In 1941 and 1942 a number of Women’s Parliaments were held in different parts of the country to discuss the issues arising from women working in industry. This was an initiative stemming from the Communist Party, but which drew in wider support than just their own membership, a sign that the changed position of women in society created by the war, was leading to a thoughtful discussion of wider issues.
The first Women’s Parliament was held in London on 13 July 1941, just a few weeks after Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, and was attended by 346 women who were dubbed “MPs”. The conference was opened by Beatrix Lehmann, a well-known actress and author. She said:
We welcome you to this first session of the Women’s Parliament, which meets at a time of crisis unparalleled in world history. We women, more than any, are sensible of the sufferings which have been brought upon this generation. We know what a terrible cost would be exacted by the victory of Fascist reaction and we know that the utter annihilation of Fascism must precede all hope of a just and lasting peace. Yet any who think that the role of a woman at this time is to sit down and weep beneath the load of her sufferings and take no part in the shaping of events, is mistaking all the lessons of history. The war, it is true, has broken up the settled course of social life. But it also faces us with new responsibilities and immense opportunities.
The Women’s Parliament passed an emergency resolution of support for the USSR. The report of the event said the gathering was “confident of its strength and resolute in its purpose. They were not there to air grievances or bewail their fate, but to put forward concrete proposals”. At later sessions the Parliament put forward draft Bills on Wages and Part-Time Work which, it said, were needed in order “to utilise the whole resources of the nation in the war against German Nazism and to ensure an early victory, it is necessary to bring about the most effective and fullest mobilisation of man power and woman power”.
The Lancashire Women’s Parliament took place on 12 April 1942, organised by Manchester and District Anglo-Soviet Women’s Unity Committee. It was held in the Co-operative Hall, Downing Street, and attended by 300 women from political parties, trade unions, Anglo-Soviet committees, munition factories, and many other bodies. Also present were two representatives from the Ministry of Information, as well as a large number of other visitors.
Miss Clara Bamber, President of the Manchester and District Women’s Anglo-Soviet Unity Committee, presided over the conference. She had been active in the Co-operative Movement, and was also Chair of the Manchester, Salford and District Maternal Mortality Committee.
In her opening address Clara said that about half the delegates represented women in industry and about half represented housewives or organisations interested in women’s work, thereby representing a very good cross section of Lancashire women. She said that the Parliament had come about after a number of Manchester women had met the previous August and decided to form an Anglo-Russian Women’s Friendship Committee. This had been very successful and a deputation had been sent to Madame Maisky (wife of the Soviet Ambassador) with donations of money and supplies to the Soviet Union. They had also affiliated to the Anglo-Russian Friendship Committee, started by the Lord Mayor of Manchester. She recalled that when the Soviet trade union delegation had visited Manchester, Madame Nikolayeva, Secretary of the All-Union Council of Trade Unions, had pointed out that she was disappointed at seeing so many women in Lancashire who were not working in industry. (The delegation had visited Manchester in January 1942, attending a conference and visiting bombed areas and factories).
They had called the Parliament, Clara continued, to give women the opportunity of discussing why more of them were not working in industry and what the difficulties were which kept them out. In conclusion she spoke about the international situation:
At the moment the only country which is holding the enemy is Russia and Russia must be helped if we are to help ourselves. Their magnificent stand this winter has given us quiet nights; it has saved us from possible invasion and has filled us with admiration and courage. We love our land, too, and we will sacrifice for it, but we want the burden to fall equally on all people. Our deliberations today are to that end.
The first item discussed by the delegates was the draft Women’s Power Bill which set out the following demands in order to allow women to go into industry:
- Factory canteens and British restaurants
- Nursery schools and residential nurseries
- Full time education, dinners for all school children, breakfasts and teas for children of war-workers
- Play Centres for children of school age with voluntary supervision
- Full use of local part-time labour to made by all factory management
- All women who registered for National Service should be drawn into work without delay or class distinction
- An immediate examination of Lancashire industry should be undertaken by the Ministry of Labour, the employers and the trade unions with a view to making the fullest use of the available woman labour
Mrs Holt, representing the BRD Aircraft Factory, Warrington, moved the Bill. She said that she had wasted 12 years of her life as an unpaid housewife, but for the past five months she had been in industry helping the war effort. “The splendid and dauntless courage of the Soviet women drew me to the factory,” she declared. “The Soviet women are an example to us, and we can play our part just as they are doing…every woman must play her part as more and more men are taken out of industry and drafted into the Forces”. She went on to say that her factory was now 100 per cent trade union, and that as a senior shop steward she knew the problems confronting the women in industry such as the lack of nursery schools and shopping facilities. She asked the women of the Parliament to give this draft bill their utmost support.
Bessie Wild of the Longsight Anglo-Soviet Committee said that there could be no future for her two children unless she herself played her part in the war effort. Her children attended a nursery and she was extremely satisfied with the manner in which her children were being looked after. Bessie had heard that a munitions factory quite near to her home was being opened, but when she presented herself she was told that there could be no question of part-time work. She thought that Labour Exchanges should adopt a more friendly and helpful attitude.
Margaret Hyndman, who was described as a shop steward in a “a large aircraft industry” (clearly the Avro factory in Chadderton, ) said that the firm employed 11,000 workers, 2,000 of whom were women. They were not organised at first, but now they had a woman convenor as well as a male convenor. They had good conditions, and surprised the management by turning out the new bomber in three months under schedule. “The shop stewards,” she continued, “took up the question of the canteen and secured substantial improvements, such as weekly dinners at six shillings per week, table-cloths, flowers on the tables, waitresses, good service, food well cooked and served. Since the women had started working at the factory, production had doubled. Get the women organised, and then we can end the war this year”.25
Florence Mitton was a delegate from the Stretford branch of the TGWU at Metro-Vickers. She said that she represented 2,000 members, and their worst problem was shopping which had led to much absenteeism. “We feel,” that in Manchester and Lancashire we should get busy on solving this problem – show the traders the difficulties experienced by the workers and get their co-operation in the settlement of the problem”. Florence also said it was essential to get crèches.26
There was concern in the higher echelons of the trade union movement at the success of the Women’s Parliaments, and the fact that it might enhance the standing of the Communist Party. Consequently Walter Citrine, General Secretary of the TUC, sent out a letter which was read at the monthly meeting of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council on 17 January 1943. It was clear, he wrote, that the Women’s Parliaments were attempting to deal with many matters that were the subject of “negotiation by individual trade unions or the trade unions generally” and had intervened in matters that were essentially the responsibility of trade unions. If the Women’s Parliaments were to receive support from trade union branches, district committee, or trades councils it would inevitably lead to” conflicting policies or misunderstandings”. In all circumstances, the letter concluded, the General Council of the TUC strongly advised affiliated organisations and Trades Councils not to support the Women’s Parliaments.
The letter was in some sense unnecessary, since the Lancashire Women’s Parliament was the last such meeting to be held. The Communist Party was increasingly directing its efforts towards factory production committees, and also a campaign for a Second Front, calling for an Allied invasion of Western Europe in order to assist the Red Army in its fight against the German armies in the East.