In this time of strikes by the public service professions dominated by women, I’ve been reflecting on the often-overlooked history of women in the UK trade union movement and parallels to today, where many women still struggle to have their needs met for appropriate pay and suitable health and safety conditions, including to protect them during pregnancy and maternity.
The new film Enola Holmes 2 features (spoiler alert) the story of young women and girls working in a match factory, and striking for better pay and conditions. Whilst romanticised elements were added, the story is grounded in fact. 1888 was the start of action by an unlikely group of heroic young women.
Girls and women in the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, now a block of luxury flats, were treated appallingly. They worked 12-hour shifts, standing up, dipping wooden matches into a mixture of chemicals which included the highly dangerous white phosphorus, and packing them into boxes. The chemical caused toothaches which worsened into abscesses and necrosis of the jaw – a condition known as “phossy jaw”. As depicted in Enola Holmes 2, the managers often dismissed the girls and women affected. The pay for this work was very meagre, and halved for girls under the age of 18, even though they were doing the same work.
The socialist activist and author Annie Besant took up the cause. She interviewed a number of workers, and wrote a shocking and damning article for her own magazine, The Link, which she entitled “White Slavery in London”. In it, she described the factory as being like a “prison-house” and the match girls as “undersized, helpless and oppressed”, with one child living on “only bread-and-butter and tea, alike for breakfast and dinner”.
Annie Besant’s article enraged the factory owners, who threatened to sue her, and put pressure on their employees to deny the truth of it. The employees wrote to Annie:
“Dear lady, they are trying to get the poor girls to say that it is all lies that has been printed and sign papers to say it is lies. Dear lady, we will not sign them.”
When one of the women was sacked on suspicion of being the author, on 5th July 1888, all 1,400 women and girls went on strike: “One girl began, and the rest said ‘yes’ so out we all went.”
Annie Besant supported the matchmakers to set up a union, led by eight of the matchmakers, including Sarah Chapman, who features in Enola Holmes 2. They were supported by Annie’s colleagues in the Fabian Society, by Toynbee Hall (an enterprise for social change in the East End, which supported the strike fund) and by newspapers including the widely read Pall Mall Gazette and The Times. Annie took a group of 56 strikers to Parliament, and MPs raised questions about their treatment.
Within a fortnight of the strike starting, the Bryant and May directors, horrified by the negative publicity, caved completely and met all of the strikers’ demands. Sarah Chapman became the first Matchmakers’ Union delegate, and first woman, to attend the Trades Union Congress, where a resolution was passed stating that men and women should be paid at the same rate for equal work. The match girls’ strike inspired the men of the East End to undertake the dockers’ strike a few weeks later, which closed the Thames for a month.
125 years after the match girls’ strike, I named my own daughter Annie, after Annie Besant – and at 10 she shows every sign of being a similarly fierce feminist.
However, it wasn’t until over a century later,that the Equal Pay Act 1970 was passed, led by Barbara Castle, and it was 1976 before the Act came into force. This followed a 1970 strike by women workers at the Ford factory in Dagenham (also depicted in a film, Made in Dagenham) because they were paid 15% less than men for the same work.
Even now, UK legislation only covers disparities between men and women working for the same employer. Government statistics for the UK for 2022 indicate that there remains a median pay gap between men and women of 9.71%. This is attributed to women being more likely to work part-time due to caring responsibilities, with part-time working commanding less pay bargaining power.
There are also lower rates of pay for professions in which women are or become the majority, a phenomenon known as “workforce feminisation”, whereby female dominated occupations or workplaces are paid less than those which are male-dominated, even if they were previously male-dominated. As the European Commission states: “Highly feminised jobs tend to be systematically undervalued.”
The pay disparity for women increases with pregnancy, childbirth and care of infants, and again as women reach their 40s, with many reducing their hours to care both for their children and elderly relatives, while often suffering from stress and fatigue. The pay gap is also significantly larger for women from some ethnic groups and for women with disabilities and health challenges, who are likely to suffer particularly from further social and economic barriers to obtaining well-paid work.
The workforce “feminisation problem” may also be an issue in some parts of the civil service, and we know there remain other barriers to women thriving in the civil service. This is why it’s so important that SEEN highlights discrimination that is connected to sex and reminds employers to collect and keep sex-disaggregated data. When it comes to equal pay and to health and safety at work, sex really matters.
Sources and further reading:
Cover image: “Matchgirl strikers”, Unknown author. Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Matchgirl_strikers.PNG