Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The women in the room

My new book – The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History – hopes to start filling in women’s untold role in labour’s history books, writes Nan Sloane

This year marks the centenary of 60 per cent of women getting the vote. Judged from the point of view of outcomes, this was a considerable success for the female suffrage campaign, since a limited franchise was more or less what it had been fighting for. In the intervening years we have come to accept the history of the suffrage movement almost entirely at its own evaluation. For various reasons, it is high time for that to change.

For most people, the suffrage campaign is the prism through which all women’s history is viewed. This is understandable, but prisms tend to distort, and this is particularly the case when it comes to the history of working-class women. Recent attempts to shoehorn them into the suffrage movement have been only partially successful, while as a general rule they are almost entirely absent from mainstream Labour and trade union history.

Yet women were always trade unionists, socialists and pacifists as well as – and sometimes instead of – suffragists. They organised themselves for better wages and conditions and campaigned for education, health services and free school meals. They often recognised that the vote would help, but they did not believe that it was the only thing that mattered.

Many suffragists and suffragettes, however, believed that the vote was everything, and that everything would change once women had it. Emmeline Pankhurst once told Labour’s first leader Keir Hardie that he should stop fighting for the unemployed because once women had the vote there would be no unemployment. Some suffrage campaigners invested the female vote with almost magical powers over society and the economy, and attacked anyone who thought differently.

Many Labour and trade union women actually were involved with suffrage campaigns, but for universal rather than limited female suffrage. They did not believe that, once enfranchised, middle-class women would make alleviating the appalling conditions of working-class women their priority. Poverty wages meant cheap clothes, food, consumer goods and servants. Women like Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield, who led the Adult Suffrage Society, thought that class would always trump sisterhood, and that working-class women (and men) needed votes and representatives of their own if change was really to happen. As Bondfield said in a debate with the Women’s Freedom League, she wished the campaign for a limited franchise well, but ‘don’t let them come and tell me that they are working for my class.’

The modern focus on the limited suffrage campaign to the exclusion of all else robs both women and the labour and trade union movements of part of their history. It deprives working-class women of agency and voice, and it props up the idea that only the vote mattered and all other forms of activism were by definition worthless. The 1911 strike of 20,000 Bermondsey women should be as well-known as any of the suffrage actions, and yet it is barely remembered. Women like Macarthur, who was one of the most famous trade unionists of her day, should be as well remembered now as any suffragette.

The Women in the Room begins to restore some of these remarkable women to their proper places in the history of the labour and women’s movements. Much of their story still remains to be written – there is, for instance, no biography of Bondfield, who broke almost every glass ceiling she came up against – but at least by removing the prism of suffrage, our vision is less distorted and we make a start.

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Nan Sloane is author of The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History

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Nan Sloane

is a member of the Labour Women’s Network management committee and is a former regional director of the Labour party

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