“Pawky comments” in Downing Street: the March of the Women on 11th March 1928

In March 1928  working-class women marched   in  Scotland and London, organised by the Communist Party of Great Britain.  This  is a forgotten event. I only know of  it because the Working Class Movement Library has a copy of the pamphlet The March of the Women which I came across  in the course of research for my course at the library on Radical Women.

In the introduction Beth Turner, the Communist Party’s  National Women’s Organiser,  writes:

“International Womens Day, 1928, stands out as a landmark in the history of British working women.

For the first time in their lives, many women  broke away from the traditions that in the past had chained them in silent submissive slavery to the factory or the drudgery  of poverty-stricken homes, and came out in the streets to protest against the infamous conditions inflicted on them and their children by British capitalism.

Three hundred of them travelled from Yorkshire, Lancashire, Notts, Durham and South Wales under conditions of extreme discomfort, and at the cost of tremendous sacrifice  in order to register that protest in London – the heart of the Empire and the seat of the capitalist government.

Real working-class unity and a living spirit of comradeship were exhibited by the London women, who had worked for three weeks beforehand, preparing a welcome for women they had never seen before, raising money for food and to assist with fares, opening their homes and their hearts to strange women for the simple reason  that they were fellow working women, engaged in the same grim struggle as themselves against the capitalist class.

This  was comradeship made real,   and unity of the working-class no longer a mere slogan but a living, warm and human thing.

No  wonder that the women from the provinces were overcome by the welcome they received. Some of them had been waging a bitter struggle almost alone in stark mining villages among the black hills, or in the hard life of the textile areas. In London they found themselves surrounded by a circle of friends, admired and encouraged, marching with light hearts to the music  of bands – no longer individuals battling alone, but honourable members of the great army of workers marching towards the emancipation of the toilers of the earth.

It is fitting that a souvenir of such an event should be in existence, and this is one of the reasons why this little booklet is published. It is also necessary  that an event of such historical importance as International Women’s Day, 1928, and the details of its organisation should be placed on record as a guide.

It was a genuine movement of the rank women members of the Labour Party, Co-operative Guilds, and even unorganised women towards class unity under the leadership of the Communist Party.  Leaders of the official Labour movement tried to sabotage  the demonstration , either by ignoring it, or, as was done by the “Daily Herald,”  definitely attempting to prevent knowledge of it reaching the masses of women by refusing paid advertisements of conferences called for the purpose of organising  the demonstration.

In spite of sabotage, the demonstration was an enormous success, and this little booklet, with its pictures, will help to fasten in the minds of the women  who took part in it, the memory of that wonderful  day.

In Scotland, too,  although a regular blizzard was blowing and the snow lay a foot deep on the roads, while in Glasgow the magistrates   had banned the demonstration, the women  turned up in amazing large numbers – marching or coming up by ‘bus from all the outlying villages into Glasgow, Bothwell, Lochgelly, Stirling and Camelon where the meetings were held.

Speakers from every quarter testify to the enthusiasm, determination and fighting spirit which characterised the day’s proceedings both in England and Scotland.

It is a tribute to the sagacity and clear-sightedness of the Communist Party and to its organising ability that it is the first party in Britain to give organised expression to the desire of working women for class-conscious participation in the battles of their class, testifying to its declaration that only under the banner of the Communist Party can working class emancipation be achieved.”

So this Is London

“On Sunday morning, March 11th, 1928, a party of women were walking along Whitehall. They spoke with a Yorkshire accent, and passed pawky comments  on the things they saw.

One young woman broke away from the party at Downing Street, and gave a resounding knock on the door of Mr Baldwin at No .10. She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘It was just to let him know we’re here,’ she explained.

Soon all London knew ‘they were here.’  They had been pouring  into the grey stations of the metropolis from four and  six o’clock in the morning.  At six London’s quiet squares were startled by the sound of laughter and singing and the clatter of clogs on the pavement. …Bonny young girls in clogs and shawls…From the factory, from the wash-tub, from the little homes in smoky towns, kept clean only with the most persistent labour, these women invaded London, determined to let Baldwin and the class he represents ‘know they were here’.”

5000 people rallied in Trafalgar Square, despite the bad weather.

“Red, red, red, wherever the eye rested – banners, posters, slogans, kerchiefs, rosettes, streamers, tableaux. Millgirls from Lancashire, chatted with miners’ wives from South Wales; Mansfield women warned Durham representatives what non-political unionism means in practice; Bradford textile workers talked to engineers’ wives from the Midlands.”

The meeting was opened by Kath Duncan in the name of the Communist Party.  Other speakers were Mrs. Hargreaves (a textile workers from Burnley), Mrs. Maddox (Co-operative Guild), Mrs. Toombs (a Co-operator from Bradford), Mrs. Lawther (a miner’s wife from Durham),  Mrs. Armer (a miner’s wife from Nottingham), Elsie Wright  (Young Communist League) Mrs. Campbell (Labour League of Ex-Servicemen),  Mr. A J Cook (Miners Federation), Mrs. Nally (a miner’s wife from Nottingham), Marjorie Pollitt,  Mr. J R Campbell and Beth Turner.

A tremendous welcome was given to Hanna Ludewig who brought greetings from the women of Germany.  The meeting finished by singing the “Internationale.”

Afterwards the women from the north   were entertained by the London Committee in Bethnal Green Town Hall with food,  and singing from Ruby Boughton.



Documents from British Feminism 2 : The Socialist-Feminist current

A Short History of the Socialist Current Within The British Women’s Liberation Movement,  Scarlet Women, July 1977

Note : we were asked to write this paper at short notice. It is based upon a combination of the papers we have collected over the years plus memories of conferences we attended. Inevitably, therefore, it is by no means a complete history. We do think, however, that the events and conflicts which we outline here do reflect in general, the development of the Socialist-feminist current within the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The late 60s saw the emergence of the Women’s Movement in Britain. In 1969 in London the Women’s Liberation Workshop established itself, developing consciousness raising groups and attempting to articulate and understand the ways in which women felt themselves to be oppressed and exploited. In the same year, a group of socialist women active in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign started producing a journal called “Socialist Woman”, whose aims were both to impress on the left the importance of the “Woman Question” – to publicise the struggles of women in Britain and internationally and to try to develop a socialist analysis of women’s oppression it was to be distributed through the newly formed Socialist Woman Groups.

The first Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Oxford in 1970. It was felt that the movement had already grown sufficiently to need a national structure in order to co-ordinate the increasingly diverse activities of women’s groups around the country. Women in left groups saw this as an opportunity to influence the political development of the Women’s Liberation Movement and managed to dominate the National Committee. This Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee formulated four demands which were adopted by the Women’s Liberation Movement –   equal pay, equal educational and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and 24  hour nurseries for all under 5’s. However the Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee degenerated into sectarian squabbling between the different left factions represented and was disbanded by the Skegness Women’s Liberation Conference in 1971. It left behind  a great deal of hostility among feminists towards socialist women and a deep distrust of structures and methods of structures and methods of organising which were associated with the male left.  Instead the small, relatively unstructured consciousness-raising group was taken to the model for structure and organisation in the Women’s Liberation Movement.

A series of Women’s Liberation and Socialism Conferences were planned. Four conferences took place: London, September 1973 on Autonomy or Separatism?; Oxford, March 1974 on the four demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement; Birmingham, September 1974 on Women in the Family; and London, March 1975 on “Perspectives on the Women’s Movement”. There was also at least one day conference organised – on the Working Women’s Charter, Leeds, November 1974 – and probably others. “Red Flag” a journal for socialist feminist women was also started in 1972.


Manchester Socialist Feminist Conference, composited workshop report  Scarlet Women, April 1978

Dear Sisters, hereby enclosed the promised report. On second reading it still seems to have many rough edges, but I thought it preferable to send it as read, rather than to take it on myself to edit and modify. However, do feel free to polish up where you feel it necessary. Incidentally, I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning that this report got written under circumstances reflecting all too accurately the “tyranny of structurelessness”. (I didn’t mention because of injunctions against being “negative”). Of the women delegates to report on their workshops most did in fact turn up to the Reporters’ Meeting, but were rapidly driven away by cold, hunger, fatigue and impatience. This left a small nucleus of 6 women, self-selected, not delegated, to discuss the final report, of whom two actually drafted a report, purporting to represent 700 off women! Hopefully it turned out OK and not too skewed by our personal recollections and opinions – but even so the problem of who “takes responsibility” – and why – remain unsolved, as does that of accountability.

Yours in sisterhood, Ruth Butler.

Report on Day 1 , Socialist Feminist Conference, January 28th 1978.

With the proviso that summary report tend to gloss over those very nuances and dynamics of discussion which make or break the experience of participating in a workshop, we hope that the following  will convey some idea of the themes raised and the feelings and ideas expressed.

Composition of the workshop

The encouragingly  large numbers of women who participated in the workshops – about 1000 – represented a broad spectrum of groups and activities, including the following:

Women  from socialist feminist groups, Women’s Aid, NAC, WARF, WWC, Women in Ireland, and various collectives such as Scarlet Women and Newsreel; women from CR groups, Lesbian Left, Women’s Voice, Women’s Action groups; women involved in community politics, trade unions and manual trades;  women new to the movement, women who have been out of touch for a couple of years and women who presently active; women aligned in left groups – CP, IMG, SWP, Big Flame, RCG, ICL, Workers’ Power, CPB (ML).

There was a sprinkling of international representatives, including groups of Latin American and Iranian women.

And probably lots more besides, whom we have unwittingly left out.


We shall try to summarise the discussions held in workshops held in the workshops according to the general headings suggested by the organisers.

  1. Common concerns in socialist feminist action.

Since there is not yet a coherent and cohesive socialist feminist network, many women who identify themselves as socialist feminist and who came to the conference are active in various campaigns and/or left groups. In discussing our participation in such activities several common themes and issues seemed to emerge.

Several women raised problems flowing from conflicts between self-definitions as socialist feminist and the need to work within the system, when, for example, applying for grants. Women’s Aid was cited in this respect, with women expressing the conflict between making clear statements of principle and intent, or playing these down in order to obtain badly needed women’s refuges. In the same context  women discussed the implications of parliamentary lobbying, an issue of especial relevance to NAC women.

Another theme evolved from discussion pertaining to working on campaigns jointly with other groups. There was a feeling that women’s groups could contribute to the development of more varied  and flexible tactics for political action. For example, in several groups women from WARF talked about the need to develop further alternatives to direct physical confrontation both as means of reaching more people and as an expression of wariness of what were seen as male tactics of violence as a major form of expression. However, it seems to have been generally accepted    that in some situations direct confrontations are necessary, and that greater emphasis    on self defence for women would equip us to cope better with such confrontations as Grunwick and Lewisham.

During discussions about the need to develop a socialist feminist strategy for action,  several groups talked about the need to broaden the age, class and race bases of involved women. Particularly emphasis was placed on the potential of working within local community issues such as nurseries, schools, hospitals, tenants’ associations and so on.

From their perspective of working in various campaigns, several women voiced the need to formulate guidelines for actions compatible with a socialist feminist perspective. One knotty example discussed was the rape issue, where a common feminist demand for stiffer sentencing is not an easy one for socialist feminists to support unambiguously. A parallel issue with Women’s Aid was expressed as the need to develop alternatives to the nuclear family rather than merely providing short term solutions for immediate problems. Another issue to emerge from discussion on Rape was the problem of, for example, having Reclaim the Night marches through predominantly black areas. During such discussions it was suggested that socialist feminists could make a creative contribution by conceptualising additional levels of linkage between superficially disparate campaigns.

Finally, many women seemed to suffer from chronic over-extension. Socialist feminists have been defined as women who go to twice as many meetings as anyone else. Whether true or not, all groups seemed to touch on the thorny questions of how and where to channel energy so as to be the most effective as socialist feminists.

Obviously, such a sparse summary cannot but fail to do justice to the depth and texture of the thoughts, doubts and aims that emerged in discussing these issues. However, two general conclusions did emerge. On the level of practice, the vital need for more communication and mutual support among socialist feminists was repeatedly voiced – indeed many women cited this as their main reason for coming to the conference. The lack of such  close communications was felt specifically at a geographical  level   – for example by Scottish women from NAC who felt that their specific needs had been largely ignored  by the national campaign , and by Irish women feeling inadequate solidarity  with them in their struggles. In general, many women felt the need for more contact between socialist feminist women working in different campaigns.  While no resolutions on the matter were suggested, the general desire for a co-ordinating network which, despite, our fears of organisations, would function to provide contact and support for socialist feminists was clear. Some specific suggestions in this direction included the publication of a separate newsletter and/or magazine devoted to the socialist feminist tendency.

Secondly, there were repeated calls for a long-term socialist  strategy  and theory which would provide us with an overall perspective; and a framework with which to organise, initiate and co-ordinated socialist feminist activities. This could help us not only to clarify our ideas and stands, but also to address ourselves in a more forceful  and effective way to immediate issues ranging from Northern Ireland to the Cuts.

 2. Socialist feminist and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The second main topic on the agenda was the relationship of socialist feminists to the WLM. Interestingly enough, this question seemed to have received scant attention in most groups. We discussed the growing need to define ourselves  as an independent tendency within the women’s movements without encouraging sectarianism or splits. While there was some discussion around this issue, the general feeling seemed to be that spits in the movement should be avoided if possible, though not at the expense of glossing over theoretical and tactical differences. It was suggested that maybe the women’s movement as a whole needs to work further on the dilemma of combining different tendencies  while still presenting some kind of united outward front. It was felt to be particularly important for socialist feminists to work on coming over clear and intelligible to other feminists. Thus we should work to bring  an awareness of socialism into the WLM without fostering distrust. At the same time we should not fall into the trap of denying the solid contributions to be made by other groups within the WLM. The problems of overcoming what was felt to be the essentially elitist nature of the WLM was also raised in this context.

