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.
On 1 May 1892 Manchester workers marched for the first time in a mass labour demonstration for a shorter working week and an independent political voice. It was part of a worldwide movement as unskilled workers organised in mass trades unions and Socialism developed a mass political following.
May Day was instituted as an international Labour Day from 1890 onwards. The impetus came in part from a long-running campaign to reduce the working day to 8 hours. In September 1866 the International Workingmen’s Association (otherwise known as the First International) meeting in Geneva passed a resolution adopting 8 hours as a goal. In October 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions of the United States and Canada also passed a resolution calling for an 8 hour day from 1 May 1886.
In May 1886 tens of thousands of workers responded across the United States. The most militant city was Chicago, where on 3 May the police shot dead six strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. In response strikers organised a massive rally the following day at Haymarket Square. The rally was peaceful but as it ended somone threw a bomb into police ranks. This was followed by a savage battle in which a number of police died, as well as members of the crowd. There was a political show trial of a number of anarchists, of whom four were convicted and hanged. They become known as the Haymarket Martyrs.
The Congress decided to organize a great international demonstration, so that:
“in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris Congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor at its Convention in St. Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration. The workers of the various countries must organize this demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country.”
This coincided with a new mood amongst unskilled workers, hitherto ignored or excluded by the trades union movement, which had largely organised skilled male workers only. In July 1888, for instance, women workers at the Bryant & May match factory in East London went on strike and won with the support of Socialists. The following year there was a massive dock strike in London involving thousands of dock labourers, which brought the miles of docks to a halt. The result was victory for the workers leading to higher pay, better working conditions and a new union for unskilled workers, The Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers Union. The strike was led by trade unionists and Socialists including Tom Mann, John Burns, Ben Tillett and Will Thorne.
For the first time Socialist ideas were getting a mass audience. John Burns wrote of the importance of the dispute after it had been won:
“Still more important perhaps, is the fact that labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organize itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything. He has tasted success as the immediate fruit of combination, and he knows that the harvest he has just reaped is not the utmost he can look to gain. Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors.”
On May Day 1890 there were strikes and marches in many part of the United States and Europe. Frederick Engels wrote:
“As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilized for the first time as One army, under One Bag, and fighting One immediate aim: an eight-hour working day, established by legal enactment…. The spectacle we are now witnessing will make the capitalists and landowners of all lands realize that today the proletarians of all lands are, in very truth, united. If only Marx were with me to see it with his own eyes!”
The London march to Hyde Park was huge, with perhaps 100,000 attending. Engels wrote an account in the newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung:
“There can be no doubt about that: on May 4, 1890, the English working class joined the great international army. And that is an epoch-making fact. The English proletariat has its roots in the most advanced industrial development and, moreover, possesses the greatest freedom of political movement. Its long slumber — a result, on the one hand, of the failure of the Chartist movement of 1836-50 and, on the other, of the colossal industrial upswing of 1848-80 — is finally broken. The grandchildren of the old Chartists are stepping into the line of battle.”
The success in London was repeated in 1891, and Manchester followed with its own march in 1892.
On 16 April 1892 The Clarion reported that a “a great labour demonstration” was being planned for Manchester for 1 May. Trade union and labour societies were requested to communicate with Mr James Quinn at the County Forum, 50a Market Street. (The County Forum was a debating society). Organising meetings were to be held every Thursday.
On the day before the march Robert Blatchford wrote a millenarian editorial in The Clarion:
“The people will meet, that is the main thing. We shall see each other face to face, feel each other should to shoulder, hear each other voice to voice, trust each other soul to soul and we shall go away open-eyed and conscious of a change. we shall have felt our strength, imagined our numbers, seen as a vision of the world the golden dawn streak of the day of our deliverance, and our triumph. Manhood suffrage and payment of members! What are these? They are as candles to the sun in comparison with the new LABOUR DAY. …Our labour day as bind us as corn in the sheaf. The sturdy miner, the skilful engineer, the broad-handed navvy, the white-fingered artist, the lusty farmer, the fragile seamstress, the outcasts of the streets, the despised denizens of the slums, the sweater’s slave the hearty sailor. Strong and weak, feeble and brave, old and young, simple and wise, the workers shall band themselves together in fraternity and freedom. They shall march on from this labour day growing ever wiser, nobler and juster until there is honour for those who make more than those who mar, reward for those who labour better than for those who loaf, until snobbery and prejudice, and theft and butchery are banished into the Hell they came from; until Labour shall hold that which it wins, and England shall be the freehold and the home and inheritance of the English.”
