Women need to reconnect with the labour movement or we’ll never be equal

In 1888 a group of young women walked out of the Bryant & May match factory in East London, sparking one of the most important strikes in UK history. They were giants in women-led activism. So why have we forgotten their greatness?

The Match Girls’ story is well know, although its importance in both the labour movement and feminism is underplayed. Not only did these poor, young women confound all their critics, get their sacked colleagues reinstated and win important new workers’ rights; they also influenced, and contributed to the success of the dockers’ strike the following year. Yet when most people talk about first wave feminism they mostly refer to the suffragettes, who were arguably far less successful.

While the vote was granted to (some) women in 1918, it has never been clear what the turning point was. The suffragettes had mostly suspended their activities four years earlier, and many historians believe Emmeline Pankhurst’s militant tactics set the movement back. Others argue that it was during the war years that women proved themselves equals through their war work. There is another argument that the 1918 act was about giving suffrage to returning soldiers; that it was nothing to do with the suffragettes at all, but an appeasement for the working class war contribution. I’m not completely convinced by any of these arguments. What’s obvious is the suffragette movement is not the clear-cut success story it is often presented to be.

So why do we look to the suffragettes as the definition of first wave feminism? Possibly because middle classes women’s voices have always been louder than the working classes. Maybe because we have focused our telling of the story of women’s suffrage on glorified acts of civil disobedience (strikes are just not as sexy). Or perhaps because modern feminism has disconnected itself from the labour movement.

In Victorian and Edwardian East London, labour rights were fundamentally linked with women’s rights. One of the reasons Sylvia Pankhurst broke with her mother and sister was their failure to acknowledge this link. Importantly, the East London Federation of Suffragettes were not only campaigning for the vote. They were also campaigning around women’s pay, setting up socialist factories, creches and nurseries. Many of the key East London suffragettes went on to become local councillors, taking their fight for workers’ rights into mainstream politics.

Elsewhere, housing activists were using Match Girls’ tactics in their campaigns against unscrupulous landlords. They harnessed community support and withheld their rents, just as workers had withheld their labour. It’s no coincidence that key movers in the trade union movement, such as the formidable Sarah Wesker, were also winning the battle for better housing.

In 1936, these various groups came together in a moment of glorious triumph. Oswald Mosely and his Black Shirts announced they would march through the mostly Jewish populated area of East London. In what would become known as the Battle of Cable Street, a moment of unprecedented solidarity was born between Jews, Irish immigrants, communists and dockers. They came out in their thousands and drove the fascists back.

By the time we reach the second wave of feminism, the link between the labour movement and women’s activism is mostly lost. There are some notable and important exceptions, for example the Ford Sewing Machinists strike of 1968. Their actions led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act, arguably one of the biggest milestones in women’s equality.

If we look at other key moments in the Women’s Lib movement, the outlook is more grim. While Greenham was a joyful moment of collective women’s activism that inspired many, it failed in its primary mission. The Hackney Flashers, who campaigned around childcare and the hidden work of women, by their own omission, failed also. Despite the high profile Miss World protests in 1970s and 1980s, the competition continues today. Reclaim the Night even say on their website that the situation they are campaigning against has got worse, with rape convictions even lower than when they began in 70s.

I don’t want to trash everything modern feminists have done. They contributed to the changing social attitude that led to the 1967 Abortion Act, helped break the silence around rape, and built a network of refuges for victims of domestic violence. But the cause and effect is far more blurred and the outright wins less tangible.

In November 2016 the failings of modern feminism reached its apex as an openly misogynistic candidate was elected as President of the United States. The womens’ march that followed achieved little, decending into tribal feuding as accusations of White Feminism flew back and forth. The movement was cannibalising itself.

The following year, a female software engineer at Uber would publish a blog detailing the discrimination and harassment she endured at the company. Meanwhile, the drivers were facing their own employment issues. People expressed outrage and deleted their Uber accounts. Arianna Huffington insisted things would change. It never seemed to occur to the workers that if they came together — like the Match Girls and the dockers — they could have brought the company to their knees. As it was, a few months after promising to do better, more scandals broke at Uber.

Women will not win their fight for equality until we recognise that this fight is bound up in capitalist structures. Telling individuals to check their privilege and acknowledge how they benefit from oppressive structures gets us nowhere. It is not a strategy or action, only a statement of feeling. While we’re having those arguments with each other the patriarchal structures and racist institutions remains in tact, oppressing us all.

When we come together collectively as workers we can identify the real enemy — the 1% who hold all the power and wealth. We can then use our most powerful tool — our labour — to win the fight. It’s time to remember and be a little more like the Match Girls.

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