In 2017 it feels like the word hope has left the political vocabulary. Politics today seems to be all about trying to hang on to our jobs and our public services. It feels as if we are all in the gutter, not looking at the stars.
In 1925 things were not much better, particularly for women. After the end of the First World War female membership in trade unions declined, and continued to do so throughout the 1920s and 1930s, while unemployment rose and wages fell. Cheap female labour was used by employers to displace men while the trade union movement struggled to attract women because it failed to address their particular needs as workers, carers and citizens.
Many people in the UK looked to the new society being created in the Soviet Union as a blueprint for a better world. In April 1925 a group of British women trade unionists set off on a four month fact-finding visit to the Soviet Union on behalf of the TUC. Mary Quaile chaired the delegation, reflecting her national status in the trade union movement. When Margaret Bonfield was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Labour in January 1924 in the first Labour Government, Mary had taken her place on the General Council of the TUC.
The women’s delegation took place because it was felt that, although a delegation of trade unionists had visited the Soviet Union the previous year, “the delegation had not included women, who it might be urged would be quick to appreciate conditions affecting the work, health and general conditions of women and children in Russia.”
The delegation was made up of four women. In addition to Mary, there was Mrs. A. Bridge, an organiser in the National Union of Printing,Bookbinding and Paper Workers; Miss Annie Loughlin, an organiser in the Tailor and Garment Workers Union; and Miss L. A. Aspinall, an organiser in the Weavers, Winders and Reelers Association. The delegation also included a stenographer, Miss Kay Purcell, and an interpreter, Mrs. Z. Coates. It is hard to imagine today how mindblowing it must have been for these working class women to visit the Soviet Union in an era when foreign travel was usually confined to the middle-class. Just looking at this photo of them leaving shows how excited and happy they look.
The delegation started out in Moscow, and then travelled across the country to Leningrad, Kharkov, the Crimea, Balaclava, Sebastopol, Rostov-on-Don, Kislovodsk, Grozny, Baku,Tiflis, Borzhom, Abas-Timan and Vladikavkaz. They countered criticism that they were being manipulated by the Soviet authorities by stating; “Whilst the local trade union and Soviet Authorities made suggestions, it was the delegation itself who decided where they should go, and what they should see, the authorities always providing all the necessary facilities.”
It was not just the geographical breadth of the women’s tour that was wide ranging, but the subjects they investigated: factory workshops, social insurance, social issues, national minorities, textile industry, women in industry and other topics. The printed report has some wonderful pictures, not just of factories but of a Tartar Mosque in Georgia, a workers’ rest home in the Caucasus, and peasants at a Peasant Congress.
The women delegates were all women who regularly visited local mills and factories in Britain and so were able to comment as experts on the working conditions they saw in the Soviet Union. This is evident in the chapter on the Textile Industry where they looked at the way in which the work was organised compared to British mills, and noticed how much better the working conditions were.
In one of the garment factories they visited they commented that it was run on American lines because of an arrangement between the Russian Garment Makers Trade Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, who supplied them with new machinery. The delegates were able to speak to these workers more freely because they were Americans who had come over in 1920.
The Soviet Union was committed in theory to the equality of the sexes, but as the country embarked on the New Economic Policy, which reintroduced a measure of privately run business, women were losing their jobs and being relegated to low skill work. The delegates reported that this was being countered by allowing women to work in previously prohibited work, including night work, and by raising the education level of women.
And, whilst in both Britain and the Soviet Union there were debates about how women were going to achieve equality, in the chapter on “The Family in Soviet Russia” the answer was clear: provide communal resources such as public dining rooms and access to social clubs with childcare facilities. They also report on the position of unmarried women with children, marriage and divorce, as well as the mutual rights and duties of parents and children. These were policies well ahead of British attitudes and legislation in the 1920s.
Unusual for any delegation at that time was the inclusion of an analysis of organisations specifically for children. The delegates spoke to children in the Young Pioneers, an organisation for children of 11-16 years – comparing with the more militarised British Scout Movement – and could actually speak and report verbatim the views of one of the children.
In 2017 we could and should be sceptical about the rosy views painted by the delegates in this report. But the delegates have no qualms about this as they state in the conclusion that they thought there was enough negative reporting of the Soviet Union, and that they “have emphasised the good because the bad is entirely an inheritance of the past; the good is the work of the present and an earnest hope of the future” and that “no honest observer of present-day Soviet Russia can doubt for one moment that a great and sincere experiment in working class government is being carried out in Russia.”
You can read the report at the WCML see