In the introduction to this wide ranging history of women’s activism Paula stresses that it is an “Introduction to the variety of women’s engagement, not a comprehensive study”. Nevertheless in 300 pages covering 100 years she has packed in some of the most important history of women’s activity.
She shows how women are not one uniform group and are often divided by class, sex, age, ethnicity etc. In this book Paula reflects on the how and why women get involved in activity, and notes that very often that history has been marginalised or excluded from mainstream histories.
In the chapter 1900 to 1914 Paula gives an important account of the campaigns that were taken up by a group of women activists to improve the lives of working class women.
She introduces Anglo Indian journalist Olive Malvery and Scottish trade unionist Mary Macarthur who took up the case of some of the most exploited women workers – those who worked at home – and decided to organise an exhibition to show their conditions of work and call for change.
But missing from this account is the involvement of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council , which was a key organisation in organising working class women across the northwest and which had an influence nationally in effecting legislation.
The MSWTUC was created in 1895 by local philanthropists, including CP Scott of the Manchester Guardian, but it was its organising secretaries that were at the heart of its success.
Mrs. Olive Aldridge, the organising secretary of the MSWTUC, was on the organising committee for both the London and Manchester Sweated Industries exhibitions. Her experience, and that of the other women activists in the MSWTUC over the years, would have been crucial to the organisers of the exhibitions.
Equal pay for women was (and still is!) a key demand for working women. The 1960s saw a renewed demand for equality and working class women pushing their trade unions and a Labour Government to bring in legislation.
Barbara Castle was unique in being a female Cabinet member and Minister for Labour – and she herself had equal pay! I disagree with Paula’s version of Barbara’s commitment to equal pay for other women. She was not keen on other women getting equality at work.
When in 1968 the women workers brought production at their car factory in Dagenham to a halt by their strike action for equality Barbara stepped in, not to support their equal pay claim, instead she persuaded them to return to work on the basis of 92% of the men’s rate. It took the women another 16 years for them to win their regrading claim.
An Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 but did not come into force until 1975. The Act had many loopholes which led to employers finding plenty of opportunities to evade the legislation.
One of the most successful equal pay strikes, not mentioned in this book, was the Trico strike in Brentford, West London in 1976. It was a community based strike one which united a workforce that was multi racial, including the Irish, Afro- Caribbean, Indian, Spanish, Maltese and French.
The women not only won equal pay, they also exposed the unfairness of the new Equal Pay Act which was about decreasing pay levels rather than raising up women’s pay, and showed that a community-based strike with strong trade union support could defeat an American multinational company.
Striker and Publicity Officer Sally Groves summed up their success: “The Trico women’s strike has an important place in history: the strikers were remarkable role models in the struggle for equality, and understood the importance of building alliances of solidarity and inclusiveness.”
In 2022 TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady summed up how backward women have gone in terms of equal pay : “It’s shocking that working women still don’t have pay parity. At current rates of progress, it will take nearly 30 more years to close the gender pay gap.” More shocking is that the trade union movement has failed its women members in not taking the issue seriously.
In the introduction to this book Paula thanks Clare Short, a former Labour MP and Minister, for her support in producing the book. She represented one of the biggest Irish communities in Britain for thirty years so it is surprising therefore that Paula fails to include any analysis of the way in which the history of the relationship between Britain and Ireland has shaped politics in this country.
Clare Short would not have been elected in 1983 without a growing anger in Irish communities such as Birmingham against the anti-Irish racism they experienced and state sponsored discrimination such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act passed by a Labour Government in 1974 and which in 1988 Clare voted against its renewal.
The civil rights movement in the North of Ireland led to the election for Mid Ulster of 21 year old university student Bernadette Devlin in 1969. She was Britain’s youngest MP, but most importantly she brought the demands for a united and socialist Ireland right into the heart of British politics. For Irish families such as mine she was an inspiring figure, a reflection of the continuing history of struggle by the Irish to achieve a united Ireland.
Today she is still inspiring and a woman who has dedicated her life (and nearly lost it) to her political activity. Sadly, she is not included in this book.
For those of us who were activists from the 1980s onwards in Irish politics – both here and in Ireland – it is our community, not Labour MPs such as Mo Mowlem who were the main players in campaigning for a peaceful resolution in Ireland.
Whilst many history books, including this one, fail to include the Irish there have been in recent years more histories of the black and ethnic communities been published. In this book we find out about how women from the Caribbean came to England to work in everything from clerical jobs to retreading tyres.
The descendants of these women went onto set up their own organisations to combat the racism and discrimination they faced as Black and Asian women.
Paula tells the stories of how these women organised at national conferences, in demonstrations against police brutality and on picket lines. Just like the Irish, it was important for these women to organise autonomously, but this history does not show how Black and Asian women found common cause with Irish women (and men) in campaigning on issues from equality at work to police brutality and deaths in police custody.
I read Women’s Activism in Twentieth Century Britain as an activist who believes strongly in telling my history – and that of my community – and as a socialist, feminist and trade unionist. It is an ambitious book which sometimes made me feel overwhelmed with the inclusion of so much history.
Today we seem to be living in a social media dominated world where we all live in a “yesterday and today” moment. So looking backwards and trying to make the connection with our past –particularly successful campaigns – is crucial if we are to create a more equal and just society. This is so important – as is this book – as Paula concludes “ Without new research and these fresh interpretations, there is a real danger that history itself –not just the people in the past –will perish.”
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