Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Working Class Women and the Struggle for Equal Rights

Shipley Glen Tramway
From Lynne Faulkes
Member, Shipley Labor Party

As a child, like many other working class families, we spent many happy hours exploring Shipley Glen, an area of outstanding natural beauty on the edge of Rombalds Moor, above the mill town of Saltaire, in West Yorkshire  If we were lucky and dad was in a good mood, we might get to ride on the Glen Tramway, and sometimes we had a choice that if we walked up, when we got to the top , we were treated to a whizz round the amusement park on the aerial glide . The park’s not there anymore, but the tramway has recently been refurbished by volunteers and this week, on a glorious Bank Holiday Monday, along with hundreds of others, I headed for Glen again.  This time as part of a demonstration with the message “fought for, died for, make sure you use it”, celebrating the 110th anniversary of a Big Meeting of an estimated 100,000 who had crowded onto the Moor to hear Emmeline and Adela Pankhurst and local suffragettes including Nellie Kenney and Mary Gawthorpe urging support for the votes for women campaign.

There’s been lots of books and films and articles written about the Suffragettes, but very little is known about the campaign’s northern and working class origins. 

In 1882, Parliament received its first demand for women’s vote in a petition from a group of Yorkshire women, led by Elizabeth Elmy, a campaigner for women’s right to education (she had only been to school for 2 years, while her brother had gone on to university).  Richard Pankhurst, a Manchester based politician and barrister, and his wife Emmeline, were instrumental is setting up the Independent Labour Party in 1893.  In October1903 Emmeline and her daughters Christabel, Adela and Sylvia invited a small group of working class women, mainly ILP members, to their home in Manchester where they set up the Women’s Social and Political Union. 

The following year the ILP Conference passed a resolution instructing the Administrative Council to prepare a Bill for the Enfranchisement of Women to be laid before Parliament in the coming session.  This was to ensure women had the same rights as men meaning the vast majority of working class men and women would still not be included - there had been a bitter discussion on whether they should campaign directly for universal adult suffrage for both men and women, which many, including Keir Hardie, argued would be, at the time, impossible to achieve. 

Following early propaganda work involving mainly women workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire, Adela became the WSPU West Yorkshire organizer and after the Shipley Glen rally in 1908, seen as a great triumph for the cause, they presented the incoming Prime Minister, Asquith, with “the demands of the people of Bradford.”

The first London branch of WSPU was formed by the docks in Canning Town quickly followed by branches in Poplar, Bow, Stepney and Limehouse. Most of the huge marches and demonstrations over the next few years included mainly working class women from the East End, many of them giving up their only free day to walk to Westminster and back.  It was a huge commitment for most of them, who as well as working long hours in a factory, laundry or shop, or as a maid or cook, many had a second shift of unpaid housework and childcare. 

However, as WSPU actions, in frustration, narrowed its focus from wider social reform and abandoned its links with the labour movement and became focused on civil disobedience and violence, for many of the working class activists this was a big dilemma.  Often they had children to care for, and as breadwinners a spell in prison could mean they lost their job and without rent their family could easily lose their home.

Both Adela and Sylvia fell out with their mum and sister, Christabel, over the tactics.  Adel was shipped off to Australia, but Sylvia remained determined to recruit working class women back into WSPU and established the East London Federation, linking the struggle for the vote with the fight for better working and living conditions..  They lobbied and protested for a living wage, decent housing, equal pay and old age pensions.  In 1914, however, reflecting the class prejudices at the time, but which is also still in evidence to some extent today, Chrstabel expelled the Federation, claiming, according to Sylvia that “a working women’s movement was of no value; working women were the weakest portion of the sex.  Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest”.

Yet the new, independent East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) flourished. While a few upper- and middle-class women occupied leadership positions, local working-class activists took up key roles and shaped the new organisation, free from the WSPU’s rules.

The ELFS moved away from violent acts, imprisonment and hunger strikes, adopting new tactics. They marched through East London, published their own weekly newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, took delegations of working women to Westminster to lobby politicians, held huge public meetings and opened a social centre called the Women’s Hall.

Each year they held concerts, festivals and parties, including a public Christmas party with games, entertainment and even a ‘Santa’ who gave out small presents for children. Like the radical suffragists providing tea and cake at their meetings, the ELFS tried to find ways to address the material needs of their supporters as they built their movement. They grounded their campaign in the everyday reality of working women's lives.

This approach was put to the test when the First World War broke out in August 1914. Factories across East London closed and food prices spiralled, pushing many poor families to the brink of starvation. The ELFS organised ‘milk depots’ where families with very young children could get free milk. Next they opened a series of volunteer-run canteens serving nutritious food at ‘cost price’, twice a day. They also opened their own cooperative toy factory, which paid a living wage to its women workers and included a crèche, which became so popular that the following year they opened a nursery in a former pub over the road.

As well as lobbying politicians for food price controls and equal pay, the ELFS continued campaigning for the vote throughout the war – unlike the WSPU and NUWSS, who suspended their campaign.  Universal suffrage was finally agreed in 1928.
Coming up to date, a lot of lessons can be learned.  It’s evident that many of the current community centres and food banks springing up around Britain today (and as they did during the miners’ strike) echo some of these early demonstrations of socialism in practice. However, between 1992 and 2010, the number of women voters in general elections fell by 18%. More than 9 million women failed to vote in the 2010 elections. I have long believed that, motivated by something worth voting for, both men and women would flock back.  2017’s Labour Manifesto proved that in spades and in a 69% turnout, women voted for Labour in greater numbers than men.  The fight goes on!

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