The procession was to assemble in Stevenson Square at 2.30pm and march to Alexandra Park by way of Oldham Street, Piccadilly, Portland Street, Oxford Street, Stretford Road, Great Jackson Street, Preston Street, Moss Lane and Alexandra Road. The order of procession was advertised as follows
The Manchester Fabian Societies
Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants
Bakers & Confectioners
The Labour Church
Shirt & Jacket Makers
Salford Social Democrats
North East Manchester Labour Electoral
Spindle & Flyer Makers
Horsehair & Fibre Workers
Dressers, Dyers & Finishers
Enginemen & Cranemen
Navvies & Bricklayers
North Manchester Labour Electoral
According to the report in the Manchester Guardian, a white ensign headed the procession with the slogan “Work for all, Overwork for None”. Other banners stated “Unity is Strength” and “Equality by Right, Justice to All”. Members of the Labour Church carried a banner stating “God Is Our King”, while the Social Democratic Federation contingent carried red flags and a red cap on a pole (the symbol of the French Revolution).
Due to the numbers the procession moved off before the appointed time and was enlivened by at least a dozen bands. The Manchester Guardian noted that watching crowds, especially women, cheered the mottos in favour of the 8 hour day. In Hulme the march was greeted by large crowd and “something like the fervour of enthusiasm.” The march reached the park at about 4pm with at least 60,000 people now present.
At the park there were six platforms with a mix of trade union and Socialist speakers who advocated the following political programme;
1. Formation of an Independent Labour Party
2. Payment of MPs
3. Shorter Parliaments
4. Adult suffrage
5. Nationalisation of the land.
On one of the platforms Robert Blatchford moved the following resolution:
“That this meeting recognises that the establishment of a working day of not more than 8 hours is the most immediate step towards the ultimate emancipation of the workers and urges upon the Government the necessity of fixing a working day by legislative enactment.”
One of the platforms was reserved for Jewish speakers who spoke in Yiddish, including Mr Wess from London. This platform was chaired by Mr R Abrahams, who said that he hoped that next year Jews would be more numerous. There do not seem to have been any women speakers and women’s suffrage was not included as an aim.
In 1893 Manchester Council tried to stop the march taking place, turning down an application from 35 trades unions to use Alexandra Park. According to a report in The Clarion, the Corporation Parks Committee had deemed it:
“…inadvisable that Sunday demonstrations should be held in the public parks and considers that unless desired by a considerable section of the Manchester citizens they should not be permitted. This meeting believes the present application is not of such a nature to warrant such permission and therefore declines to grant it.”
Leonard Hall, chair of the demonstration committee, wrote to The Clarion to state that the march was a labour demonstration open to all, and not an Independent Labour Party or Socialist demonstration. After more public protests, permission to use the park was eventually granted.
Manchester was alive with socialist organisations and activity. In the week before the 1893 march The Clarion carried notices for meetings of the Independent Labour Party in various parts of Manchester and Salford as well as a “gigantic” excursion to Morecambe on Whit Friday.The Social Democratic Federation, Hyde Labour Club, Ashton ILP, Oldham Independent Labour Club, North Manchester Fabians and Manchester Anarchist Group all held public meetings. Joe Waddington (known as “Clarion” Joe) sold The Clarion, Labour Prophet, Labour Leader, Workman Times, Shafts, A Paper for Women and “Socialistic” literature from his shop at 4a Crown Street, Chester Road. The printers and publsihers, Manchester Labour Press, was based at 59 Tib Street.
The march took place on 6 May leaving from Stevenson Square at 2.30pm. The Clarion reported that it had been attended by 20,000. In his editorial Blatchford attacked the “city fathers” who had tried to stop them using the park and the Chief Constable who had deployed very large numbers of police who were threatening to the crowd, pushing people off pavements.
In 1894 the authorities refused to allow the use of Alexandra Park and instead the march went to Philips Park in Openshaw. The tradition of May Day marches continued for a century until it ceased in the wake of trade union decline and defeat. In recent years the tradition of a May Day labour procession has been revived, although the numbers attending at present are but a fraction of those who attended in the early years.