Finally, many women reiterated the personal satisfaction they derived from participating in the WLM.

  1. Socialist feminists and the organised left.

In contrast,  most women reported a high level of interest and involvement on our relationship to the Left. Our difficulties in relating to the Left seem to be three-fold. Most women criticized Left groups for their failure to integrate an inadequate understanding of the implications of analysis of patriarchy for developing a revolutionary perspective. Much resentment was expressed at being point 5, or sometimes 6, in most revolutionary programmes. Such an attitude seemed to many women to relegate the theoretical importance of subjects raised by the Women’s Movement  – such as the role of the family in perpetuating patriarchal and capitalist structures – to a mere question of “women’s issues”.

In addition, many women voiced anger at having so often to encounter sexist attitudes and behaviour among men who consider themselves socialists. The analogy was drawn with racism – it is hard to imagine  a man with overtly racist attitudes being tolerated in any Left group, whereas sexist men are.  Thus much of our work within Left groups on the levels of both theory and practice is reduced to a harrowing struggle with fellow members. It was mentioned that men on the Left are at least  “no worse”  than other men; but the expectation that they should rather be considerably better seems most valid. Linked with this problem is our awareness that the power structures against which we struggle as women tend to be replicated within many Left groups.

Finally, women expressed much anger at the often opportunistic attitude of Left groups to feminist issues and campaigns.

There were definite differences in the strength with which different women voiced criticism of this nature, and in the conclusions drawn from them. Some women, mainly those present in the aligned Left, felt that activity meaningful from a socialist feminist  perspective was possible, and indeed occurring, within Left groups. While aware of the need for further development, they were appreciative of the changes already wrought by feminists within the Left. On the other hand, some women felt the attitudes of many members of the aligned Left to be so alienating that they could not work productively within these frameworks. Some criticism of the women members of the aligned Left were also voiced. Some women felt that many of these women tended to internalise what they saw as the false dichotomy of the organised Left between feminism and socialism. Such dichotomy was seen to differentiate between the “real, gut” problems of socialism and the “secondary” ones of socialism. In addition, some women felt that the presence of aligned women with clearly articulated programmes may sometimes stifle attempts to formulate an independent socialist feminist perspective.

While such differences exist and need to be analysed further, most groups resorted a strong tendency to reaffirm the need for socialist feminists to work  on developing  a theoretical perspective  which will reflect our own particular position  with relation  to socialism and feminism. The feeling was that such a perspective must primarily provide common ground where it is both necessary and legitimate to discuss all issues as relevant to socialist feminists. In other word, we socialist feminists must articulate our own identity through a growing and flexible set of ideas rather than a dogmatic “line”. Women seemed to feel that such an analysis should concentrate on the relations between patriarchy and capitalism, together with the relevance of each separately and both together for revolutionary theory and practice.

Secondly, the feminist realisation that the personal is political should be integrated into socialist discussion  of the nature and role of revolutionary consciousness and the forms of political practice.

Finally, the issue of structure was widely discussed. We felt that Left groups are often organised on an over-rigid hierarchical basis which could be  identified with patterns of male dominance. The WLM has always maintained a certain structurelessness as an essential part of its identity. Some women felt that this detrimental to effective work and its own way  can become tyrannical. Must we equate structure with hierarchy? Is it possible to develop  the kind of structure which fill facilitate  organisation with falling into those power and leadership patterns which we as feminists reject in Left groups.

To summarise, out of all this discussion emerged definite strategy and theory which will create and serve a socialist feminist identity in theory practice.


This conference was also reported in Spare Rib, 68, March 1978

Miles from Miles End by Ruthie Petrie

 Women still shudder at the last Women and Socialism National Conference  at Mile End, London 1976. So the Socialist Feminist Conference in Manchester loomed up with many of us feeling a mixture of guarded anticipation and anxiety. We knew it wouldn’t be a repeat performance of disunity and domination of left-wing groups, of huge open sessions in which we were engulfed by papers declaring fixed positions with no discussion. But nor did anyone feel certain that the resurgence of socialist- feminism, expressing itself through local action and/or study groups, regional meetings and educational, would allow us a wider optimism.

Overall, the concern seemed to be concerned with questions of structure and organisation at the expense of much that was new in theory and strategy. And there was no Eurekas for a new way forward. So why did most of us come away feeling optimistic and reinforced? Well, there were 1000 women and that was impressive. In Saturday’s conference we talked about what it means to define ourselves socialists and feminists, what our place within the Women’s Liberation Movement, and our relationship to the left as well as whether we wanted a national structure, and if so, what sort. On Sunday, the workshops dealt with more concrete themes and campaigns. Exchanges about hospital closures, rape, Women’s Aid, reproduction, Ireland – and much more – were amicable and constructive. Then, too, a decision was taken to hold a conference next spring, and Scarlet Women will shift away from being a socialist-feminist bulletin to becoming a discussion journal. It’ll have an enlarged contributing network through regional correspondents, a more regular schedule and be circulated through feminist outlets and shops rather than just by subscription.

Concrete activities are emerging from it too. New groups to discuss future strategy, and new socialist-feminist groups  have begun meeting. So it seemed a confirming and consolidating weekend.


Socialist Feminism by Anne Torode

Spare Rib, May 1979

When I was asked to write this article about how I saw socialist  feminism  for a discussion on tendencies in the women’s liberation movement (WLM) I  must admit to feeling a bit wary.  One reason why our movement is so vital is because we are talking and thinking about our lives, and our feminist understanding is developing as we struggle  – often painfully – with our personal circumstances. The theory and practice that is emerging that is emerging from this struggle is for real – we have never postured nor adopted ‘positions’ on finer points of theory to bolster our revolutionary self-image. Our movement will continue to grow only if we remain flexible to women’s experience. I think it would be really bad if the labels we give ourselves stop us from identifying against a common female oppression. (The labels, of course, do not refer to class differences with the WLM. As a movement we must be very clear about how class affects women’s experience of their oppression as women.)

I am aware that many sisters identify socialist feminism with traditional left politics, seeing as a liberal tendency, a watering down of feminist consciousness, an attempt by the left to define the terms of our struggle, and that the typical socialist feminist is assumed to be ‘into men’  or at the least  ‘putting her energies into men.’

For me, socialist feminism  is a redefinition  of socialist aspiration; I see it as a synthesis incorporating the feminist perspective into a socialist analysis. Socialist feminism is about the using the Marxist method of analysis to look at the how and why of female oppression, and to see how our oppression relates to class oppression. And from this, how the struggles of women relate to the struggles of the working class and to those all of the oppressed.

I do not think of socialist feminism as a liberal accommodation to male powered – ‘socialist’ is not another word for liberal. The ‘socialist’ bit does not qualify or limit feminism in any way, rather feminism informs and enriches socialism. It is certainly not another way of saying that men are oppressed too! Men are not oppressed as a sex .

The working class is oppressed, yet.  But ‘working class’ and ‘men’ are not interchangeable concepts. Men may be oppressed because they are gas, black and/or working class, but women experience these forms of oppression as well. Men have power over women and though the male sex role (again, not a term  interchangeable with ‘worker’) may distort  and cramp a man’s potential, I would not call this oppression, but merely the price they have to pay for male power.

When I first got involved with feminism in 1968, my husband and other left men used to ask how a white middle class woman who didn’t even have to work (I had two small children at the time!) could say she was oppressed – what about the Vietnamese /blacks/coalminers. But I read feminist publications, in particular the journals of the Boston women’s group, and what they were saying related directly to my experience. They were asking my own questions – why did I feel so lousy considering I was really ‘happy’, why was  my housework overlooked, why were people who produced people so undervalued compared to people  who produced things,  why was sex seen in terms of men’s needs, why did I have so little control over the birth of my baby??  These were non-questions to the left.  The men I know got so indignant at my new-found feminism that I sometimes felt that they were themselves Vietnamese, blacks or coal-miners.  All the weight of socialist authority was behind their anger. These white middle class men were presuming to define what was socialist and what was not!

But I had spent years on the left too and i was heartily sick of its dogmatic approach to revolutionary practice.  The left’s ‘class analysis’  identified the working class as those  men  working at the point of production and the class struggle  as their  struggle for higher wages. Until the Vietnamese was brought masses of people onto the streets in support of a foreign revolution, this limited view of class struggle was taken to be the be-all and end-all of the revolutionary process.

Much of the feminist stuff I read was critical of the traditional left to the extent of rejecting Marxism, but I felt why leave the definition of socialism to these left men. Marxism belongs to the oppressed – to women, the working class, the black movement. We could use it to help us understand the causes of our oppression and the nature of the system we were up against. In this way, Marxism would again become a living theory, a revolutionary guide to action.

I began thinking about oppression.  The black  power movement said that blacks were colonised by whites  in that they had internalised white racism…And weren’t we colonised by men insofar as we internalised their view of us existing to serve their needs. ? Oppressed people are reduced to object status because we are useful to  our oppressors. This was clear  in the case of blacks and the working class, but what about women? It is true that we service men in the home, but why do we  service men in the home – why were we oppressed in the first place?

As a marxist this seem to me to be a key question. I didn’t  think it was enough to describe  how we felt oppressed or even to identify how our oppression served the interests of the capitalist class. Female oppression and class oppression predate the development of the capitalist system. We had been living in a patriarchal class-divided society for thousands of years before the advent of capitalist class rule. If we restricted our analysis to the position of women today we could miss the basic horror of our situation and end up talking about sex roles instead of oppression.

The idea that men and women were both unable to express their potential because of their sex roles always worried me – it was a way of glossing over the problem. It was our job to go beyond the appearance of things, to their essence, as Marx did in analysis of the working of capital. But although he devoted books to explaining how capitalists exploited by paying them less in wages for the use of their labour power than they produced in value-profit for their employers, marxism as a method is more than a description of capitalism. It is historical method which goes right back to uncover the cause of class oppression. This was, and is, often overlooked by marxists and non-marxists alike and there was, and is, a tendency to reduce Marx’s concept of class oppression to a question of the economic exploitation of workers in capitalism.

I felt that the feminist understanding of oppression tied in with Marx’s conception and that this would enrich the limited perspective of the left. Socialist feminists  could challenge the notion that the system we were fighting was the capitalist production process, by talking about class society. It was only by going back into our history that we could uncover the root cause of our oppression and see how female oppression inter-related  with class oppression over time.

So why were we oppressed? The most illuminating book i read at this time was Briffault’s The Mothers.  According to him, what men needed from women was paternity rights in women’s children. In earliest times women and their children lived in matriarchal clans with their maternal uncles and brothers. They didn’t live in family units headed by husband/father. They were autonomous and their bodies were their own. They came under male authority only when men began to accumulate property. The creation of the father family gave men control over women’s capacity to reproduce and thus ‘legitimate’ heirs to their wealth. It was from this family system, which allowed for the private accumulation of property over generations, that class society developed. When men alienated our reproductive power, they gained control of our lives, our bodies and sexuality and our productivity. I remember fantasising about life in a matriarchal clan, imagining a system where mothers had high status and didn’t have to keep the peace with men  for the sake of the children, a system where our sexuality did not belong to men…

It was clear then that class oppression rests on our oppression and that the family, long ignored by the left as peripheral to the class structure, is in fact the basic institution of the whole system.

However, whereas I think that female oppression underpins class society, I wouldn’t agree with those feminists who explain the functioning  of the system  in terms of male power alone – nor do I think you can talk about dual systems  of oppression with economic class exploitation  running parallel  to sex class exploitation. I know that revolutionary feminists will say that we are oppressed as class, but I find this notion confusing and unnecessary. I prefer the term female oppression because it seems more powerful to me than the idea of sex class.

Female and class oppression are integrated and historically related  – the one developed out of the other for very real material reasons, not because, as I have heard argued on occasions, men developed a taste for power after they had taken control of our lives. Because our oppression is so fundamental to the system, there might be seem to be a case for suggesting that women alone can overthrow existing social relations, that all we need is a feminist revolution. To me that is not just on.

But I think people who counterpose socialism and feminism, and then say all we need is a socialist revolution, are wide off the mark too. I don’t see how socialism and  feminism can be counterposed, because I don’t think you can have a socialism which doesn’t  include the feminist perspective (though naturally, I can see why some feminists reject socialism, given the history of left attitudes to the WLM). The socialist struggle is to the struggle of all oppressed people to take back control of their lives from patriarchal class society.

Feminism is the specific interest of women of women within that struggle – an interest that ought to inform at a very basic level the way all oppressed people organise and the kind of demands they put forward. Ought to…but in practice women have to fight on two fronts – whatever else we’re involved in, we also have battle for our specific interest to be recognised. We’d all agree that the working class can’t free women, hence the autonomous women’s movement – but the class needs the power of women to free itself. We can’t free the class for we couldn’t possibly dismantle the class structure on our own, but we do need the power of the class behind our fight for liberation. Class power is the lynchpin of the revolutionary process, but not its sole element.

To be successful these struggles have to be interdependent. The depth of understanding that would be generated in the course of such a total challenge to the system would mean that we’d bring about a real socialist society where children would no longer be seen as either as the property of their family or as a potential  labour power for the bosses; where women would control their reproductive power (ie capacity to reproduce) , their bodies and their sexuality…Meanwhile back to grim reality. We have responsibility for children but little control over the conditions in which we bring them up or in which they will have to live…Campaigns which challenge male and/or maternal role are central to our struggle.

