild. It was very different from most of the other women’s movements in that it was set up by and for working class housewives, with ‘women of leisure’ free to join as long as they could prove they were committed to the betterment of conditions for working women and not just to bolster their own egos. (Scott,1998,pp.1-2)

It is important to note also that the guild recognised that working class women were living under a distinctly different set of circumstances to the middle class and actively fought against it. Not only this but the guild armed working women with the knowledge they needed to set up unions and guild’s for themselves, embracing the campaign for universal suffrage by giving women the tools and independence to fight their own battles rather than using them as props as the middle class campaigners had. (ibid,pp 16-18)

It is important not to erase the good work done by campaigners like Annie Besant, she was after all a valuable member of the working women’s movement, but it is saddening to see the participation and commitment of working class women being ignored from the historical records. However, the women’s co-operative guild has given me a whole new area of gender history to consider that I had not been aware of until this week, and one I look forward to reading more about.

 

 


This isn’t really related to the post above but I think it’s a great video by the British Museum. I hadn’t really considered these small acts of vandalism, as we usually associate the suffragette movement with larger, more violent acts, but these coins were a great, subversive way for the group to make their point.

I think it also goes to show that even the smallest act of resistance can have some kind of effect, and is equally as important as a large statement.