Blog, Blog and News

Women’s Activism in Twentieth Century Britain – Paula Bartley

In 1906, the Anglo-Indian journalist Olive Malvery published The Soul Market, a book about women at the sharp end of exploitation. In her chapter about dress-makers, she wrote of a ‘large and fashionable establishment with a ground floor show-room and basement workrooms – horrible little stuffy places, with inadequate ventilation and bad light’ where thirty young women were employed. ‘Day after day, in this miserable little workroom, half-starved and ailing girls were kept working at high pressure on wages which ranged from four shillings to thirty shillings a week. They had no time to live, but existed from day to day as the slaves of society.’[i] Employers were breaking the law, but few inspectors came to check and when they did, the factory falsified the pay and conditions. The Soul Market was the first book to rouse ‘the public to shame and sympathy’ and certainly helped inspire the campaigns against such injustices.  Activists like Gertrude Tuckwell, Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield set up an Anti-Sweating League to change the law. In 1909 the Liberal government fixed hourly rates of pay in four trades.

Throughout the century activists like Olive Malvery campaigned for better pay, reasonable working hours and acceptable conditions for women workers. Women and Activism in 20th Century Britain identifies and celebrates many of  the women who campaigned for women’s employment rights but it also examines women’s activism across the political and social spectrum. It is a story of progress and reversals.

After a hundred years of women’s activism, I ask, what has changed? In 2018 the Financial Times exposed the illegal pay and conditions in a number of Leicester  factories which made clothes for New Look, River Island, Boohoo and Missguided, popular brands in Britain.  Leicester’s garment industry was allegedly detached from UK law, ‘a country within a country’ where Asian-heritage women machinists worked long hours. At the time, the minimum wage was £8.72 an hour but the workers were being paid £3.50, with no holiday or sick pay. It was modern slavery. In one dilapidated building, where broken windows were patched up with cardboard boxes, where walls were crumbling and electrical wires dangled dangerously from the ceiling, textile workers were expected to work a 40-hour week with no breaks.[ii] The Covid crisis exacerbated this: women were told to come to work even when they showed symptoms of the virus. Meg Lewis, the campaign manager of Labour Behind the Label, commented that it was ‘heart-breaking to see grotesque inequality when some people profit so much while there are workers at the bottom of the chain whose lives are being put at risk.’[iii] In 2019 Boohoo recorded profits of £59.9 million.

In April 2021 the Financial Times commented ‘we are two nations …about one in four workers in the UK is on “contingent” work: zero-hours contracts, short-term contracts, gig work, solo self-employment’.[iv] The Living Wage Foundation (LWF) discovered that two-fifths of working adults in full or part-time employment were given less than a week’s notice of their shifts. Of those who suffered from uncertainties like this the hardest hit were low-paid workers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, those with children and those working in the hospitality, retail and leisure industries.[v]  These least regarded, often invisible workers were mostly women. Very many of them relied on food banks, a twentieth-

century charitable response to desperation. In the 1900s, as Women and Activism shows,  Olivia Malvery and other activists were all too familiar with these kinds of inequalities. A hundred years later, the endeavours of those activists who had steadfastly campaigned for equal pay, for maternity leave and for an end to sex discrimination at work disappeared in the time it took to sign a zero-hours contract. In the early 2020s, after the advances from 1945-1979, inequality and the unequal distribution of wealth were prevalent throughout the United Kingdom – one of the richest economies in the world. Those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to suffer from the COVID pandemic and the deleterious health conditions associated with poverty.

In 1935 the novelist Winifred Holtby wrote ‘the march of women is never regular, consistent or universal … it advances in one place while it retreats in others. One individual looks forward, another backward, and the notions of which is “forward” and which is “backward” differ widely’.[vi] As Women and Activism argues, there is no one unswerving story of women united in struggle. The progress towards equality is certainly patchy: the benefits won in the 20th century for disadvantaged women are often no longer available, while privileged groups benefit from opportunities not available to Holtby and her generation.

[i] Olive Malvery, The Soul Market, Hutchinson, 1907, p180.

[ii] Financial Times, May 17th 2018. Thanks to Clare Short for this reference.

[iii] Independent, July 5th 2020.

[iv] Financial Times, April 16th 2021.

[v] Living Wage Organisation web site, accessed April 20th 1921.

[vi] Quoted in Elizabeth Homans, Visions of Equality, women’s rights and political change in 1970s Britain, PhD, Bangor University, 2015, p30.