It may seem strange that anyone could possibly think that control over the conditions in which women live as mothers was a central issue for feminism. Because patriarchal class society defines and contains us as mothers and puts us down for our reproductive function, it’s easy to react by saying we should define ourselves as anything but mothers. I reckon we should say that as a sex we do have the capacity  to reproduce, that it belongs to us, not patriarchy, and we intend to fight over control , whether we as individuals have children or not.

Even thinking about mothers losing their children to men or to the state makes my blood boil. I spent two years fighting over the custody of my boys and now I only have them for the weekend. I live alone and I sometime wonder if I’d be ‘happily’ married if it wasn’t for feminism. What I do know is that I’d be lost without my sisters and the struggle. Which brings me back to the beginning. If we want to feel the power of women coming out for themselves, then our movement must be a’ home’ for women. For our own survival we need a real alternative to all the shit we’re offered now. Sisterhood is more than a revolutionary consciousness, it is our collective strength against the system, our lifeline and that’s why factionalism must never be allowed to tear us apart.















Documents from British Feminism 1. “Women: the struggle for freedom” by Sheila Rowbotham, Black Dwarf, 10 January 1969

“Women: the struggle for freedom” by Sheila Rowbotham

 This  was published in Black Dwarf,  on 10th January 1969 in an issue whose front page proclaimed 1969: The Year of the Militant Woman. (Sheila hated the cover, by the way)

Sheila was asked to join the editorial board of Black Dwarf in late 1968. As she recalls in her autobiography Promise of a Dream,  she  wrote furiously, sitting  on her stool by the gas fire  in the basement of her house in Hackney.

Our came all the  concentrated thoughts  and  impressions  which had been  unconsciously accumulating. It was the kind of article I would later recognise as one that builds up inside. In the spirit of ’68, I knew I must write not from received authorities on “women” but from my own observations and  feelings..Now all those scattered experiences could take a new shape. As the words splattered out in to pages  it felt as if I had reached a clearing. 


Surprisingly, for such an important  article in the history of British feminism, it  has never  been been published in full  in any  collection on the 1960s, So I  have typed it up.

Ok so you’ve heard it all before

Ok so you’re bored

But meanwhile

We still get less pay for the same work as you

We are still less likely to get jobs which are at all meaningful

In which we have any responsibility

We are less likely to be educated, less likely to be unionised.

The present setup of the family puts great strains on us


Either we are struggling to combine badly paid work with bringing up a family or we are unable to do work for which we’ve been trained.

The area of taboo on our sexuality is much more extensive and the double standard still pervasive.

Some women still never experience orgasm.


So what are we complaining about?

All this and something else besides

A much less tangible something – a smouldering, bewildered consciousness with no shape – a muttered dissatisfaction  – which  suddenly shoots to the surface and EXPLODES.


We went to drive buses, play football, use beer mugs not glasses. We want men to take the pill. We do not want to be brought with bottles or invited as wives. We do not want to be wrapped in cellophane or sent off to make the tea or shuffled onto the social committee.


But these are only little things

Revolutions are made about little things

Little things which happen to all the time, every day

Wherever you go, all your life.


Here the subordinated relates to dominator

Here the discontent focuses and here the experience is felt, expressed and articulated, resisted – through the particular.

The particular pummels you gently into passivity.


So we don’t know how to find each other or ourselves

We are perhaps the most divided of all oppressed groups. Divided in our real situations and in our understanding and consciousness of our condition.


We are all in different classes.


Thus we devour and use one another

Our “emancipation” has often been the struggle of the privileged to improve and consolidate its superiority – The women of the working class remain the exploited , oppressed as workers and oppressed as women.


We are with families and without them.

Hence we distrust one another.

The woman with a home and children is suspicious of the woman with no ties, seeing her as a potential threat to her territorial security.

The single woman feels the married woman is subtly critical because she is not fulfilling her “role” as homemaker,

She feels she is accused of being unable to be a woman.


They tell us what we should be.

As we grow up, especially from puberty, we are under intensive pressure to be “acceptable”  – not to put ourselves outside the safety net of marriage.

From small girls we are taught that failure means not being  selected by men  – the same of being a wallflower. The sign of intelligence and sublety is a contractual bargain as we hand over our virginity for a marriage document, a ring and the obligation of financial support. Orgasm is a matter of merchandise. And remember THEY don’t like us to be too clever. Well might she go to university but men want someone who can cook.


The emphasis in our education tends to be much more on integration, the encouragement of active criticism, of intellectual aggression is rare. The cautious virtues predominate. We are in an intellectual double bind. We are assumed to have nothing to say, find it difficult to assert that we want to say something, are observed to say nothing, are assumed to have nothing to say.


To stray from the definition of what “they “ want is to risk  being rejected in a double sense. There is a “moral” force behind this urge to conform. The girl who is critical of the stereotype presented to her can be condemned not simply like a boy as a rebel but as a slut as well. The latter is much more difficult to cope with. There is still the whole dirty, frightened, patronising world behind slut, tart, old slag, nymphomaniac, dolly, bird, chick, bit of stuff, bit of crumpet, old bag, silly cow, blue stocking. These words have no male equivalents.


The girl who for some reason breaks away intellectually  is in a peculiarly isolated position. She finds herself straddled across a great gulf, which grows wider, while she is pulled both ways. A most perilous and lonely condition, comparable to that of a black or working class militant. In the process of becoming interested in ideas she finds herself to some extent cut off from other girls and inclines naturally  towards boys as friends. They do more interesting things, discuss wider topics. She really defines herself as a boy. Other girls appear curious and rather boring, passive and accepting. She has little to say to most of them. The social contempt in which women are led confirms this. She is constantly being told she is “quite good for a girl”. Femininity becomes synonymous with frivolity, stupidity and narrowness. It seems obviously better to be a man. Doesn’t she feel like a man, do their things, talk their talk. It is natural for her to define her situation in terms of a kind of sub-maness.


They tell us what we are.


The image is constantly reaffirmed. The book she reads and the films she sees are almost invariably by men. The women characters created by them, however sympathetically and with whatever intuit understanding, must of necessity be the projection of their response towards women. One is simply not conscious of men writers or men film makers. They are just writers, just film makers. The reflected image for women they create will be taken straight by women themselves. These characters “are” women.


Throughout this process the educated girl probably takes her “emancipation” as being beyond question, not worth even starting discussing. The suffragettes  happened a long time ago. Men will readily accept her as different, an exception, an interesting diversion. She lives in fact as a man. There might be a hint of strain over her virginity, a flicker of doubt, the discovery of a strange duplicity lurking still in men. But no connection is obvious. She cannot see a condition of women.


It is not until she becomes older, grows less decorative, has babies. That the rather deep cracks in the gloss of “emancipation” appears. She has the rest of her life to explore the limits and ambiguities of her “freedom”.


And what a spurious freedom.


We walk and we talk and think as living contradictions. Most of us find the process too painful and not surprisingly settle for limited liberated areas. We give up struggling on every front and ease into a niche of acceptance.


We become the educated housewife desperately  searching for dignity and fulfilment through ever more elaborate  cooking recipes or constant redecorate schemes, suspicious  and defensive about women who are unmarried women or women who work.


Or the occupational variant of this Proopism doing a womanly womaness to a very male style. They are of course simply avoiding the issue in a peculiarly complicit and  false way.


Obversely we become the popular (distorted)  image of the suffragette. A tweedy sensibly shod battle axe  with a severe hair style and a deep voice, advancing aggressively on the male world and the board room. The sexual corollary of this the retreat into lesbianism.


Both share a profound distaste for the male. Emancipation is doing without men.


Our other retreat is into sexuality. Because women have traditionally been deprived of the power to make “free” choice, our bodies have been part of somebody else’s belongings., we prove that we have control, that we are liberated simply by fucking.  But if the definition of our constraint is not extended beyond sexuality we are only entrammelled in a greater bondage. We may not be choosing but reacting, ironically under the compulsion of our real subordination. We could be expressing in our sexual life the very essence of our secondariness and the destructive contradictions in our consciousness, through the inability to meet and  communicate and love with a man at every level. The same “free” woman could still expect men to pay for her, buy her expensive presents. She must of course be excessively preoccupied with her appearance and regard other women’s men as fair game.  After all she needs constantly the reassurance  that she is  wanted and beautiful  because only through these is she capable of defining her freedom. We shelter as well as retreat.  We take refuge behind the privilege  of class and education, using the manner and accent of the rulers to secure  respect and serious consideration, a protected dignity at the expense of the working class, and  a protected liberation based on the underpaid labour of an au pair.


Most of us  live a particular combination of these or run the whole gamut knowing them for subterfuge  – at certain moments struggling through and beyond them all. But it seems that capitalism condemns all people to live deceitfully. How can we be expected to live otherwise?


They have nothing to say to you if you’re earning £8 a week, or if you’re poor and  working class and in a VD clinic.If you’re economically exploited and socially despised you exist outside the bounds of  these emancipations. They forget that we are oppressed within the class system.


Moreover they never go beyond confirmation or denial of what men say we are. We never tell them what we are. We never take hold of our definitions. We consequently admit our failure to be whole.


Marxists have quite rightly always stressed that the subordination of women is part of the total mutual devouring process called capitalism.  No one group can be liberated except through  a transformation of the whole structure of social relationships.


But this has been twisted into a rather glib justification for inactivity and quietism.

  1. Wait until the revolution, we’ll dole out your equality then. (Oh no you won’t, power never concedes remember).
  2. Of course we know the bourgeois family exercises a conservative constraining force and through its structure subordinates the woman especially. But people won’t give up their families. They like them therefore the whole liberation of women is a dead issue. (What about a bit of praxis comrade to break down the sexual division of labour – washing up floors, scrubbing.)

OK so the revolution will sort everything out. But what about releasing a whole lot of people to work for it? What about showing thousands of women  the revolution is something to do with them?  True we won’t get far without really radical change. True there is  the whole rigidity  of job structure, unequal pay,  deep cultural, presuppositions  – in fact  capitalism.  Meanwhile what’s wrong with finding out really what people resent, what’s wrong with presenting them with alternatives  which spring from  an understanding  of their discontent. Don’t ask women if they regard themselves  as victims of   as victims of an exploitative  capitalist society, don’t ask them  if they think  their relations within the family  are unauthentic.  Ask them how they feel about their pay and being pushed around  at work, about being patronised as fluffy  little things, about always baby sitting.  Why is marriage a matter for dirty jokes or the very mention of the wife enough to get a laugh. Why  those strange stag rituals, the psychosomatic  illnesses, the mysterious fatigue, the desolateness of so many women.


There are infinite practical possibilities, which could be made to happen under capitalism but would be more feasible under socialism and would help illustrate what it’s about. For example, the campaign for equal pay and economic independence is crucial. As for the family, why  simply nursery schools, why not crèches at the workplace of both the father and mother  with time off from work  to play with the children, who would get to know both parents too. Or numerous street and flat co-operatives for looking after children, for baby sitting and visiting the old. If adolescents, whether young workers or people at school, didn’t want to live at home why couldn’t they go in flats which they ran themselves.  These would provide another means of looking after old people.


Certainly these would mean a real liberation for many women. But subordination is not an affair of economics or institutions only. Nor is it only to do with contraception , abortion, orgasm and sexual equality, important  as these are.


It is an assumed secondariness which dwells in a whole complex of inarticulate  attitudes, in smirks, in offsides, in insecurities, in desperate status  differentiation. Secondariness happens in people’s  heads and is expressed every time they do not speak, every time they they assume no-one would listen. It is located in a structure in which sexes are tragically trapped. The man as much as the woman, for each time he tries to break through, he meets the hostility of other men or the conflicting demands of those women who prefer the traditional sex game. It is only women who can dissolve the assumption. It is only women who can say what they feel because the experience is unique to them.


Only women can define themselves.  To define yourself you have to explore yourself, you have to find yourself as a group before you can say how you regard yourself as a group. It is only by understanding your situation as a group that can relate  it to the system  through which you are dominated.


This means a certain withdrawal into the group  and a realisation on the part of  the elite of a common identity. This means that just as the white middle class Cuban found he was a spick  and the black PhD that he was nigger, the privileged woman  has to extend beyond her elite consciousness to learn the extent of her common condition with the unprivileged woman. Only then can women really challenge the external definition imposed on them, become sufficiently conscious to act and thus be recognised as being there. The enemy is not identified as man. This is as futile as as a black white student conflict. The ally is not the woman who supports and benefits from capitalism. It is all people who are being crushed and twisted, who want space and air and time to sit in the sun.


But the oppressed have to discover their own dignity, their own freedom, they have to make themselves equal. They have to decolonise themselves. Then they can liberate the colonisers.

Nurses on the march 1968-1970: Sister Patricia Veal and the United Nurses’ Assocation

As a historian of the left it’s always intriguing  to come across campaigns that you have never  come across before. In this case my interest was sparked   by a reference  in Black Dwarf  to a Sister Patricia Veal speaking at an Equal Pay Rally in London in  September 1969. I  had never heard of her  so I  followed  up this mention and  discovered that she had been  leading a campaign  for nurses for about a year. I  have now   found some additional information  in the press and thought it would be useful to put  this  into this post in the hope that it may lead to more information  about Patricia and the campaign coming to light.

Sister Patricia Veal worked as an administrative sister at South Western Hospital in Stockwell, London. In July 1968 she had read about nurses lobbying MPs over pay, went along  to the House of Commons but found no other nurse there.  She  decided to organise  a march and spent £6  on sending letters  to every hospital in the country. According to Patricia,  some letters were intercepted by matrons. “I had one letter from a matron saying that she wouldn’t let her nurses read such stuff. We’re going to frame it.”  She also said that the whole edifice of nursing was tottering. “Florence Nightingale would have  50 fits if she saw how nursing is now.” Patricia was critical of the Royal College of Nursing which she said was  “all talk and no action”  and “not for the ordinary nurse.”

