There are only a handful of leading women activists associated with the trade union rank and file Minority Movement in the 1920s. None of these is as well known or documented as AJ Cook, JT Murphy or Tom Mann. Why was this?
The broad reason is that in the 1920s the labour movement was male dominated and women activists were rare.
More specifically the kind of industries where the Minority Movement organised, such as coal and engineering, had very few women workers. So it is not a surprise that there were few women activists.
However, there were women activists — Sylvia Pankhurst had been a key figure in the birth of British Communism. And there certainly were women workers.
Many, such as cooks, maids and nannies, were unorganised. But some, such as tailors and garment workers, were unionised.
Rose Smith was one such person. She was a leading figure among a small but highly significant group of women activists in the 1920s, many of them in the Communist Party.
Smith herself was a founding member of the Communist Party and was active in the Miners Minority Movement in the 1920s, although not eligible under the law to be a miner. She went on to become the national women’s organiser of the party.
Born Rose Ellis in Putney in 1891 she was originally an infant teacher, becoming a member of the Social Democratic Federation, a forerunner of the British Socialist Party and the Communist Party, in Chesterfield in 1910.
In 1916 she married Alfred Smith and in the same year became a wartime munitions worker. She organised women newly drawn into the workforce into a union. In 1919 she gave birth to twins, Percy and Ted.
By 1922 she had helped found the Mansfield branch of the Communist Party. As a married women, Rose Smith was now barred by law from her profession of teaching and hence from regular union membership.
She became involved, between 1923 and 1927, in the Mansfield branch of the Miners Minority Movement. She demanded that “wives and daughters should be organised as ‘different but equal’ players in industrial struggles”.
In 1925, during the run-up to the General Strike, Rose Smith opened her home to the miners’ activists as a distribution and agitation centre.
She spoke at public meetings in support of the miners and argued within the Communist Party that preparation for a General Strike was not just “a man’s job”.
Rose Smith was also a supporter of birth control, contrary to Communist Party policy. She won the support of miners’ leader AJ Cook for the cause and wrote an article in the Sunday Worker newspaper supporting it.
In March 1926 Cook spoke at a Mansfield women’s meeting and called for every miners’ wife to be in a special section of the union.
By the summer of 1926 Smith had won the support of the president of the Minority Movement, Tom Mann. He argued that “trade unionism is the real concern of every family, not exclusively or chiefly men”. Wives and daughters were accepted as associated members of the movement.
After the 1926 General Strike, Rose Smith supported the change in the line of the Communist Party known as “class against class”, which was to lead to several attempts to set up breakaway “red” unions.
All failed. But it remained the line of the international Communist movement, now under the sway of Russian leader Stalin. We can sense here the frustration of militants like Smith after their efforts earlier in the 1920s. From 1929 Rose Smith was a full time Communist Party organiser and from 1930-4 active in the Textile Minority Movement.
She was the author of the founding pamphlet of the group. She was also a delegate to the first women’s conference of the Red International of Labour Unions in 1930.
By this stage surviving sections of the Minority Movement were very different to the militant days of the mid-1920s. They were isolated and sectarian.
Even so, Rose Smith retained some sense of perspective, arguing in 1932 that neither the Minority Movement nor the Communist Party had really tackled the problems of working class women.
In later years Rose Smith fell out with the British Communist Party over China and from 1962 worked in Beijing as a journalist after a stint at the Daily Worker.
She died on 23 July 1985. She deserves to be recalled as someone who showed how militant working class women could be active in a world dominated by male trade unionists in the 1920s.
Where now for pro-choice fight?