What does International Women’s Day mean in 2015? It seems like everyone from the banks to Radio Three can celebrate a day that is now largely devoid of its socialist feminist roots. But for me IWD should be a day to remember those women who can inspire us to change society. Maud Brown is one of those women, who led the women’s hunger marches in the 1930s.
Today the major issue for many women is the effect of the austerity. The attack by this government on our lives. The growing levels of poverty and discrimination. The zero hours contracts, the food banks, the closing down of our Welfare State. Across the country women and men are getting together to oppose and challenge the austerity but it is noticeable that there is no single national organisation that exists to represent the unemployed. In the 1920s the National Unemployed Workers Movement was created by the Communist Party to ensure that workers would not be blamed for the recession.
The National Unemployed Workers’ Movement was formed on 15 April 1921 as, after a short boom immediately after the end of the war, unemployment soared to more than two million with many ex-soldiers were out of work. It’s slogan was “Full Work or Full Maintenance at Trade Union Rates”.
At the NUWM conference in 1929 Mrs Youle from Sheffield successfuly moved that all branches with more than 20 women members should establish women’s sections and that a national women’s department should be established. (A previous attempt to set up women’s section in 1926 had been rejected). This led to the appointment of Maud Brown as national women’s organiser.
Maud came from a working-class family in North London and had worked as post office sorter. She was active in the Labour party in Tottenham in the mid 1920s and had started volunteering at the NUWM offices in London in the late 1920s. Unlike most other leading members of the NUWM, Maud was not a member of the Communist party. She was apparently unpaid for her work.
Maud Brown and other women worked hard to recruit women into the NUWM, holding meetings outside labour exchanges, for instance, and built up sizeable women’s sections, especially in the north where large numbers of women, single and married, were attending the exchanges.
A minority Labour Government was elected in 1929 with a female Labour MInister, Margaret Bonfield, but they were not sympathetic to the unemployed. No change there!
An added impulse to organising was given by Margaret Bondfield in November 1930 when she told the House of commons that young women must accept “suitable offers” of work as domestic servants. This meant that women who had been cotton operatives on 35 shillings per week were expected to take domestic and canteen work on much lower rates ie 10s and have to move away from home.
At the NUWM conference in Bradford in February 1931 Maud Brown moved a motion on “The Task Amongst Unemployed Women” which called for proper facilities at labour exchanges for unemployed women and for crèches for women who were looking for work. It also called for equal benefits and equal pay for women as well as improved maternity and child welfare services.
Hunger marches became an important aspect of the work of the NUUW. Protesting about the injustices facing unemployed people and the particular issues facing women were taken by with women only marches.
In October 1932 the fourth national march took place with for the first time a women’s contingent numbering about forty, mostly cotton weavers aged from 16 to 62, which started from Burnley on 9th October. Contingents walked to London from Scotland, Wales and the north, numbering about 1,500.
The march had little support from the Labour party or trade union movement.Their route south took them to Todmorden, Halifax, Huddersfield, Barnsley, Rotherham, Worksop, Alfreton, Derby, Burton-on-Trent, Coalville, Hinckley, Rugby, Northampton, Wolverton, Dunstable, St Albans and London, which they planned to reach on 27th October.
They included Maggie Nelson, a weaver from Blackburn, who was remembered by Marion Henery one of the Scottish marchers, as a “very strong personality” who was very successful at addressing street meetings. She “made an appeal to them, won their hearts and got great collections”. Maggie acted a postwoman for the contingent, picking up their letters on the way. She was separated from her husband and left her three children with friends whilst on this march. The march was led by Maud Brown and Lily Webb. They chanted slogans such as;
Work Work work
We Want work
And an end to the means test
The response to them varied with some places greeting them as heroes, welcoming to the town, organising public meetings but other areas, even trade union organisations , ignored their presence.
Throughout the 30s the women alongside the men took part in many demonstrations and by February 1933 the NUWM claimed to have 1000,000 members organised in 349 branches. There were 34 women’s sections.
The organising core were almost entirely members of the Communist party. Inevitably there was a high turnover of membership as people found work or moved to other areas. In some areas the NUWM did build a solid organisation with their own premises which acted as both organising bases and social centres.
There were further national marches in 1934 and 1936 with women contingents on both of them.
After 1936 the NUWM declined from a mass movement to pressure group as unemployment starting to fall as Britain re-armed while the Communist Party became involved in the opposition to fascism at home and abroad. The NUWM was wound up after the end of the war as there was little unemployment with the economy growing.
Maud Brown did not write any memoirs and seems to have left politics. At her 80th birthday, in August 1968, Hilda Vernon said that she organised the women’s contingents, “With a stern sense of duty, a kind heart and a sense of humour”.
In March 1975 Maud wrote a short article for Labour Monthly accompanied by some photographs from her archive. She said “Those women who are young now must not fail to remember that what has been won has to be kept. During this International Women’s Day Year, our old struggles should be kept constantly before all women.”
Wal Hannington, Unemployed Struggles 1921 to 1936 (1936)
Richard Croucher, We Refuse to Starve in Silence, A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (1987)