Her  efforts paid off.  On 15 August 1968 Patricia  led a  march of 1,000 or so nurses  from Marble Arch to  10 Downing Street where they delivered a letter to the Prime  Minister Harold Wilson. They include nurses  from nine London teaching hospitals as well hospitals in Sussex, Surrey and Derbyshire.

Some hospitals had tried to stop nurses attending by refusing them  time off.  In some cases nurses had been forbidden to wear their uniforms, but  many  marched in the uniforms they used for private cases.  Some marched barefoot: one   nurse from India  marched in her sari.

Patricia told the press: “I’m a new type of sister. I always used to be criticised for the amount of make-up I wore.  People say: ‘Look at those  false eyelashes and all that hair.’ But I think that a nurse’s  private life is no concern of the matron. If a nurse  wants to come in at four c’clock in the morning, that’s up to her.”

The nurses marched six a breast down Park Lane  under the slogan “Unite and Fight” and  carried banners that said, “There’s a curse on the purse of every nurse” and “Wait till you get a hernia – Mr Wilson”. They  sang songs about bedpans and bad food to the time of “John Brown’s Body”. Passers-by often applauded as they passed.  In Whitehall the march paused while Patricia  fixed her hair. Finally,  on arrival at Downing Street,  the letter was delivered by Patricia,  along with two colleagues from the same hospital,  Sister Tina Stone and Sister Mary Chundee.

The letter  said: “We are dissatisfied not only because of  the latest salary increase which was comsumed by the latest increases in board and lodging , National Health contributions, income tax, and superannuation but  we are equally concerned over working conditions resulting in the loss of so many nurses. We believe that the National Health Service is wasting money and that many departmnest need rorganising and streamlining.” They  called for an immediate increase in the nursing establishment in all hospitals and higher  pay.

After the march  Patricia said, “Now, there’s going to be no turning back. We’re going to form  an association to keep this up!” She  and a number of other nurses held a meeting  in one of their flats on 22 August and  set up  the United Nurses’ Association.

They told the press that  had received many letters, both from nurses and the mothers of student  nurse, s who complained about the treatment of their daughters by hospitals and the nursing hierarchy. Many of the mothers explained that they had been silent previously because of fear of repercussions.  The UNA decided to  follow-up the march with a “Unite and Fight campaign,” contacting hospitals with literature. Sister Jean Baxter, Secretary of the UNA,  said that she had been appalled to hear and see grossly understaffed  wards, a situation which led to overworked  student nurses leaving before they had finished their training. There were also situations where unqualified auxiliary nurses were left alone at night  in charge of wards. Above all, she said,  nurses must unite to prevent the vicious circle which caused chronic staff shortages.

The UNA’s   grievances included  plans  to make nurses “pay to eat,”  the working conditions of nurses – especially  student  nurses – who were often ordered to carry out cleaning duties,  overwork, poor pay and and the way that pay was negotiated. Their demands  included £11 a week for student  nurses with free meals and travel warrants. How many nurses actually joined  the UNA remains  a matter of speculation,   but it seems to have attracted particular support from student  nurses.  Other nursing organisations such as the Royal College of Nurses, dominated by  qualified nurses,  were far  from enthusiastic about the actions of the younger women, particularly when the UNA called for matrons to be sacked.

The UNA was angered by an article which appeared in Nursing Mirror headed,  “Let’s put  our student nurses on the pill”. Jean Baxter told the press,  “We are going to make an official complaint about the editor of the Nursing Mirror. We communicated with the Nursing Mirror about our march. The editor wrote to Patricia Veal…refusing to print anything about it as she disapproved of the march.  This has been  printed the day after our  march and is obviously  trying to do as much as damage as possible, both within the nursing fraternity  and with the general public.We are angry, disgusted  and  disturbed about this.”

In response Yvone Cross, editor of Nursing Mirror,  defended herself, “I did not print anything about this march because the nurses could not be specific enough about their reasons for marching at this time, or what they expected to get out of the march.”  She went onto say that the article was the opinion of a reader. “The article was scheduled long before the march took place, but even had it not been, there is no reason  I can see that I should have withdrawn it at that time.”

On 13 December 1968  Patricia and 14 other nurses went to  to the House of Commons. It seems very  likely that this  action  was  deliberately timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the General Election held on 14 December 1918 when some women voted for the first time. They arrived at 9.45am and, to begin with,   confined themselves to giving  out leaflets   which described small hospitals as being full of “antiques” like furniture, matrons,  ward sisters; senior administrators who lacked the courage to face reality; and unions who were trying to lower nursing standards; and unsatisfactory working conditions.   Patricia  told the press it was too cold to chain themselves to the railing so  they were going to go and tell MPs a few  home truths instead.”

The women  went inside to sit in the public gallery from where they heard  Jo Grimond  deliver  a speech about Shetland ponies. After he had finished Patricia  jumped up and addressed the Chamber for 30 seconds on their demands, very  reminscent of Muriel Matters,  who in October 1908  also made a speech to the Chamber after  chaining herself to a grille in the Ladies’ Gallery.  Patricia  shouted. “I want to talk on behalf of the nurses. The nurses want support. Listen to the nurses. The nurses want to fight for the patients of this country. Will MPs listen instead of talking about ponies?”

The nurses  also somewhat half-heartedly tried to emulate the suffragettes by tying themselves together with bits of string. The Serjeant-at-Arms, Rear Admiral A H C Gordon-Lennox,  took them  into custody  and they  were  detained “at the Speaker’s pleasure” in a small,  cold room.  They were eventually  let out at 1.30 pm on condition they did not cause a disturbance within a mile of Westminster. Patricia told the press that the MPs had been talking “a load of drivel about Shetland ponies” so when she had spoken “all the MPs woke up”.

Christine Doyle interviewed Patricia  for  The Observer  in April 1969, visiting her   in her small flat above a jewellers in Tooting Bec.  Patricia was 34.  She was from Cornwall with an Irish grandmother and agreed that she was “a dangerous Celt.” “But I  like cosmetics and beauty culture, I like perfume especially. I’ve got Tigress by Faberge. Quite appropriate”. Since her campaign had hotted up she admitted that she  was living mainly  on  scrambled  eggs and toast.  Patricia named her outside interests  as “Men. Church activities”.

The UNA staged another protest on 22 April 1969 outside the  Department  of  Health and Social Security with 150 nurses  singing “Why Are We Waiting.” Patrica told the press, “We want this system abolished. These girls are hungry.” After five minutes  the Secretary of State himself , Richard Crossman, came out to speak to them. He said that nurses had their own representatives who were negotiating on their behalf.He suggested that rather than stand in the cold wind, they send in a delegation.  This was done,  with  a small delegation going  in to speak to Lady Serota, a Minister, for an hour.  Patricia told the Minister that  some student nurses were  struggling to eat.  Most of the nurses present  were from London, Surry and Kent,  but they were joined by  a coachload  of 50 from South Wales who had set out at 6am.

On 15 May 1969 the UNA staged a series of protests against what they termed “an insulting offer” by the Whitley Council of  2s 6d “tea money” to student courses. In the rain  Patricia  and  a small number of  nurses  began outside the Royal College of Nursing  whom they accused of  “sweeping so much dirt  under the  carpets” and wielded a broom  and a carpet before the cameras of the press. The RCN responded tartly that,  “Cheap publicity stunts such as the demonstration by the United Nurses Association today are doing a great disservice to the nursing profession.” The nurses  then moved onto the General Nursing Council where they were admitted for what Patricia called “a sympathetic but sugary hearing.” She  said  that the registrar  and education officer “just passed the buck and blamed the troubles on the state of the country. I think it was clear that they are not doing anything.”

You can see a picture of this here

At the end  of May a new meals allowance for student nurses of £48  was agreed. Although this was initially  welcomed by Patricia,  who had been protesting outside the meeting with other nurses,  she became angry when she realised that  it would be taxed. Speaking to the press she waved a  copy of Minister  Martin Ennal’s statement   and said, “Why doesn’t he put it down here if it’s going to be taxed? That means it is not going to be a £1 a week How much is that going to leave us?”

In July 1969  Patricia issued a writ for libel  against the Sunday Mirror for an article published on 1 June entitled “Me and my clients – by Sister Veal”.

On 27 August 1969  the UNA supported a demonstration by striking  ambulancemen at County Hall, London.

On 12 September 1969 there was a rally in Conway Hall, London organised by the National Joint Action Committee for  Women’s  Equal Rights.  Established in the wake of the Ford Machinists’ strike for equal pay. it had had held  a march  in London on 18 May 1969.    Although  12 September had originally billed as a national Equal Pay Day   with 40 rallies around the country, it dwindled down to a single event, the London rally.  Patricia spoke about the conditions under which nurses worked. Student nurses earned £5.15 a week, a staff nurse £12.10.0  a week.   “Nurses are their own worst enemy, they  don’t realise how much they are being exploited.”

The UNA  was mentioned in a Times editorial  no lesson 3 November 1969 headed  “Justice for Nurses.” It said, “Nothing has happened yet, but Sister Patricia Veal’s United Nurses’ Association  has demonstrated  that calls for militant action do not go unheeded. Nurses’ problems are sufficiently serious to guarantee a ready response from a growing number.”

In January 1970 it was reported that Patricia was leaving South Western Hospital to set up a nursing agency She said “I feel that in the National Health Service I am wasting my time. We shall be concentrating on higher quality nursing. It will be a modern efficnet organisation run on old fashioned principles. I shall be in a better position to fight with the association to give student nurses status. We are not so much concerned with status now.” At the end of January.  the UNA again picketed the Whitley Council meeting which was discussing a 22 per cent offer. It ended with no agreement,

In March  1970 the UNA   urged nurses to leave the NHS  and work instead   for nursing agencies. This call came shortly after a fifth round of talks on nurses pay between the Whitley Council and nurses’ represenatatives  broke up with no agreement. The chair of the Whitley Council, Mr W R Griffiths,  said that there had been “fundamental” disagreements on grading. The lack of agreement meant that nurses would not get their promised 20% pay increase on 1 April.

After this date I have not been able to find any other references to Patricia Veal or the United Nurses’ Association.

This was not the first public protest by nurses. In April 1962  10,000 nurses, (about 50:50 male and female) protested over pay in Trafalgar Square, for instance.

However the actions of the UNA was the first organised protest by nurses over  the conditions of work of nurses and they were treated by those in auuthotity above them . The profession was  highly hierarchical  and often very conservative with managers feeling entitled to pry into nurses’ private lives, for instance.  In this  sense the UNA was akin to many of the protests taking place across Europe and in the USA in the course of 1968 . Whilst they had  different targets – the war in Vietnam, race,  male authority, etc  – they were united by a rejection of power, hierarchy  and tradition and a seeking out of alternative structures and ways of living.

They also use dthe tactics of their contemporaries, designed to attract publicity. Although it was shortlived , the UNA  was regualrly in the headlines and  Patrica Veal was  frequently  quoted by the press, much to the anger I suspect of the traditional nursing organisations.

It pointed the way to the future. In the 1970s and 1980s nurses became increasingly militant , joined protest sin increasing numbers and even went on strike.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone with more information  about Patricia and the UNA. Please email; redflagwalks@gmail.com






a course on the history of radical women 1914 – 1979 starting on 27 February 2018

A course on the history of radical women 1914 – 1979 at the Working Class Movement Library, Salford, starting on 27 February 2018

I am  delighted to be presenting this course again at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford,   which has a rich archive on women’s  history in the C19th and C20th.

This is a  10 week course which  will begin on Tuesday 27 February  2018  and run from  11am to 1pm. It  will introduce course members to  some of the key movements and events which shaped and changed women’s lives in the twentieth century.

The course  will include the following:

  • Women’s anti-war movements in the First World War
  • Women Councillors in Manchester  in  the 1920s eg Hannah Mitchell
  • The first women MPs such as  Ellen Wilkinson who was born in Manchester
  • Women’s unemployed marches in the 1930s
  • Women volunteers in the Spanish Civil War
  • The Women’s Parliaments held during  the Second World War
  • The work of  Joan Littlewood and  Shelagh Delaney, writer of A Taste of Honey
  • The emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s

No prior knowledge is necessary to enrol on the course which costs £60 (free to people on JSA or Universal Credit).

I have been researching and writing about radical women  for many years.  I have  an MA in the History of the Manchester Region, and  am the author of a number of books, including “Up Then Brave Women”: Manchester’s Radical Women 1819-1918.

Update: I am sorry but this course is now full. If you would like to go on my mailing list for future events and courses please contact me, Michael Herbert  : redflagwalks@gmail.com




“repeated discourtesies” : the bitter split over votes for women on Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council in September 1904.

In this article I will be examining in detail the  argument  and acrimony over the question of votes for women  on Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council (MSWTUC) in the autumn of 1904   which led to the two Organising Secretaries – Sarah Dickenson and Eva Gore-Booth  – resigning their posts,  and  then immediately establishing a new body, the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council.

Whilst the spilt has been  previously discussed by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris  in their book One Hand Tied behind Us (1978), more detail can now be added since the  discovery of the complete  minutes of the Council which have  now been placed on this dedicated website.

The Manchester and  Salford Women’s Trades Union Council

The Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council (MSWTUC)  was set up in 1895 to organise women workers into trade unions. At this time trade unions were (with a few exceptions, particularly the Lancashire weaving trade) organisations of men, who were either indifferent to or opposed to women workers joining trade unions. True the Women’s Trade  Union League had been set up in 1874 by Emma Paterson  to organise  women  into trade unions and had won the right of women  to attend the Trades Union Congress, but its success was quite limited, with its membership in the hundreds rather than thousands.

