This is a unique novel; how many are written by female trade union activists about the history of women’s roles in trade unions and the struggle for equality at work?
The Caseroom is set during a dynamic period of women’s organising; 1891-1910. Iza Ross is a thirteen year old girl who, against all odds, is taken on as an apprentice compositor in the Edinburgh print industry. The opposition to women working in the print industry is spelled out by her older brother Rab who stops her one morning as she leaves for work. “Ah’m a man at the frame, doing a man’s work. And you? You mean to be a frock at the frame? Better you’d never been born.”
Rab and the other printers oppose the use by their employers of women as cheap labour. As a female apprentice Iza gets only three years training, unlike the men who get five years, while she is paid only half their wages. Employers are exploiting women but the men – instead of bringing women into the union and fighting for equality for all – try to exclude women from the workplace.
This is a theme running through the history of the trade union movement during this period and this is why, for example, in the northwest of England we see the creation of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council in 1895.
Iza is a feisty girl and, bolstered by her father who was blacklisted after the print strikes in the 1870s, she steps up to the challenge of becoming a skilled worker and against all the odds (which personally and politically are high) she continues to work through pregnancy and marriage.
In this well researched book Kate recreates the highly militant era of the 1890s in Edinburgh. Iza becomes involved with an activist Roddy Mac who takes her to a meeting with the real life trade unionist and socialist James Connolly. Connolly, noticing that Iza is becoming bored with their conversation, asks her about her life. She explains how the male Typographical Union will not allow women compositors to join, but he reminds her of the importance of being in a union. “There’s much wrong in this world, the thing is to make it right, and to make it right working folk must be organised.”
Iza then decides that she will join the unskilled workers union, The Warehousemen and Cutters Union. Running through the book is the poverty existence of Iza, her family and community. Her father is disabled and each week, alongside her siblings, Iza must handover her earnings. And as a girl she is expected to make meals, and be available to care for her parents and younger brother.
But times are changing, if slowly, for women. Iza is one of 800 women compositors in an industry that dominates Edinburgh. Iza’s friend Margaret, also a compositor, will not go along with being forced to join the unskilled workers union and becomes involved with the campaign to set up a women’s section of the Typographical Union, the “We Women” movement to oppose the men. Margaret writes a letter to Iza saying “Amelia McLean, a compositor at Skinners, reported that 300 women had joined the We Women movement, set up with the aim of keeping the trade open to women and that they planned to set up a union of Edinburgh women compositors, readers and monotype operators.” Margaret urges Iza to sign the We Women statement; “Have you seen it? You must.”
Kate Hunter’s grandmother was a compositor, when it was really unusual for a woman at that time, the Victorian era, to get into the highly skilled trade of hand setting, and that inspired her to write this novel. It is impeccably researched and took her seven years! It is much more than one woman’s story of her life; it is an important history of how poor women did change their lives, and in that period led the way for other women to challenge out-dated stereotypes about women’s role at work and in the family.
I loved this novel because it is so unusual to find novels or history books about women in trade unions. This period of history, 1890s- 1910, was a dynamic time for women organising as I found out when researching the MSWTUC. In that archive there are many fantastic stories of individual women that would make great novels just like Iza’s story in The Caseroom. We need these histories and these novels to inspire women today as we face major attacks on our lives at work, at home and in the world.
The Caseroom costs £9.99 buy it here