from the Law School, University of Strathclyde
Women’s Labour and Trade Unionism – A Dangerous Combination?
By Rebecca Zahn and Nicole Busby 06 July 2016 Women have played a key role in the British trade union movement since its inception. After all, the first strike for equal pay was organised by 1,500 women card-setters in Yorkshire in 1832. However, although trade unionism and the intellectual underpinnings of the labour movement were instigated around and by women – one need only think of the economist and labour historian Beatrice Webb (often referred to as one of ‘the Webbs’, i.e. the wife of Sidney but who was a pivotal figure in her own right) just as much as they were by men, the fact remains that once institutionalised, the labour movement became focused on the needs and concerns of the ‘standard male worker’. Women workers became part of the women’s movement – viewed as ‘the other’ and often subjected to outright hostility – rather than an integral part of the British workers’ movement. Women’s position outside the mainstream labour movement has been maintained up to the present day. Nowadays gendered occupational segregation and the prevalence of part-time work raise questions about the relevance of traditional trade unionism to women’s working lives. From their perceived threat to the established organisation of paid work up to these contemporary challenges to trade unionism, women can be seen as ‘dangerous’.