The first meeting of the MSWTUC took place on 5 February 1895 in Manchester Town Hall.  Most of those who attended  – such as Julia Gaskell and C P Scott –  were not trade unionists but  part of the progressive Manchester middle-class, often linked to the Liberal party. It was agreed that the objects of the Council should  be-

1) To promote new and encourage existing organisations amongst women workers.

2) To collect and publish information as to the conditions under which women work with a view to influencing public opinion and promoting legislation for the improvement of their conditions of labour.

3) To endeavour by all legitimate means to improve such conditions by obtaining for women workers fair and uniform wages, shorter hours, and sanitary workrooms.

It was also agreed to appoint two Organising Secretaries to carry out the day to day work  of organising among working women. These were Sarah Welsh (later Dickenson) (1869-1954)   and Frances  Ashwell (later Ashwell-Cooke) (1852-1926).  They started work in  the third week of April at  salaries  of £50 and £70, respectively.

The MSWTUC took offices in Room 3, 9 Albert Square, opposite Manchester Town Hall,  at an annual rent of £20 (the building is long since demolished).  The first work done by Sarah and Frances  was to look into pay and conditions in the  umbrella-covering, shirt-making,& corset-making trades. Over the next five years they helped establish or support  unions for  Cap Makers,  Cigar Makers, Fancy Box Makers,  Folders and Sewers, Shirt makers, Shop Assistants, Tailoresses, Upholsteresses,  and Women  in the Bookbinding and Printing Trades.

In the Annual  Report  for 1900  the Council noted:

In the work of organising women, it must be remembered that special difficulties have to be encountered,  besides the ordinary difficulty of convincing the workers of the force and essential  morality of combination. The tradition of women’s  dependence dies hard and still goes far to shut their eyes to the possibility of self-reliance enterprise, whilst a narrow education works directly against the spirit of trade-unionism.

In spite of these and other drawbacks the situation presents some very encouraging features,   notably the growing enthusiams of a few very able women, who in some cases have come forward as union officials, and in whose enlightened effort and  influence among their fellow workers lies the great hope of progress in the future.

In 1900 Frances left to get married and was replaced by Eva Gore-Booth.


The key personalities involved in the split

1. Amy Bulley

Amy Bulley  was born on 20 April 1852.  She attended Newnham College  1873-1874, joining her two sisters. She and Mary  Paley were the first women to sit for the moral science tripos.  Although Amy  passed, she was not awarded a degree because she was a woman. In 1876 Amy  became as assistant mistress at Manchester High School for Girls. From 1877 to 1883 she was Secretary of  the Manchester and Salford College for Women in Brunswick Street. In 1894 she co-authored a book  with Dorothy Whitley, Women’s  Work. She became a  member of the MSWTUC in September 1895 , and was chair from 1897 to 1906.


2. Sarah Dickenson (nee Welsh)

Sarah was  born on  28 March 1868 in Hulme, Manchester. She  left school aged 11  to work in a mill  and  in time  became  an active  trade unionist. In February 1895  she became the Secretary of the Manchester and Salford Federation of Women Workers which had been  formed in  January 1893 by an amalgamation of the Shirt and Jacket Makers’  Association (formed in 1889)  and other trades. Sarah was then living  at 52 Hereford Street, Ordsall Lane, Salford.


3. Eva Gore-Bo0th

Eva was born in Lissadell, County Sligo  on 22 May 1870 into a prominent Anglo-Irish family, the Gore-Booths. She enjoyed a conventional upper-class upbringing,  but from an early age was entranced  both by nature and by the delights of novels and poetry. The poet William Yeats was an occasional visitor to the great house who,  after the deaths of both Eva and her sister Constance,   wrote a bitter-sweet poem in their memory, whose opening lines recalled those long-ago visits:

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

The turning point in Eva’s life came in 1896 when she was on holiday  in Bordighera, Italy. Here she met Esther Roper from Manchester, sent there to rest by friends who feared for her health through overwork.

Esther came from a working-class family which had risen socially when her father, Edward Roper, a factory worker, who was active in St Jude’s Sunday Schoool  had become  a missionary. Esther was born in 1868 in Chorley. Her parents returned to Nigeria,  leaving Esther in the care of her Irish grandparents,  and later a school for the children of missionaries. Her aunts  were weavers in Manchester and her uncle a glass blower. Her parents returned in 1874 and her father died in 1877, aged just 39. After his death she lived with her  younger brother, Reginald, and her mother in Broughton.  Her mother died in 1889, aged 43.

Assisted by the Missionary Society, Esther attended Owens College where women were only admitted for the first time  in 1883. She enrolled in 1886,   graduating with a BA in 1891 in the second division. She was given a prize for English Literature, and also studied Latin and Political Economy.

Women were then taught separately in premises on Brunswick Street. With a number of other women, Esther founded Iris, a newsletter for women at Owens, named after the messenger of the Gods. After graduating she  maintained  connection  with the College, particularly the Women’s Debating Society. She was also involved with the University Settlement , a charitable  organisation  set up in 1895 and  based in the Roundhouse  on Every Street and also  Ancoats Hall. (It’s still going in Beswick, by the way, now renamed “Manchester Settlement.”)

In 1893 she went to work for the Manchester Suffage Society (from 1897 the North of England Society)   and  revitalised it, taking it out of the genteel drawing rooms of the enlightened middle-class and on to the smoky, cobbled back streets of  Lancashire mill towns.  She drew in seasoned  campaigners such as Sarah Reddish, Selina Cooper  and Sarah Dickenson,  who had  years of  experience in the trade union and Co-operative movement, and who, like Esther,  believed in  the absolute necessity of linking the fight  for women’s right to vote with the struggle for better working and social conditions.

This  working class suffragist campaign had been forgotten, until Jill Liddington and Jill Norris brought it  back into public view in 1978 in their inspiring book One Hand Tied Behind Us. They named them the “radical suffragists” to distinguish from the more conservative  middle class women who formed the majority on  the North of England Society.  Bertha Mason, in her history of the suffrage movement, writes:

 It was the appearance on the scene of action of this new and important force, the organising of which was carried out by Miss Esther Roper, Miss Gore Booth, and Miss Reddish, herself at one time a textile worker, which was chiefly responsible for the wonderful revival of interest in the question of the enfranchisement of women which marked the early years of 1900. There can be no doubt that this active and enthusiastic demand on the part of a great army of women who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow,” and not merely their own bread, but in many cases the bread of relatives dependent on them, made a deep impression on Parliament and caused many who had hitherto treated the agitation as an “ impracticable fad” and ” the fantastic crochet ” of a few rich and well-to-do women, to enquire seriously into the why and wherefore of the movement.

In 1894, in order to boost support for another Bill in the Commons, the National Society decided to launch  “a Special Appeal” to be signed just by women and from all classes. In Manchester the Society directed its appeal to the factory women of Lancashire and Yorkshire.  Esther took  on two working-class women to assist with  the work; Hannah Winbolt from Stockport, who had worked as a handloom weaver in the silk industry for many years, and had been converted to the cause of suffrage by Lydia Becker; and Annie Heaton, a mill worker from Burnley, who had worked with Annie Marland  the year before on trade union organising for the Women’s  Trade Union League. Esther wrote that “the women were visited in their homes as well as factory gates and a large quantity of women’s suffrage was given away.”  They held both public meetings and open air meetings in different parts of Manchester.

On 25 June 1894  a crowded meeting in support of the campaign in the Free Trade Hall, organised by the Manchester Society,  and supported by a number of other organisations,  including the Lancashire and Cheshire Union of Women’s Liberal Associations,   Manchester and Pendleton Cooperative Guilds,  Manchester Women’s Christian  Association  and Manchester and Salford Federation of Women Workers. It was provided over by Lady Lyttleton,  with  a formidable array  of women  on the platform including Lady Somerset, Millicent  Fawcett, Elizabeth  Wolstenholme Elmy,   Mrs Pankhurst,  Enid Stacy and Alice Scatcherd. Antoinette Stirling sang two songs. while  there was  also an organ recital and songs, by Mr Burgin, the Australian  tenor. Mrs Lyttelton  said that what women  did with the vote when they got it was no business of theirs, they were there simply to demand that women should no longer be debarred from the rights and duties of citizenship.

Esther told Eva of her work  in campaigning for votes for women.   Eva decided to leave her comfortable home and way of life in Ireland and move to Manchester to  work with  Esther, sharing a  house at 83 Heald Place, Rusholme.  Eva wrote a poem in 1904 about their meeting called “The Travellers”.

Was it no strange that by the tideless sea

The jar and hurry of our lives.should cease?

That under olive boughs we found our peace,

And all the world’s great song in Italy?


Is it not strange though Peace herself has wings

And long ago has gone her separate ways,

On through the tumult of our fretful days

From Life to Death the great song chimes and rings?


In that sad day shall then the singing fail,

Shall life go down in silence at the end

And in the darkness friend be lost to friend

And all our love and dreams of no avail?


You whose Love’s melody makes glad the gloom

Of a long labour and a patient strife.

Is not that music greater than our life?

Shall not a little song outlast that doom?

Within months of her move to Manchester Eva was addressing branches of the local Independent Labour Party and Women’s Co-operative Guild on the necessity of women’s suffrage and was soon recognised as an activist in her own right. She went on to  the Executive of the North of England Society,   became a regular speaker at  the Manchester Women’s  Student Debating Society,  and was also  involved in the University Settlement in Ancoats.  The Settlement had been founded in 1895, inspired by the work of Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, with the aim of bringing culture into the industrial district of Ancoats.  She ran a drama class with Alice Cooke and Elizabeth MacGowan, which staged their first performance of The Merchant of Venice on 28 June 1899.  Louisa Smith (who became an active trade unionist) later lovingly recalled those classes:

We were a class of about sixteen girls. I think we were all machinists and we were rough….We called ourselves the Elizabethan Society because we had no scenery: as we said among ourselves, we had no assets, but we enjoyed every minute of the rehearsals. We were very raw material but keen on acting; she showed such patience and love that we would do anything to please her and she got the best out of us. After rehearsals we would give a show of our own, an imitation of what we had seen or imagined.  If any of us were feeling seedy or worried about business or home she could always see, and showed such an understanding sympathy that we came away feeling we had a real friend. I remember one of the girls was very delicate and truly not really fit to fight the battles of life, and Miss Gore-Booth cared for her and sent her little delicacies, and took her to her own doctor, and in a hundred and one ways she cared for us We thought she was a being from another world. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say we worshipped her, but she never knew it, she was so utterly selfless… She took us on picnics, and they seemed to be different picnics from any I had ever  been to, so jolly and free, no restraint about them. She was also very keen on women’s rights and trade unions. She persuaded me to join… She was always sympathetic with the downtrodden, and worked and lectured might and main, interviewing Members of Parliament, etc., on their behalf till conditions were mended. She was very frail and delicate herself, but full of  pluck and determination, and would stand up for people she knew to be unjustly treated, even though the world was against them, and with all so sweet and gentle that one could not help loving her.

Sylvia Pankhurst described Eva  as  “tall and excessively slender, intensely shortsighted, with a mass of golden hair worn like a great ball at the nape of her long neck, bespectacled, bending forward, short of breath with high-pitched voice and gasping speech, she was nevertheless a personality of great charm”.

Eva started for work for the MSWTUC in June 1900. The Council noted that Eva “brings to her task considerable acquaints with the condition of working women’s lives.” and that the function of the Council “was to  bring trade-unionism  within the reach of  scattered individuals  working in unorganized trades, and to draft them  off into their own unions.”

Sarah  Dickenson later remembered Eva thus in a letter to Esther:

I met her first at your office when she came to Manchester, and my first impression of her was her charming and interesting personality. When I knew her better I found how very genuine she was in all her dealings and discovered all the beautiful traits in her character. The friendly way that she treated all the women trade unionists endeared her to them. If she was approached for advice or help she never failed. She is remembered by thousands of working women in Manchester for her untiring efforts to improve their industrial conditions, for awakening and educating their sense of political freedom, and for social intercourse.

Over the next few years  Eva and Sarah worked very hard to encourage women to set up and join unions. It was rarely an easy task. A section in the 1903  Annual Report report described the problems:

For however severely trade grievances may be felt, the first steps in organisation are always difficult. The timidity of inexperience is hard to overcome, and people naturally fear to jeopardise their week’s earnings. Innumerable meetings are held by the Council, sometimes so small that they are not in themselves worth recording and much personal canvassing and persuasion has to be used before a sufficient number of workers can be gathered together and enough enthusiasm aroused to induce an adequate number of more progressive to take up the responsible positions of officers, committee and collectors.

One of the difficulties they encountered in getting women to go to meetings was solved by starting a Tea Fund in 1902 to buy tea, sugar, milk and cake:

It was found that the tea was a great convenience, as many of the women live in outlying districts, they are naturally anxious to hurry home to tea when their work is over and it is both inconvenient and expensive for them to come back to meetings in the evening. We are glad to say that the tea had good results in introducing a social element that promoted good fellowship and a friendly spirit among the members, and the attendance has largely increased.

The most successful women’s union established by Eva and Sarah was the Salford and District Association of Power Loom Weavers, set up in April 1902 which soon had 800 members As well as trade unionism the women workers were also interested in politics and the suffrage campaign, sending a resolution just weeks after their establishment to a meeting at the Free Trade Hall called to protest against the imposition of a corn tax. The women’s resolution not only protested against the tax and the fact that it would fall most heavily on women “the worst paid workers in the country, ” but also objected to the fact that their exclusion from the franchise prevented them “from making an effective protest at the Ballot Box.” Nellie Keenan was the first Treasurer of the union and later became  its Secretary.

