Trades unions

Trade unions were, in general, hostile to women's suffrage. This occurred because of ‘pride and fear'. This was the pride of men for whom the franchise was one element of their improved status that they could not easily share. There fear was the fear of the skilled worker. Women as unskilled labour, they believed, held down wages and inhibited union agreements in an overstocked labour market. Nevertheless, in 1913, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) followed the Labour Party and made its support for any government-supported Adult Suffrage Bill dependent on the inclusion of women.

In 1832, 1500 women card-setters at Peep Green Yorkshire came out on strike for equal pay. The Lancashire cotton mill women were active in trade unions.

In 1859, the North East Lancashire Amalgamated Society was formed for both men and women.

In 1884 the Northern Counties Amalgamated Association of Weavers was established for male and female workers.

Separate women's unions

In 1874 the Women's Protective and Provident League (WPPL) was established.

In the brief period of new unionism (the late 1880s/early 1890s) unskilled labour became politicised that the Women's Industrial Council (WIC) and a score of women's unions were established.


1875 Dewsbury textile workers

1884 the Aberdeen jute workers

1885 Dundee jute workers

1885 Bristol confectionery workers

1888 Bryant and May's match workers

In 1906 there were 167,000 female members of trades unions

In 1914 there were nearly 358,000 female members of trades unions

The 1890s saw both a growth of women's trade union membership and the creation of several new women's organisations. The Women's Trade Union Association (WTUA) was founded in 1889 by women dissatisfied with the stance of the WTUL, amongst them Clementina Black, Amie Hicks, Clara James and Florence Balgarnie. Its aims differed little from the parent body and it was to be a short-lived venture merging in 1897 with the Women's Industrial Council then three years old. In 1870, some 58,000 women were members of trade unions but by 1896 that has risen to 118,000, a figure representing some 7.8 per cent of all union members. Unionism was strong in the textile and especially cotton industry where women often outnumbered male operatives. Women had since the 1850s been incorporated in mixed unions.

1886 Clementina Black and Eleanor Marx became active in the Women's Trade Union League.

1889 Clementina Black helped form the Women's Trade Union Association.

1894 Clementina Black merged the Women's Trade Union Association with the Women's Industrial Council.

The NUWSS and the Women's Freedom League worked closely with the Women's Industrial Council and other groups campaigning for better pay and conditions for women workers.

By 1910, women made up almost one third of the workforce.

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All pages © Helena Wojtczak 2009. Corrections and additions are warmly welcomed. Email me

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