By Siobhan Brown
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Class and Gender in British Labour History

This article is over 10 years, 7 months old
Mary Davis (ed)
Issue 359

This is a varied collection of essays, interesting for the most part, covering women’s involvement in the British labour movement.

The essays cover a diverse geographical area, with the focus moving away from London to discuss women’s trade unionism in areas such as Bradford, Leeds and Scotland. Its content also covers an extended time period, from Bradford weavers of the 1820s to the Leeds clothing workers of the 1970s, providing a broad assessment.

Thematically, it covers women workers in numerous sectors. Areas that are often considered to be dominated by women, such as the textile industries, are studied, but it also looks at women in construction, providing a more balanced approach than many accounts. One section also looks at black women in industry, a group often neglected by historians. In this sense, its scope offers a good introduction to the many social and political issues facing women workers and provides many examples of how women have resisted exploitation.

Two chapters in particular stand out. Louise Raw’s chapter “Striking a Light” is impressive, giving a flavour of her book of the same title. This section, on the Bryant and May matchwomen’s dispute in 1888, is an illuminating reappraisal of the issues of leadership and community during the dispute and New Unionism more generally. Her detailed research and fresh approach question the commonly perceived leadership of Fabian Annie Besant and instead identifies the real leaders that emerged during the struggle.

Another particularly good chapter is Gerry Holloway’s on class issues in the early British women’s trade union movement. It looks at the development of women-only unions and difficulties facing women workers both in the workplace and from the bureaucracy. Holloway also examines many of the female trade union leaders during the period and their contradictions. Mary McArthur, for example, who played a key role in the organisation of women workers at the start of the 20th century, strongly believed in women’s homemaking role. This essay contains the clearest examination of the trade union bureaucracy and its relationship to women workers.

Much of the content in this collection touches on issues still facing women workers today such as equal pay and poor conditions. But little is made of this contemporary significance, as female trade unionists across the country prepare to go into battle to save jobs and services. Similarly, despite the suggestion in its subtitle – “Renewing the Debate (Or Starting It?)” – many of the arguments feel reminiscent of the work of women’s historians during the 1970s. Despite this limitation, this book is worth a read for its strong research and impressive historical scope.

Class and Gender in British Labour History is published by Merlin Press, £16.95

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