Eva was in demand as a speaker, addressing the May Day demonstration in Gorton Park in May 1902 and a meeting in the Secular Hall, Rusholme later that same month on “The Industrial Position of Women”. In 1903 Eva became the MSWTUC representative on the Education Committee of the City Council and was later appointed onto the Technical Instruction Committee.

4. Christabel  Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst  was born on  22 September 1880, daughter of Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst.  She attended Manchester High School for Girls  with her two sisters. After the death of her husband Emmeline took a job as registrar of births and death with Christabel acting as her deputy. Emmeline also started an arts and crafts shop at 30 King Street called Emerson’s.  Christabel worked in the shop but did not enjoy it, as her sister Sylvia recalled:

…she detested Emerson’s. She arrived there as late as she could each morning, took  a couple of hours off for lunch, and got away as early as possible in the afternoon, stifling her thoughts by a constant succession of novels. As the registrarship necessitated attendance only during a couple of hours in the morning and evening, Mrs Pankhurst was able to give the greater part of the day to her shop. Whilst Christabel  was still in Switzerland she had engaged assistants, and had arranged for her brother Walter to keep the books, which he did as labour of love, having retired from business for ill-health. There was no obvious place for Christabel  to fill and Christabel had no desire to make one. Mrs Pankhurst was satisfied to have her daughter beside her, and if she had any regret that Christabel  sat in the dark little office all day with her head in a novel, she did not  say so.

Christabel  became friends with Esther Roper  and Eva  Gore-Booth and Esther in 1901 after meeting Esther at a meeting of the Women’s Debating Society. She was swiftly drawn into their activities, joining Eva’s poetry circle at the University Settlement, going on to   the Women’s Trade Union Council, speaking at a number of meetings on the suffrage question,  and accompanying the two women on holiday to Venice. Her sister Sylvia recalled that at this time Christabel adored Eva and when Eva suffered from neuralgia, as often happened, she would sit with her for hours, massaging her head. To all of us at home, this seemed remarkable indeed, for Christabel had never been willing to act as the nurse to any other human being.” At Esther’s suggestion Christabel began studying law at the University of Manchester, graduating in 1906 with first class honours. According to Sylvia, Mrs Pankhurst was quite jealous of the time that Christabel spent with Esther and Eva.

In October 1903 Christabel and her mother established the Women’s  Social  and Political Union to campaign for votes for women. In 1905 this turned into the militant suffragette movment.

The radical  suffragist campaign

Esther continued the  North of England Society’s suffrage  campaign amongst working women. Heartened by the success of the Special Appeal,   the suffragists resolved to launch a petition to be signed only by women working in the cotton mills of Lancashire in order to demonstrate the support for the vote amongst women workers.  In 1900 there were 96,820 women members in the textile unions and 69, 669 men.  The petition said  that “the continued denial of the franchise to women is unjust and inexpedient.  In the home, their position is lowered by such an exclusion from the responsibilities of national life. In the factory, their unrepresented condition places the regulation of their work in the hands of men who are often their rivals as well fellow workers…”

The petition was launched on 1 May 1900 at the annual May Day meeting in Blackburn, which was attended by thousands of working women. It was such a success that they had to organise further meetings on 2 and 3 May.

Esther followed this up by appointing five organisers – Mrs Hogson Bayfield, who was active in the Women’s  Co-operative Guild; Sarah Reddish, also active in the  Women’s  Co-operative Guild;  Mrs Ramsbottom, Katherine Rowton, a Poor Law Guardian;  and Mrs Green, also active in the Women’s Co-operative  Guild. The women fanned out across Lancashire by tram and train,  visiting every group of women textile  workers they could find.  The Englishwoman’s Review reported that the method of canvassing has been “chiefly that of going to the homes of the workers in the evening, after factory hours…some employers allowed petition sheets in the mills, and others allowed canvassers to stand in the mill yards with sheets spread on tables so that the signatures could be got as the women were leaving or returning to work.” They also spoke at meetings  of the Weavers’ union  and Cardroom Association  and also addressed   several dozen open-air meetings

On 19 March 1901 a deputation of 15 women cotton workers, led by  Sarah Reddish, went to London to  present  the petition   to Parliament and meet  with a small number of sympathetic MPs,   including C E Schwann from Manchester and Herbert Whiteley from Ashton-under-Lyne.  Sarah Reddish said that though she was no longer a factory worker she had been one for a period of over twenty years  and now she was an official of working women’s organisation.  She said that the petition had been signed by 29,359 women “all of whom were factory workers.” “Some of them had children to keep and some were sole supporters of their families, and all expressed themselves strongly on the continued refusal to grant of  Parliament  to grant the franchise to women. Women  shared the burden of the nation, and they felt they ought to have a voice in the making of the laws.” Sarah Dickenson said that “women were engaged in making the wealth of the country and ought to have a voice in its management. Many Lancashire women were keeping homes, and even worthless husbands, and yet the latter when it became a matter of voting had the only voice in the affairs of the nation. It lowered the status of the women greatly  to be so treated in the matter of the franchise…The working women of Lancashire were determined  to try and try again until they succeeded in securing justice.“

On 18 February  1902 the suffragists presented another petition to Parliament  signed by  33,184  women  wool workers from  Yorkshire and 4,292  silk workers from  Cheshire.  In the Commons the eighteen members of the deputation  met a dozen MPs. Miss Agnes Close from Leeds said the deputation and those they represented had worked very hard,  and she hoped the members would do all they could to move forward the object they desired – which was the removal of the disability under which women  now laboured in Parliamentary and municipal matters. They thought it only right that women should have a vote in parliamentary and municipal affairs on the same basis  as men.

Mrs Winbolt (Stockport) said that she was born, reared and had lived all her life in Cheshire; and as one who had helped with the petition she appealed for the direct vote for women. What they wanted was that the womanly mind of the country should be brought in. They did not want to pull down the men but pull them up. She had been in the textile trade for forty years and she could tell them that they had suffered both in the silk trade and the cotton trade through women not having the Parliamentary vote. If she had time she could enumerate many cases where women were placed at a disadvantage because they had  not a direct vote as to who should  represent  them in the House of Commons. (applause). All they asked for was fair play; they did not want more, and certainly they did not feel that they would like to take any less.

Esther Roper wrote  a leaflet The Cotton Trade Unions and the Enfranchisement of Women

 If it’s necessary, as the men say it is, for men to be directly represented in Parliament, how much more necessary must it be to women, the only entirely unrepresented workers, to have the protection and power of a vote. The women’s best chance of winning their own enfranchisement is through the Cotton Trade Unions of the North. Here they have the  power because they are more numerous than the men…Therefore, let  all women  having the great power of the Cotton Unions  in their hands, help themselves, and the millions  of women  workers  who are poorer  and less able to help themselves than they,  by making  women’s suffrage a Trade Union  Question. The Cotton Trade Unions can and must secure the enfranchisement of the women workers.

 In the spring 1903 Selina Cooper, Sarah Reddish, Katherine Rowton, Esther Roper and  Eva Gore-Booth fanned out across the Lancashire cotton town speaking to  branches of the weavers’ unions and asking  them to ballot their members on the issue of making suffrage a trade union issue. The tactic  was successful with branches in Bolton, Clitheroe, Colne, Nelson, Hyde and Haslingden  all voting “yes”.

The support being gathered by the radical suffragists amongst the cotton trade unions was not being echoed in the nascent Labour Party, the Labour Representation Committee. It seems also  that they were facing some disquiet  from within the North of England  Society  about their campaign amongst working class women and felt that a separate organisation would  enable them to more open about their links with the trade union movement. Accordingly  in the summer of 1903  they set up  the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile Workers’ Representation Committee (TWC)   with an office at 5 John Dalton Street.

The Secretaries were Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper, the Treasurer was Sarah Reddish from Bolton.  The Committee comprised:

Mrs Aldersley, Nelson

Mrs Clara Staton,  Bolton

Miss Foley, Bolton

Mrs Mary Atkindon, Brierfield

Mrs Sarah Thomas, Nelson

Mrs Harriet A Mills, Member of Education Committee, Accrington

Mrs Sara Whittaker, Accrington

Miss Louise Smith, Manchester

Miss Mary Carr, Hyde

Mrs Sarah Dickenson, Manchester

Miss Katherine Rowton, Manchester

Mrs Ruth Dewhurst, Oldham

Mrs Alice Hibbert, Roggersham

Miss Nellie Keenan, Secretary of the Weavers’ Union, Salford

Mrs Violet Grundy, Secretary of the Winders’ Union, Ancoats

Miss Isabel Forsyth,  Secretary, Bookbinders’ Union

The TWC therefore brought  suffragists together  with women  with experience of organising  in the trade union and co-operative movement.

In their first pamphlet  Women  Workers and Parliamentary Representation, Eva wrote that  “amongst those who have for their present idea, in industrial matters, a fair day’s wage for a fair’s day work, the low payment of women remains  one of the great problem’s of our modern civilisation.” After describing  “the wretched houses, insanitary and over-crowded, that disfigure our great towns, the children going hungry to school, the old people left penniless,  and uncared for, the numbers that sleep out every night of the year, these and many other  evils are the direct result of poverty,  she  concluded that,  “Trade unionists  must agree that there is something radically wrong with the present position of women in the labour market.”

In February 1904 the TWC issued a circular calling for the immediate enfranchisement of women  workers.

The relatively low wages of women  workers …are a matter of common knowledge  and in many cases they sink almost to vanishing point. The women  chainmakers of Cradley Heath (skilled workers and intelligent citizens) are – hundreds of them – earning at tbe rate  of 5s a week, sometimes even 2s 6d  for the difficult and hard labour. Thousands of women in the Staffordshire  Potteries receive  a wage of 8s to 12s a week. In many ases womne do the same workas men  for much less money.  A striking example of this occured  lately in an engineering firm in Manchester. Women  were put on work  at a process which had been done by men  at at the rateof £1 a week.; these women are being paid from 8s to  12 s a week for the work.

Among national school teachers all over the country the men  teachers are being paid nearly double,simply for being men, without any regard for their merits or qualifications as teachers. 

The TWC  manifesto, published in July 1904, explicitly linked class and suffrage, noting that the labour movement had formed the Labour Rrepresentation Committee (from 1906 the Labour party)  to campaign for its demands.

 …the position of the disenfranchised working women, who are by their voteless condition shut out from all political influence, is becoming daily more precarious. They cannot hope to hold their own in industrial matters, where their interests may clash with those of their enfranchised fellow-workers or employers. The conclusion has been forced on those of the textile workers who have been working unceasingly in past years to secure the vote for women, that what is urgently needed is that they should send their own nominee to the House of Commons, pledged to…secure the enfranchisement of the women workers of the country…What Lancashire and Cheshire women think today England will do to-morrow.

A public row over suffrage

It was the establishment of the TWC and its public campaigning for  votes for working women which I believe led to the crisis on the MSWTUC in the autumn of 1904 . The  fact that both Sarah Dickenson and Eva Gore-Booth were members of the TWC  led some of the public perhaps understandably  to confuse it  with the MSWTUC. This did not go down at all well with  Amy Bulley.

Her position on women’s  suffrage was made plain in a flurry of  letters  between her and  local suffragists in  the Manchester Guardian in the spring of 1904. The first letter, published on 15 March,   came from Manchester suffrage pioneer Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, who had been campaigning for votes for women since 1866. She urged support for a motion on women’s suffage being moved by Sir  Charles McLaren,  and ended  her letter  by stating that, “Not until  justice is done to the mother-half of the human race  can humanity truly show to what dignity and nobility it can truly attain, and whoever denies and delays  this justice is an eneny to the progress of the race.”

Amy  Bulley replied at  some length on 23 March, noting that while there has been a majority of 114 for  McLaren’s motion  and  there seemed to be increased good will shown to the movement:

…the women’s forces require to be set in order, and in drastic fashion if a solid victory is to be achieved. I venture to assert that the leaders of the women’s suffrage  movement have never gone to the root of the question or placed their demand on the right basis. Instead of establishing it on a broad democratic basis they have clung to a property basis which is in reality obsolete, and which even it were a living force, would not fit the case for women. There  is no enthusiasm today for limited franchises, and no party is willing to make sacrifices on their behalf. Practical politicians of all shades are opposed to increasing the complexities of the present situation. Represenation is still based nomianlly on property, but the lodger and service franchises have destroyed its character, and public opinion has virtually outgrown the conception. The mind of the country moves faster than its enactments, and it is not too much to say that the theory is now tacitly accepted that a man is fit to exercise the franchise, unless he belongs to the migratory, the pauper or the criminal class.  To the public mind thus attuned comes the women’s demand that certain of her sex who happen to possess technical property qualifications should be admitted to the franchise. But the conditions fit women so ill, not having been devised for them, that a franchise on this basis  would be little  less than a mockery and in consequence  no political party will have anything to do with it. 

It is playing with words to ask, as recent Bills have done, that the franchise may be granted to women “on the same terms as those on which  it is or may be granted to men” (I quote from memory), for these terms applied to women would work quite differently. So long  as property qualifications, however diluted, form the basis of enfranchisement the wives and mother sof the working classes and the majority of those of the middle-classes would be excluded.  We should have a “widow and spinster” franchise, with a sprinkling of property owners, and those who would employ devices, such as buying a cottage, to secure the vote. ..

Take the notable gathering of women in  the Free Trade Hall last November, some 4,000 strong. The majority were members of the co-operative movement, shrewd, sturdy, common sense  women, mother of families, and with an interest in public affairs and a wholesomeness of mind and character which  hardly any other class in the country could equal. Yet most of these women would be shut from any scheme of enfranchisement which women  have yet publicly advocated.  they have no “property” qualification, neithe rhave the factory women  of Lancashire to whom the North of England Suffrage Society, wisely  forsaking drawing rooms, have directed their efforts. Men  will trust women  more broadly or not at all, they will not enfranchise a small limited class, for they realise that the womnen  who need it most are precisely those who have no property or social influence.

