|The famous poster of the National |
Federation of Women Workers
It wasn't only in the world of politics that women faced resistance: organised labour in the UK often did not welcome women workers. Some trade unions resisted accepting women members entirely, while others left the decision up to local branches. The historic London matchgirls strike of 1888 had been pivotal in improving dangerous working conditions in that industry but had not led to any general acceptance of women as union members.
The all-women National Federation of Women Workers was formed in 1906 and was led by the inspirational Scottish suffragist and trade unionist, Mary Macarthur. She recognised the relationship between the low wages that women received and their lack of collective organisation. While the union was set up to address that problem, it was never intended to be permanently separate from the mainstream, male-dominated union movement of the time.
The NFWW represented its members like any other union, but its long-term aim was to break down gender barriers where they existed in the labour movement. Accordingly, they willingly passed over their own members to any union or branch that decided to open its ranks to women members, and in 1921 it merged with the National Union of General Workers (now the GMB).
The struggle for the right of women workers to be organised in trade unions was as important as the battle for the vote, although it has scarcely been mentioned in any the recent celebrations. For Mary Macarthur, suffrage and union organisation were not separate issues. This is a struggle that deserves to be more than a footnote in our history.
The quotation on the poster is from William Morris:
"Forsooth, brethren, fellowship is heaven and lack of fellowship is hell;
fellowship is life and lack of fellowship is death;
and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship's sake that ye do them."