Over the last few months we have seen a revival in grassroots trade union activity, much of it by working class women. From the Kinsley Cleaners in Wakefield to the Teaching Assistants in Derby and Durham – women working in some of the low paid and undervalued jobs in our communities. These women are walking in the footsteps of past female (and male) activists whose history is often marginalised and absent, even from trade union histories.
Ruth and Eddie Frow were activists and historians and recognised the importance of recording the histories of their comrades and their organisations – and that is why they set up the Working Class Movement Library. One of their comrades was Angela Tuckett, who wrote up the history of her aunt, the formidable socialist (and much more) Enid Stacy, but never got the manuscript published. This year the WCML have taken that manuscript and published it; “Our Enid The Life and Work of Enid Stacy 1868-1903”.
Enid Stacy lived in exciting times; a revolutionary time for women as the campaign for the vote exploded on our streets and ideas of socialism were seen as the way forward for ordinary women and men. She came from a close progressive family where girls were encouraged to take part in all activities, and political discussion was an important part of family life. The Stacy family lived in Bristol which was a hive of political and cultural activity reflecting the growing discontent about the suffering of poor people which brought together a mixed bag of activists from secularists to socialists of all religious backgrounds.
From an early age Enid was concerned with the lives of poor women, but she believed that it was only through socialism that women would be able to live free and independent lives, later commenting that she had “entered the Socialist Party in the belief that the women’s movement was only properly taken up by them” by which she meant socialists. Over the years Enid’s dedication to socialism fired her political activity and at the age of 22 she became the Honorary Secretary of the Association for the Promotion of Trade Unionism Amongst Women in Bristol. But she paid a price for her politics and she was deprived of teaching work at a time when she was the main wage earner for her family.
By 1893 she was attending the founding meeting of the Independent Labour Party. She was also addressing a familiar question even today in the C21st on how politics affects the personal relationships of activists and how socialism should be about making life better for all. She believed that women and men should be equal participants in the struggle and “not for each father to guard and fight for his own little flock against the fathers of other little flocks but for all workers to stand together, women equally with men”. Enid believed that gaining the vote for women was crucial, but only as part of wider changes in society and the achievement of a truly democratic society.
Over an incredible, but short life, Enid had a packed schedule of meetings and lectures which took her across the UK, as well as to the USA. This did not stop her marrying and having a child, although she had doubts about maintaining her independence and even asked close friend Bernard Shaw as to his views on the matter.
Edith went onto to become one of the most popular speakers for the Labour movement, no doubt because of her own practical experience in struggles, as well as her belief in the importance of socialism and the need for an Independent Labour Party. But it was a role that led Enid to be verbally and physically attacked. One of the worst occasions was when she was in Liverpool in 1895 where there was mass unemployment and hunger and the police intervened to stop speakers addressing the crowd. They didn’t stop Enid, though, she got on a tramcar and continued her speech.
This is a fascinating biography , not just because of a relative’s affection for her aunt but because it is written by a comrade – someone who understands and respects the life of an activist. Angela was lucky, not just because she could speak to people who knew Enid, but because she had access to her pocket diaries and letters from the early 1890s that form such an important part of Enid’s life story.
Enid Stacy was a formidable woman. She never sought national offices in organisations nor wrote any books, although she did produce pamphlets on war and peace, socialism, education and women’s rights. She was of her era – speaking at thousands of meetings and promoting a message of hope through socialism. As Angela comments; “But Enid also won what she valued more than the acclaim of national leaders; the personal affection and trust of countless working people who regarded her as one of their own for helping them to enrich their lives.”
Buy it here