Perhaps stung  by this lofty dismissal of their  efforts amongst working women in Lancashire and  Cheshire  Esther Roper responded  to Amy Bulley  in a letter  published on  26 March:

Stating the case for adult suffrage as against the present voting quailification, Miss Bulley, has, I venture to think, confused  two issues (1) the abolition of sex equality and (2) the widening of the existing basis of representation. The first of these two is the present object of all women’s suffrage  organisations, labour or otherwise. The second will only be gained by men and women  together, after their positions have been equalised by the removal  of the distinctive and wholesale sex disability under which all women suffer at present.

We see no symptoms  at present of a strong movement for manhood suffrage  amongst  men of any party. ..The present  state of  women’s  labour and their crying economic need will not allow of our waiting for the settlement of this question until men  are educated on a practical agitation for universal suffrage. In speaking of working women’s  position in this matter, I think Miss Bulley has overlooked the great importance to them of the lodger qualification. Many thousands of textile workers  in this district alone at present  fulfil the neccessary qualification by paying at the rate of 4s a week for rooms (exclusive of  rent for furnuture).  Thousands also of teachers, journalists, clerks, typewriters, and secretaries would benefit by this franchise. 

Amy swiftly put pen to paper, and her reply was published on 29 March:

I recognise clearly as Miss Roper that “the abolition of sex disability” and “the widening of the existing basis of repressentation” are two different issues.  My contention is that the first can only be obtained through the second… the ultimate aim must of course be adult suffrage, and Miss Roper rightly points out that there is no “strong agitation” for it at present.  The reason however is not far to seek. The present franchise almost amounts to manhood suffrage, but is iuncertain and irregular in its operation. Any man may qualify for a vote, and almost any man may lose it at any time through an accident or a technical objection. Working men  feel these hindrances keenly, and their demand will probably be for a simplification of registartion which will  enable them to keep a vote when they have got it. This can hardly be  put ino practice except through a measure of manhood suffrage and where will the women be then with a request for limited franchise… 

On one point Miss Roper misunderstands me. I said nothing about “the vital importance of the franchise to women  wage-earners.”  The study of labour questions has led me to attribute womem’s  industrial to economic rathe rthan political questions, but the question is too large for discussion. Still the possession of the franchise would probably prove a lever in the hands of working women and I should be glad to see it in use.

A final  letter   from Amy  appeared in the Manchester Guardian  on 6 April  which was nothing less than a  condescending public put down of  Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy:

The Women’s Suffrage Bill for which Mrs Elmy worked so hard in 1870 was not out of place at a time when a series of limited franchises for men were being conceded one at a time. The impulse which led to these partial enactments has long been spent, the tide has ebbed for good. The next tide to rise will be towards manhood suffrage, so much  I think nobody denies.  Would it not be wise for the Women’s Suffrage Party to set their sails to ride on the flowing tide? I do not propose to trespass further on your space with regard to this subject.

It’s clear that Amy Bulley regarded the suffrage campaign  as misguided and a waste of time and energy.

The  Events of the Split

The events which led to the split  were sent in motion when Amy wrote a  letter to the Manchester Guardian, published on 11 July 1904,  disclaiming any connection between the MSWTUC and the growing campaign for votes for women:

There seems to be some misunderstanding with regards to the aims  and obectives of the Manchester Womne’s Trades Council   It has been erroneously stated that the Council is concerned with the movement  for the enfranchisement of women, and leaflets  written on behalf of  a women’s suffrage society in the textile districts  have been  attributed to our initiative.

Allow me to state decisively that the Women’s  Trade Union Council does not concern itself  in any  way with women’s suffrage  or any other political question. Our object is solely to organise women their trades for the improvement of their industrial condition, giving them the weapon with which working men improved their long befor ethe acquisition of the vote. The opinion of individual members of the Council on the suffrage question is not even known to me. Miss Eva Gore-Booth, one of our organising secretaries, has taken some share in propaganda connected with women’s suffrage but her action in this regards is entirely unconnected with the work of the Council. I should regret exceedingly if the industrial organisation of women  in this  district, which is urgently needed, were confused with an agitation of  qute adifferent aim.

Amy signed her letter as chair of the MSWTUC, but  it seems she wrote the letter off her own bat as there is no discussion recorded in the  minutes  of the MSWTUC on 7 June. We do not know whether she spoke to Eva prior to sending the letter to the newspaper, but it was a very public repudiation of her own employee.

It   led to Christabel Pankhurst  to respond in a letter to the Manchester Guardian  (which I have not been able to trace) and then  bring forward a resolution  on suffrage which was initially discussed at a Special Meeting  of the MSWTUC on 26 July. Those present  were Amy Bulley (chair),  Margaret Ashton, Emily  Cox,  Christabel  Pankhurst, Mr. Johnston and  Mr. Herford

Amy Bulley explained that the meeting had been called in consequence of  a difficulty that had arisen through Miss Gore Booth’s women’s suffrage work.  The Daily News had published a paragraph confusing leaflets written by her and  published by the Textile Workers Committee with the Council’s propaganda. Miss Bulley then wrote a letter to the  Manchester Guardian disclaiming any connection with the movement for the enfranchisement of women on behalf of the Council.  Miss Pankhurst, as a member of the Council, had written to the Manchester Guardian to disassociate herself from this position.   After some discussion it was decided that the matter was too important to be decided at such a small meeting.  Christabel  therefore agreed to postpone her resolution till next Council meeting, when all the members could have good notice to attend.

This adjourned  meeting took place on  26th September . Those present were Amy  Bulley (chair), Miss Crompton, Emily  Cox, Miss Pankhurst, Katherine  Rowton and  Mr. Marr.

Christabel Pankhurst  moved the following resolution, ” That it is now time that the Council should bring their policy into line with that of the Unions with which they are connected by taking active part in the effort to gain political power for the women workers.” She  based her case on the growth of the Labour party supported by trade inionists , and the widefelt need of the franchise for the protection of the women workers’ interests. She pointed out that the Manchester women trade unionists had taken up this question strongly and appealed to the Council ” to bring their policy into harmony with that of the unions”. The resolution was seconded by Miss Rowton.

Amy Bulley read letters opposing any change of policy from Miss Ashton, Mrs. Schwann, Mr. Herford, Mr. Johnston. She said that that she thought that such a change would be disastrous and that it would alienate subscribers and friends. Miss Cox explained that the title of the Council was somewhat misleading, as they were not a body like the Trades Council  and  did not claim to represent the Women’s Trade Unions. Miss Crompton suggested that it was time that the women had a regular Trade Council of their own to deal with such matters which were outside the Council’s sphere. Miss Rowton drew attention to the need that the women workers had for the protection of the franchise and  said that it would be a great help to the Council in the attainment of better wages. Miss Bulley  said that did not think  that the workers would gain any benefit from the measure in question. Mr. Marr  said he was strongly opposed to any such change. After some discussion the resolution was put to the meeting and defeated by a majority of three.

For the Resolution : Christabel  Pankhurst  and Miss Rowton.

Against : Amy Bulley, Emily  Cox, Mr. Marr and Miss Crompton.

Following this meeting both Eva Gore-Booth and Sarah Dickenson decided to resign their posts.

In her letter of resignation, dated 28 September,  Eva wrote;

Dear Miss Bulley

In view of the  Resolution thrown out  at the last Council meeting (“that it is now time that the Council should bring their policy into line with the policy of the Unions with which they are connected, by taking active part  in the effort to gain political power for the women  workers”) and after my strong protest at the time, I am  sure you will understand that I find myself reluctantly obliged to give up my work for the Council.  The Council has finally decided to adopt a course, which, in my opinion,  cuts them off from all the broader, more progressive  & more hopeful  side of the modern labour movement,  & separates their policy from the policy of the organised women themselves  whose interests & opinions seem to me all important.  It is a profound conviction  of the absolute importance of political power to the workers, especially the women workers, that forces me to take this step. I have therefore put my resignation on the Agenda for the next meeting & hope you will  be kind enough to read this letter to the Council

Sarah Dickenson’s letter was dated the same day.

Dear Miss Bulley

Since the last Council meeting  I have  been thinking a good deal about the attitude of the Council in regards to working women & the franchise. As a Trade Unionist I should  always wish to identify myself with the women in any effort they might make  to improve their position, politically and industrially, & I  have come to the conclusion  that it would be best  for me to sever my  connection with the Council, seeing that they are not prepared to fall into line with the Women’s Unions.

yours sincerely

Sarah Dickenson

The MSWTUC met again  on 4 October by which time  they had received the letters from Eva and Sarah.   There was a larger attendance than the  previous meeting. Those present  were Amy Bulley (Chair), Emily Cox,  Margaret Ashton, Frances  Ashwell Cooke, Mr. Herford, Miss Crompton, Miss Rowton, Miss Pankhurst, Julia Gaskell, Mr. Marr and  Mr. Johnston.

Rather than moving straight a discussion on the resignations Amy Bulley began the meeting by trying to raise an issue concerning a letter written to the Labour MP Mr Shackleton in February 1903 which had been given to her by the MP.

The minutes state: “It appeared that in Feb 1903 Mr Shackleton, MP, was asked by the persons representing themselves to be the Manchester Women’s Trades Union Council to introduce a deputation to the Home Secretary on labour laws.The Home Secretary (Mr A Akers-Douglas) found that the object was to complain of the men’s unions and to advocate women’s suffrage, and stated that that one of the signatories was Miss Gore Booth, Organising Secretary of the Manchester WTUC. Mr Shackleton and the Home Secretary both declined to go further in the matter. Miss Bulley had informed the Home Secretary that the Council had never asked for an interview, or even discussed the subject indicated. Miss Gore Booth admited having signed the application as Organising Secretary of this Council and expressed her regret.

The minutes continue:  “Miss Bulley was prepared to go further with the matter. Mr Herford proposed, Miss Crompton seconded, that the subject be dropped. Carried. The Secretaries then went away.” It is unclear from the minutes whether this letter had only recently come to light or had been held back by Amy Bulley since 1903 for time when it might prove useful against Eva.

Amy Bulley reported that letters had been  received from the Secretaries of the Unions of Shirtmakers, Powerloom Weavers, Patent Cop-Winders, Bookbinders, Tailoresses, Clay Pipe-Finishers and the Women’s Federation, “stating their desire to withdraw from representation on the Council on the ground that the unions wished to take independent action on trade matters.”

She then  read the  resignation letters from Eva and  Sarah and it was agreed  to accept these  and to advertise for a new Secretary at £100 a year.

Finally it was also agreed  the City Council be requested to  co-opt Miss Bulley as representative of the MSWTUC on the  Council’s  Education Committee, a position that Eve Gore-Booth had been  fulfilling up  until this meeting.

It appears that the Council of the MSWTUC expected Eva and  Sarah  to work their notice but this did not happen  as was made  plain  at the on 11 October when a further  Special Meeting took place. Those present were Amy  Bulley (chair), Mrs. Schwann,  Margaret Ashton, Katherine Rowton, Christabel Pankhurst, Mrs. Crompton, Miss Simpson, Mrs. Cooke, Julia  Gaskell,  Emily Cox, Mr. Herford, Mr. Johnston, Mr. Marr and  Mr. Harker.

Amy Bulley started the meeting  by reading another letter she had received  from Eva-Gore-Both dated that day. The letter makes it plain that some members of the Council had been abusive towards Eva because of what had happened:

11 October 1904

Dear Miss Bulley

You will find all the information about the different unions very carefully recorded in the diary, also there is a record of every meeting. I think you will understand that it will be pleasanter for  us all for me not to be present  at the Council tomorrow considering the repeated discourtesies of several of the members of the Council and the extraordinary language they have allowed themselves to use to me. I cannot go on listening to repetitions of such things. Mrs. Dickenson agrees with me in this matter.

yours truly

Eva Gore Booth

ps in case you find the information in the Diary not full enough I enclose  some rough notes , & Mrs. Dickenson will let you have a list of meetings. As this a special meeting Mrs. Dickenson is holding the accounts over  to finish them up for Mr. Herford to go over.

Mrs. Schwann  reported  that she had arrived at the office shortly after  2pm (the office hours)  and  had had to wait  in the passage till one of the members of the Council, Miss Pankhurst, arrived with the key. Mr. Herford  said that apart from the  more serious questions involved in the absence of the Secretaries, it was an inconvenience not to be able to  make up the accounts. Miss Rowton  expressed her opinion that the position  was less painful in the absence of the Secretaries.

Mr. Johnston moved with Miss Ashton seconded,  that the Secretaries of the WTUC, Mrs. Dickenson  and Miss Gore Booth, be informed that as they absented themselves from their office duties and  the meeting of the Council to-day, without permission,”their appointments  are cancelled from this date”.

Amy read the letters from the unions again, which gave  as the reason for  withdrawal the wish of the union to take a line of independent action. Mrs. Schwann asked if the Council had ever wished to control the action of the unions in the management  of their own affairs, and  was assured that the policy of the Council  had been in later times as in the beginning to give complete independence to the unions formed.

