Matchgirl strikers Matchgirl strikers, 1888. Photo: Public Domain

In the first of a series on women and socialism, Terina Hine looks at the history of how women have made gains through worker militancy

The struggle for women’s equality has been long, marked by both successes and setbacks. It has been more than 130 years since the young women at the Bryant and May match factory in east London went on strike and showed the world how women can organise for themselves, fight oppression and win against the odds.

Since then, there have obviously been huge advances: we have the right to vote, the right to control our bodies and finances, and engage in the labour market regardless of marital status.

The 21st century has seen feminism, not so long ago a dirty word in many circles, enter the mainstream. Advertising agencies along with politicians of all hues have jumped on the feminist bandwagon. 

When Theresa May was Prime Minister she proudly identified as a feminist – she even had the t-shirt to prove it. With the fallout from the #MeToo movement and Womens Marches ringing in their ears, even the Trump administration arranged suitable hashtags and photo-ops, with first daughter Ivanka Trump taking the leading role as a ‘passionate advocate for the education and empowerment of women and girls.’

But becoming mainstream has pitfalls – it provides a false sense of ‘job done’, a cover for attacks on hard-won gains and fails to reflect the lived experience of most women – a focus on individual high achievers masking the reality of the majority.

That reality is often underpaid and undervalued work, doing more than the fair share of domestic drudgery, as well as the continued violence against and objectification of women. Structural inequality permeates every strand of women’s lives, and with the ‘great and the good’ claiming feminist credentials, it is more important than ever to understand how change is achieved – and its not from a slogan on a t-shirt, a hashtag or a Frida Kahlo accessory.

So let us look to history and see how struggles are won.

In the Bryant and May strike the young (and they were mainly teenagers) female strikers were united and courageous, but they did not fight alone. From the beginning they had the support of socialist campaigner Annie Besant – she publicised their cause, and helped organise the strike. Fellow socialist and feminist Clementina Black also campaigned on their behalf, as did George Bernard Shaw, helping gain support from the middle-class. The London trades councils, previously focused only on skilled workers, provided financial assistance and mediation support. The solidarity of socialist activists, campaigners and trade councils all played a crucial role in the strike’s success, which in turn heralded the huge strike wave of the New Unions.

As the century turned, militancy among women increased encouraged by the example of the ‘match girls’. A new generation of socialist women leaders, inspired by figures such as Eleanor Marx, Annie Besant and Clementina Black, began organising. Although trade union membership rose dramatically, women still only accounted for 10% of membership, and women activists came together mainly over the issue of voting rights.

By early in the 20th century the campaign for women’s suffrage had gained mass support from working-class women. As middle-class women increased their participation in the labour market, mainly in clerical, nursing and teaching professions, their lives and expectations changed, and they too took up the struggle for votes.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by the Pankhursts, initially forged strong links with working-class women, but as the suffrage movement grew so did the tensions between the priorities and tactics of the middle and working-class activists. Sylvia Pankhurst’s desire to see political gains reflected in economic gains meant she continued to view the struggle for votes as integral to the struggle for improved conditions for the working-class. She rejected the tactic of the ‘militancy of a few’ promoted by WSPU favouring ‘the rising of the masses’. These division led to expulsion of Sylvia from WSPU in 1914 leaving her to focus on her work with women in London’s East End.

Similar splits in womens movements were taking place in Germany and Russia, where socialist women found themselves at odds with middle and upper-class women who supported equal rights yet ignored economic inequalities. With the outbreak of war, such divisions became entrenched, with socialist women across Europe and the US allying themselves with class struggle and opposition to war and militarism. In England, the gulf between Sylvia’s East London Federation and WSPU widened as the latter rallied behind the war effort with patriotic fervour.

The First World War brought a halt to organised protest as strikes were banned. But in August 1918, just before the war ended, London Transport witnessed the first women’s strike demanding equal rights with men – the strikers wanted parity with their male colleagues who had received a war bonus. As the struggle continued the slogan ‘same work – same money’ was adopted. Called by women at the Willesden bus depot, the strike immediately spread across the London bus network, onto the tubes and out of town – strikes by women bus workers occurred simultaneously in London, Hastings, Bath, Bristol, South Wales, Southend and Birmingham – and on the tube were supported by some male colleagues. The impact of the strike was dramatic, and the women won their demand for the bonus, if not for equal pay; it took another fifty years of struggle for the Equal Pay Act to become law.

In 1968 the women machinists at the Dagenham Ford plant downed tools in the first equal pay strike. The strike brought the factory to its knees. The machinists won the support of left-wing movements and feminists who campaigned at their side. Inspired by the Ford strike, women trade unionists founded the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Womens Equal Rights (NJACWER), the group that led and won the campaign for equal pay a year later. Although a big win, the right to equal pay remains far from being fully realised: the pay gap between men and women still stands at nearly 17%.

Spurred on by women’s industrial action, the women’s liberation movement in Britain was born at the Oxford Conference in 1970. The movement attracted young, radical women who rejected their traditional roles as wives and mothers, and opposed the objectification of women (famously picketing the Miss World competition).

Having emerged from left protest struggles, during a time of significant industrial action, connections between political rights and economic and social issues were once again at the fore; the relationship between capitalism and women’s oppression became central to the debate.

The movement was organised through small local groups, and took a leading role in many campaigns. One expression of its influence was the campaign to defend the 1967 Abortion Act, with socialists playing a major role. The socialist activists argued access to abortion was a class issue, as the wealthy were able to pay for safe, legal abortions. As part of the campaign they arranged meetings in factories and union branches, held street protests and organised a 40,000 strong demonstration in London. The movement gained considerable support crossing the class and sex divide, until splitting over tactics. The move away from mass action to focus on parliamentary support, in particular to win over Labour MPs, added to the decline of the women’s movement overall.

Without the focus on mass action and workplace organising, the movement became less relevant to working-class women and their struggles. The class differences which had fractured the suffragette movement now appeared in Second Wave feminism; the focus shifted away from the rights of all women towards an elite breaking the glass ceiling. Individual women gained access to boardrooms, but failed to notice who cleaned their homes or took care of their children.

By the 1980s separation of the private from the public sphere dominated much of the discourse, while neo-liberalism promoted feminism as an individual choice. The result: a woman’s biological role was considered distinct from her role in the workforce and superwomen with multiple children working in City finance jobs were heralded as role models. The complexities of maternity leave and declining promotional opportunities for mothers and older women encountered by the majority was sidelined.

What is notable about the struggle for women’s equality is that social change is won through solidarity, and struggles are successful when women’s oppression is recognised as being part of a broader economic landscape. Today, for all our advances, women still battle against discrimination – for this to change we need people unite and challenge the inequalities woven into the very fabric of society.

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