Matchwomen struck a light

Submitted by Matthew on 26 September, 2012 - 2:15

The right-wing press can’t decide whether to portray Frances O’Grady, the next General Secretary of the TUC, as a clichéd feminista or little lady drowning in a sea of testosterone.

The Telegraph, which hasn’t updated its view on unions in 40 years and hilariously insists that they run the country, wonders how she’ll cope with shouty men with “dog-on-a-rope” dispositions. It does concede that, as Deputy for some years, she must have somehow learned not to swoon when confronted with what it calls “the hairy arses”.

Leaving aside this admittedly fascinating question of modern waxing techniques and the, ahem, inner circle of male trades unionism, it’s tiresome to see such ancient canards served up as fresh.

Half of all members are female, and from grassroots to NEC unions draw on talent and commitment from both sexes.

However, women in the movement will tell you that aggressively macho tactics still abound, too: and not always reserved for employers. Dinosaurs still roam the landscape, hopefully on the verge of extinction, but still dangerous.

We need to know and celebrate the movement’s rich and extraordinary history. It contains enough fascinating stories to fill the history strands of all TV channels several times over; but you wouldn’t know it.

In particular, the truth about women’s vital part in the story has been buried. This deprives today’s women activists of role models and inspiration.

Men and women have fought exploitation side by side for centuries, but there have also been periods of hostility between women and the labour movement. The events of the 19th century, in particular, cast a long shadow.

As new capitalist factory owners gained social power, they could make their own rules, and decided to stand, as a class, for the nobility of labour, against the aristocratic view that no gentleman worked for a living.

But they rather fancied gentlewomen: or, at least, the gentry’s concept of the lady of leisure, and made it their own. No respectable woman should work, they proclaimed, when biology and theology decreed her place to be in the home.

The great irony was that these same men had made their fortunes from women’s labour, the backbone of industrialisation. Women always had and always would work, but now it suited polite society to pretend otherwise.

Working-class men knew they couldn’t survive without wives and daughters’ wages, but still the “breadwinner” myth insisted real men provided for everyone.

Some unions did recruit women, and Chartists were not the only political movement to give them prominence. But when push came to economic shove, because the movement hadn’t adopted a positive overall stance on women, it was easy for men to see women workers as a threat.

One union’s records show members understood that the “wickedness” of employers paying women less made “poor women the enemy of poor men”: but still voted to fight their employment.

In Kidderminster in 1875, when a carpet firm hired lower-paid women to force men into a pay cut, threatening letters warned the women they “might very likely get their brains knocked out”.

The same year, the TUC’s Henry Broadhurst declared that Congress must aim to return women to “their proper sphere at home”.

With friends like Broadhurst, working women didn’t need enemies — and, in any case, had their employers for that.

One great Victorian success story was Bryant & May matches, who employed thousands of women and girls.

They banned unions, and defied the law. Health and safety violations had ghastly results.

Because the white phosphorus the firm preferred to use was so deadly, workers were supposed to have a dining area away from the workrooms. Because they didn’t, deadly particles settled on food, giving the poison a direct route into the mouth.

Full-blown phosphorus poisoning, “phossy jaw”, led to slow decay of facial bones and agonising death.

The “respectable” union movement didn’t approve of women like the matchworkers: but they took strike action anyway, forcing their employers to accede to their terms and forming the largest female union in the country in 1888.

They were by no means the first women to fight back: 100 years before, women spinners in Leicestershire had their own militant union. Elsewhere, we read of women ducking strikebreakers under water pumps.

Throughout history women have fought back with courage, in and out of the workplace.

From the young married woman who fought soldiers attacking her at Peterloo “her face all bloody, her hair streaming about her”, to the chainmakers of Cradley Heath who took on their employers and won in 1910, women’s strength is everywhere.

But you have to know where to find it, and have the luxury of time to spend in archives. This concealment has done the left no good. In 1990, more than a century after the matchmakers kick-started “New Unionism”, the start of modern unionism, the TUC had to re-launch it, as a recruitment campaign aimed at women, part-time and marginalized workers.

It took Thatcher’s destruction of the country’s manufacturing base and the resulting loss of seven million union members to bring that about.

So why is women’s part in our proud industrial and political heritage not written, and celebrated, everywhere?

Frances O’Grady hinted at the answer, speaking to the Guardian about the current cuts’ impact:

“You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was part of a back-to-the-kitchen-sink campaign…women being hit hardest by job losses, service cuts, threats to take away employment rights, pay depression, rising bills and lack of childcare… You could be forgiven for thinking that there is a plan here.”

It is precisely because women have been fighting on so many fronts for so long that they have not always had time to record and celebrate their victories.

We need to work on uncovering and publicising our past as part of building a better future. Then, the establishment would no longer be able to present the movement as an anachronistic “boys’ club”.

O’Grady will be speaking next year at the festival celebrating the 125th anniversary of the matchwomen’s strike: a good place to start a lively re-engagement with this history.

She told me she has “always been inspired by those teenage rebels” the matchwomen. I hope that, as she takes up a unique combination of dream job and poisoned chalice, the spirit of women like them will stay with her.

* Louise Raw is the author of Striking a Light: the Bryant & May Matchwomen (Continuum Press), and Director of the forthcoming Matchwomen’s Festival, Saturday 6 July 2013

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