It was reported that all the  seceding unions  which  had been  invited to confer with the Council had refused the invitation. At this point someone  drew the attention of the meeting to the formation of a new body,  the Manchester and Salford  Women’s  Trades and Labour  Council by the seceding unions,  which had been  announced in the advertisement in the Manchester Guardian of  8th October.  At this point the minutes reveal that  the meeting seems to have become quite bad tempered  with aspersions being  made about Eva and Sarah’s conduct while  Katherine Rowton defending them.  If Christabel  said anything, it was not recorded. The minutes read:

“It was pointed out that in all probability steps must have been taken to form such a society before the Council meeting on October 4th, when the resignations of the Secretaries were received. Miss Rowton reminded the Council that in the previous meeting a strong opinion had been expressed as to the desirability of forming such a Trades Council drawn  from the workers themelves, now or in the future. Miss Cox  said on of the most inexplicable points  in the conduct of the Secretaries was that in view  of this expression of opinion, the new scheme  should have been  kept a secret from the Council. Miss Rowton  thought the Council took an unjustifiably severe view of the action of the Secretaries. Mrs Schwann  considered they had been  dealt with most leniently. Mr Johnston  was of the opinion that their conduct was entirely unpardonable & urged that the Council could not continue to allow them to remain in its offices  & undo its work.  After further discussion the resolution  was part to the vote, & was carried; 11 members voting for the motion, & one against, two members not voting.”

At this point in the meeting  Katherine Rowton  and   Christabel Pankhurst announced that they  wished to resign their membership of the Council and  walked out.

Amy Bulley expressed her regret that she was unable to undertake the duties of the Educational Committee for which the Council desired to nominate her for co-optio.  It was agreed that Emily Cox’s name be submitted to the City Council.

Mrs. Schwann wished to consider how it would be possible to find out the strength  of the Council formed by the seceding unions. ” It was agreed that it was better to leave the unions to themselves for the present  strong hope  being expressed that  amicable relations could be established in the future.”

At the meeting on 1st November a letter was read from Miss Rowlette was read resigning from the the MSWTUC  as  in her opinion,”industrial equality for women was unattainable without political enfranchisement”.  Another union resigned from the Council, namely the Cigar Makers.

After the Split

In the immediate aftermath of the split  there was a bitter public row over the nomination to Manchester Education Committee which  revealed the gulf between the two sides.    On 11 November 1904 the Manchester Guardian published a letter from Nellie Keenan, Sarah Dickenson, Evelyn Tonkin, Isabel Forsyth, Nellie Kay, and Violet  Whalley on behalf of the unions which constituted  the new Council. They stated that as a result of a  radical  difference of opnion between the Trades Council and the trade unions, they had decided to withdraw:

They were convinced that the time had come when it was essential for the unions’ progress and future development that they should stand on an independent and self-reliant basis and formulate their own policy. A representative Women’s  Trades and Labour Council  was therefore constituted. It will be seen that this Council  is not in the real sense a new and untried body, as it is formed from the representative sof the most important and long-established unions.The Women’s Trades and Labour Council wish to protest most strongly against the  nomination of a working women’s  represenative by the Manchester and Salford and Distrci Womne’s Trades Council.

Miss Gore-Booth was chosen by the women  trade-unionists to be their representative, and they are quite satisfied  with her, and do not want wish for a change. Miss Emily Cox, who is now supposed to represent them, was nominated without any woman trade-unionist in the city being consulted. With all due respect to Miss Emily Cox, who, we have no doubt, is a most worthy lady, she has no claim whatever to represent the women’s  trade unions of this district.

The  Manchester and Salford Women Trades  and Labour  Council strongly  deprecates that this nomination should be in the hands of any philanthropic body, no matter how well intentioned. 

Amy Bulley, clearly  still very angry at what she clearly regarded as a betrayal by Sarah and Eva,  responded  immediately in a letter published on 12th November:

We wish to say that throughout the  ten years during which this Council has been at work no word of disssatisfaction with its aims or methods has been expressed, so far as we know, by any of the unions it has formed. The only difficulty experienced has been with our secretaries, who, in consequence of our decision to take no part as a Council in the women’s suffrage movement, resigned their posts on 4 October. Before their resignations were received they took the appointment as secretaries to a new “Women Trades and Labour Council” formed with their assistance on 29 September.

As the officials of the seceding unions refused to meet our Council to explain their position or express their desires it was  impossible to consult them as to the selection of a nominee for the Education Committee, as we did last year,   and without a formal alteration of the education scheme a nomination cannot be transferred from one body to another. I may add that Miss Emily Cox, our present representative, is specially qualified in educational matters, and has been working in the women’s  trade  union movement for over ten years. 

Sarah Dickenson  responded immediately to Amy Bulley’s accusations with a letter published on 14 November:

In reply to Miss Bulley’s criticism of the wording of the Women’s  Trade  Unionists’ letter in the “Manchester Guardian”, may I claim some knowledge of the feeling among the women  trade  unionists, having been Secretary of the Federation of Women Workers, since before the Council was formed, ten years ago.

With regard to the date of the secretaries’ resignation and the forming by the women  of their own Council, the resignations were sent to the chairman, Miss Bulley,  on 28th September,  and acknowledged by her. A meeting of the joint committee of the trade unions was held on 29 September to discuss the situation which had reached a crisis since the Council’s refusal early in September to bring their policy into line with that of their constituent societies on the matter of the enfranchisement of women  workers – a matter the importance of which  must always appear more evident to the women workers thatn to those who are more comfortably situated. The resignation of the secretaries was reported to this  meeting, and the advisability of forming an independent Council was discussed. Both these matters were  then discussed for the first time.  The Council was formed and the honorary secretaries (Miss Eva Gore-Booth and Mrs Dickenson) were elected at once, as it was neccessary for the carrying on of  routine trade-union business. The later refusal of the women  to discuss the matter with the Manchester, Salford and District Women’s  Trade  Union Council  was due in part to their indignation at the manner in which their representative for the Education Commitee had been superceded. 

I have answered Miss Bulley’s criticism  of our methods, but in our opinion all this is beside the mark. The question remains where it was. Is it right that the representation  intended for the organised working women shall remain  in the hands of the Women’s  Trades Council, at present an unrepresentative body of   self-elected people. We contend that this was not the class of representation intended by the education  scheme. The working women  are very much in earnest about this matter, and trust that the authorities will see the justice of their claim.

Amy Bulley responded in another letter published on 15 November, which was the final letter in the exchange

Mrs Dickenson’s admission that the question of forming a new council for women’s trade unions was discussed on 29th September for the first time comfirms our impression that the individual members of the unions were not consulted at all in the step which was taken.

We have no quarrel with those unions that have left us. Like the rest, they have always been free to shape their own policy, form their own organisation, and take up any social or political question (such as women’s suffrage) that they might choose. If they  consider that their interests can now be adequately served without our aid, the decision sets free our energies for the formation of new unions in the many women’s trades which  are still unorganised.  Our complaint is that Miss Gore-Booth and Mrs Dickenson,  while still in our paid employ as organising secretaries, and before their resignations had been received by the Council, assisted in the withdrawal of a number of unions, to the extent of even signing two  of the letters of resignation themselves. No report had  been previously furnished by them of dissatisfaction among the unions, nor have we any  assurance that it  existed.

The facts are now before your readers, and I do not  think any good purpose can be served by further discussion. During the past past ten years our work has been carried on steadily and quietly, without stirring  up industrial life and we  propose to continue it on the same lines. Women’s suffrage has many sympathisers upon the Council, but we not contemplate adding it to our objects.

Mrs Aldridge, who has had previous experience in the work, has been appointed organising secretary, and we hope to establish in the future women’s  trade unions as well able to hold their own as those now in question. 

The  newly formed Manchester and Salford Women Trades  and Labour  Council took offices at 5 John Dalton, the same building as the TWC. The Secretaries were Sarah Dickenson and Eva Gore-Booth, the Treasurer was Nellie Keenan. By 1907  the affiliated union were:

Society of Women  in the Bookbinding and Printing Trades (Secretary, Miss Forsyth)

Electric and Machine  Workers’ Union (Secretary, Mrs. Dickenson)

Power Loom Weavers’ Association (Salford, Manchester and District)  (Secretary, Miss Keenan)

Amalgamated Shirt and Jacket Maker’s Society (Women’s branch) (Secretary, Miss Tonkin)

Tailoresses’ Union (Secretary, Miss Preston)

Cigar Makers’ Union (Secretary, Miss Brereton)

Clay Pipe Finishers’ Society (Secretary, Mrs. Bagulay)

Ring Spinners’ Union (Secretary, Miss Nellie Fysh)

Union of Patent Cop Winders, Hank and Bobbin Winders Gassers, Doublers, Reelers (Secretary, Mrs. Violet Grundy)

Cap Makers’ Union (Secretary, Miss Hulme)

Cut off from  the rich Liberal supporters who funded the MSWTUC, the new Council relied instead on donations from the affilated unions,  other unions, Socialist organisations such as the Clarion Vocal Union,  Clarion Cycling Club and Nelson LRC, Suffrage Societies,  and  donations from individuals such Eva’s brother Josslyn Gore-Booth.

The MSWTLC  continued its work to  organise women into unions, but also campaigned on the suffrage question holding public meetings, going on processions,  and supporting pro-suffrage candidates in by-elections in Wigan and in Rossendale.  In 1907 they started their own newspaper Women’s Labour News, no copies of which have survived sadly. Eva played a leading role in defending women’s  right to work, eg  defeating a proposal to ban barmaids from public houses.

Amy Bulley stepped down as chair of the Council in 1907. Her departure may well  have assisted in  the moves  made in  1909 to establish a cordial working relationship between the two Women’s Trades Councils.

On 21 April the Council discussed a letter from from Councillor Fox Secretary of the Trades and Labour Council inviting the Council to send three representatives to a joint meeting at Caxton Hall on   27 April   for the purpose of “discussing ways and means of furthering trade organisation amongst women.” The meeting  was to consist of three members of the Executive of the Manchester Trades and Labour Council, three representatives of the Women’s Trades and Labour Council and three representatives from the Women’s Trades Union Council. Miss Ashton moved,  Mr. Herford seconded that Miss Cox, Mrs. Cooke and Mrs. Aldridge be appointed to attend the meeting.

At the meeting on 12 May a positive report was made about the Caxton Hall meeting at which Alf  Purcell had  urged the need for joint action in extending trade organisation in the district. All present felt it would be useful if a permanent joint committee could be formed but before taking this step it was felt that  the matter should be brought before the respective Councils and therefore another meeting was arranged for 18 May. Mr. Herford moved and Mrs. Cooke seconded: “That the Council approves of the formation of a permanent joint committee consisting of an equal number of representatives from the Men’s Trades and Labour Council, the Women’s Trades and Labour Council and the Women’s Trade Union Council, if the joint conference at their next meeting decide on its formation.”

At the meeting on 9th June it  was reported that the Joint Committee consisting of representatives from the three Manchester Trades Councils was formed on 18 May  at a meeting held at the Caxton Hall. The Committee decided to increase the representation from three to  four members from each of the Councils. A Sub Committee of one represenative  from each Council –  Councillor Alf Purcell, Mrs. Dickenson and Mrs Aldridge – was appointed to draft and issue a circular to all the trade organisations in the Manchester District. The Circular asked unions whether they enrolled women members and if so what assistance the Joint Commitee could be.  If they  did not enrol women members, would the union be willing to assist if they commenced the work?  “We desire that it should be clearly understood that it is notour intention to create organisations in any trade in addition to those already existing. Put briefly, we desire to help, build up and strengthen the TU forces, and it is with this object that we ask your replies to the questions submitted.”

The two Women’s Trades Councils  were brought closer together during the First World War when they worked together on the Manchester Women’s War Interest Committee.

Finally in April 1919 the two Women’s Trades Councils merged with the Manchester and Salford Trades  Council to form a single body.  This included a Women’s  Group  with Mary Quaile as the Secretary.











a course on the history of radical women: From Mary Wollstonecraft to Votes for Women

 I will be teaching part one of  a course on the history of Radical  Women, starting  on Tuesday 10 October. The course will last 10 weeks and the venue will be the Working Class Movement  Library, 51 Crescent, Salford M5 4WX. The cost of the course will be £60. It will normally run 11am to 1pm.

The course will include the following

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the few  women who came to prominence   in the English radical movement of the 790s. Her treatise, Vindication of the Right of Woman, a follow up to her lesser known work, Vindication   of the Rights of Man, made her a well-known figure in English society, though it did not lead to the creation of a feminist movement.

The Luddites

Luddism was an organised  workers movement which attacked the machinery taking away their jobs in Nottingham, Yorkshire and Lancashire between 1811 and 1813. Whilst women did not generally play a role in the attacks on mills, they did play a prominent role in the food rioting in Manchester in the spring of 1812.


As the radical  movement  grew into a mass movement in the course of 1819, women stepped onto the political stage organising Female Reform Societies which issued addresses to the public. Women were present at Peterloo,  and were among the dead and injured.

Manchester Female Republicans

In the 1820s women were active in the Republican societies  inspired by the ideas and  writing of Richard Carlile.

Owenite Socialism

Organised groups of workers set up co-operative societies from the late 1820s onwards, inspired by the ideas of Robert Owen. Owen also attacked religion and traditional marriage, leading to a number of women such as Emma Martin preaching his principles around Britain in public lectures.


Chartism was mass worker’s movement at its height between 1839 and 1848 which called for whole sale political reform. Women were not among the leaders, but were active at grassroots level.

Trade unions

Lancashire had the highest number of women workers in England, mostly working in the textile industry as weavers. The Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades  Council was set up in 1895 to organise women in lowest paid industries into unions.

Votes for Women

The struggle for Votes for Women  lasted from 1866 to 1928. Manchester played an important role in all phases of the movement, both militant and non-militant. This session will include the role of working class women in the suffarghe campaign.

I have  been studying and teaching Manchester’s radical  history for many years. my  published work includes “Up Then Brave   Women,” Manchester’s radical women 1819-1918.

For information or to book a place on the course, please contact me;  redflagwalks@gmail.com