This is our truth, tell us yours
It is a sad fact that when it comes to which narratives are dominant certain groups have louder voices than others, this is as common in feminism and the rights of women as in history or any other field. One of the refrains about how far “we” have come which can turn me into a raging ball of revolutionary anger is the women can now work idea. The myth that before women’s lib and bra burning every woman was a good little housewife with who only left the home for bridge parties and church.
Many of the core feminist texts reinforce this idea, once we were trapped, now we are free to enter the world of paid work. These texts of course were generally written by white middle class women, probably whilst their char lady mopped the floor, and au pair picked the kids up from school. Let’s not even get into how this narrative yet again completely excludes Women of Colour from even being women!
The fact is of course women have always worked, and not in the childcare is work sense (which it is) but in the going out , earning a wage, getting dirty, swearing, comradeship and sweaty way. These women have of course been working class though, and rarely written books or been invited to conferences to speak on the universal experience of women.
The Match girls strike is perhaps one of the most famous of these non existent working women (if that is not an oxymoron)
The strike was started when a group of women refused to sign a declaration that they had good working conditions and were happy. The entire 1400 strong workforce walked out. Supported by Annie Besant (another working woman) who had brought press attention to the treatment of the workers, they formed the Match girls Strike committee and influenced the formation of the trades union movement in the UK. They were not fighting to remain home, or to have equality with men. They were leading men, showing that workers had the power to demand decent working conditions.
Over in the US 30 years later the impassioned speech of a 15 year old Jewish girl,Clara Lemlich, started the New York ShirtWaist Workers strike.Over 20 thousand women took to the streets, demanding better treatment, an end to the kind of fines the match girls had fought against, human dignity and equal pay. The strike lasted through the bitterest months of winter, but they won.
It was not only in the fight for workers rights that women were leading the way, I have always had a personal fascination for the trouser wearing women of Wigan. They caused a scandal (and apparently made a nice sideline in posing for pictures for rich Victorian men;s porn collections) by adapting acceptable women’s clothing for practical pit work.
The pit brow lasses would push wagons from the mineshaft to a stock heap, stack the coal and rake out any stones.Work by any definition of it, not just men looking for a wank were intruiged by them, everyone from anthropologists to anti slavery campaigners wanted to see these women who wore trousers.
As an aside it might be worth noting that in twentieth century Lancashire the wives who would wait for their husbands to return with his wages, which would be handed over and pocket-money then given to him. The world of working class womenhood has never been as simple as middle class women like to claim. There was, as far as I know, no such tradition in the pit towns of the north east, There was a relatively lax attitude to sex work in the ports though. When a woman had to support the family whilst her husband was away at sea or killed by the waves, earning from the many sailors who passed through Newcastle was often the only available form of work. Douching was the commonest form of contraception, with woman passing on the knowledge that pissing after sex and giving yourself a quick internal wash was a reasonable way of avoiding unwanted pregnancy. Although as I wrote earlier even some self declared working class feminists want to deny the fact women had sex on their own terms in the past.
Within my own family the women were mill workers and factory workers, my Grandmother moved with her whole line from armanents straight onto another conveyor belt, packing pop not bombs. Then they were united in death, every one of them dying from mesothelioma, caused by the asbestos they used at Vickers packing the shells. They worked, their deaths were war deaths, but no medals for them, no heroic statues, not even compensation for the agonising death that took them from families and loved ones.
Every time someone says look how far we have come, women can work now, challenge them, they ignore the women who have always worked, the women who changed the world, and the women like my Grandma whose work killed them.