Ada Nield Chew was a working class woman who played a major role in the socialist and suffrage campaigns. This book was written by her daughter, Doris, to remind us of the important role she played as an activist and how difficult it was for women of her class and generation to take part in political struggle;
“My mother, as Ada Nield, a young woman of twenty-four, took the lead in one particular struggle – for better conditions and pay for sweated women workers in a Crewe clothing factory.”
We know about Ada’s life in a clothing factory in the 1890s because she wrote a series of letters to a local paper under the pseudonym “Crewe Factory Girl” which exposed the dire working conditions although the publicity led to her dismissal.
Ada then went on to become active in the campaign for the vote and the improvement of women’s lives at work.
Ada was born in 1870, one of thirteen, her father was a farmer and her formal education ended at the age of eleven years. Not much is known about the early influences that shaped her politics but it was her experiences as a tailoress in a clothing factory which led to her entry into a political life.
Crewe in the 1890s was a thriving railway town and, like many working class women, Ada lived with her family whilst working as a tailoress. She was a skilled writer but little is known about how she became one. In her letters as a “Factory Girl” she shows that she had an understanding of the politics of the time and the inequalities experienced by working class women.
In a letter to the Crewe Chronicle on 5 May 1894, written anonymously as “Factory Girl” she said;
“I have come to the conclusion, sir, that so long as we are silent ourselves and apparently content with our lot, so long shall we left in enjoyment of that lot.”
In her letters she showed the harsh conditions where workers merely existed and did not live. It was; “A “living wage!” Ours is a lingering, dying wage!”
In her letters and articles she called out for the women workers to join a trade union, not the Tailors’ Union which did not do anything to improve the women worker’s conditions, but one which would organise for equal pay and oppose unfair practices.
Ada was provoked by the factory owners to reveal her identity and was forced to resign. She then joined the Independent Labour Party and became a socialist speaker, travelling around the country in a van to promote socialism in small market towns and rural areas.
In April 1897 Ada married another ILP organiser, George Chew, and they moved to Rochdale to live. In 1898 she gave birth to Doris and took her with her on her travels around the country. Ada continued to write articles in papers such as the Labour Leader.
In 1900 she started working for the Women’s Trade Union League which had been created to support women workers to improve their conditions and pay. She toured industrial towns and villages in northern England and Scotland and addressed public meetings, visited workshops and factories to speak to women and held meetings at factory gates.
It was a hard life for Ada involving lots of travel and constantly trying to raise the spirits of low paid women workers. The work was paid which meant that she could contribute to the household and be economically independent.
Ada believed in the suffrage struggle but she saw it as part of a wider strategy for women to improve their lives. She wanted women to have political power to radically change society at all levels of society. But at this time her views were seen as extreme, particularly the idea of linking political rights, women’s role as workers and their lives as wives and mothers.
For twenty years Ada was active but, as the suffrage movement fractured with the beginning of the First World War, she withdrew from politics. Like many socialists she may have been depressed by outbreak of the war and the way in which it split the left.
This is a fascinating book on many levels. The fact that it is written by her daughter who reflects on her relationship with Ada and the difficulties involved in trying to tell the story of one’s mother. Because she is her daughter we get a glimpse into the relationship between Ada and her husband and the particular problems faced by women who try to balance their life of politics with a family life. One of the saddest aspects of the book is that Ada did write her own biography but because it was rejected by a publisher she burnt it. Luckily her daughter has produced a book that gives Ada Nield Chew her place in women’s history, sadly the book has not been republished since 1982. You may be able to buy it from
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