This book draws on original research into women’s workplace protest to deliver a new account of working-class women’s political identity and participation in post-war England. In doing so, the book contributes a fresh understanding of the relationship between feminism, workplace activism and trade unionism during the years 1968–85. The study covers a period that has been identified with the ‘zenith’ of trade union militancy. The women’s liberation movement (WLM) also emerged in this period, which produced a shift in public debates about gender roles and relations in the home and the workplace. Industrial disputes involving working-class women have been commonly understood as evidence of women’s growing participation in the labour movement, and as evidence of the influence of second-wave feminism on working-class women’s political consciousness. However, the voices and experiences of female workers who engaged in workplace protest remain largely unexplored. The book addresses this space through detailed analysis of four industrial disputes that were instigated by working-class women. It shows that labour force participation was often experienced or viewed as a claim to political citizenship in late modern England. A combination of oral history and written sources is used to illuminate how everyday experiences of gender and class antagonism shaped working-class women’s political identity and participation.
The Introduction discusses the study of women’s workplace protest for earlier periods. It outlines the book’s conceptual framework and indicates the book’s position relative to existing literature on women and work, women and the labour movement and second-wave feminism. It also provides a brief discussion of the broader historical context in which these disputes took place. Finally, it discusses the sources and methods used in the book and explains why each case study was chosen, who was interviewed and why.
This chapter provides an overview of how women’s growing presence in the workforce was understood by contemporaries. It demonstrates that female workers, trade unions, social scientists and WLM activists were increasingly drawing public attention to the poor conditions and inequalities that working-class women were likely to experience in the workplace. At the same time, there was a growing commitment from policy makers and the main political parties to understanding and addressing gender inequality as a political issue. This chapter argues that the growing politicisation of gender inequality in the workplace was part of a broader transition in public understandings of gender roles taking place in post-war Britain. It concludes that women’s workplace activism should be understood within this context.
Chapter 2 provides an original account of the Ford sewing machinists’ fight for skill recognition in 1968. The strike is widely understood as a crucial turning point that led to the Equal Pay Act in 1970. The strike occupies a key position in the histories of the labour movement and the WLM. The idea that the strike was a decisive victory in women’s fight for equal pay was popularised by 2010 feature film Made in Dagenham, which has been adapted into a West End musical. The subsequent publicity generated by the film has proceeded to weave the place of the dispute firmly within public memory of the strike as a turning point in societal attitudes towards women’s right to equal pay. However, the triumphant narrative of the strike as a victory has served to disguise the fact that the women at Ford went on strike because they wanted the skilled nature of their work recognised. This chapter offers a new account of the strike from the perspective of the women involved. It is original because it locates the strike within participants’ life stories; it foregrounds their own understanding of why they engaged in the strike and their judgements of its outcome.
The longest equal pay strike in British labour history took place at the Trico-Folberth windscreen wiper factory in Brentford, west London, during the summer of 1976. This chapter will be the first detailed consideration of this strike from a historical perspective. Having discussed the Equal Pay Act’s failure to achieve a meaningful reduction in the differential between male and female wages in Chapter 1, and considered the key role the Ford sewing machinists played in the origins of equal pay legislation in Chapter 2, this case study examines how the Equal Pay Act was interpreted and challenged by female workers once it was implemented in 1975. The chapter considers the Trico women’s experiences of work and trade unionism. It considers the women’s subjective motivations for going on strike, and examines the extent to which they associated the dispute with a shift in their expectations of paid work, and their political identity.
Chapter 4 focuses on the 1972 occupation of Sexton’s shoe factory organised by female workers fighting to save their jobs in Fakenham, Norfolk. The occupation lasted eighteen weeks before the women involved established their own co-operative that traded with varied levels of success until it entered receivership in 1977. This chapter revisits Fakenham Enterprises from the perspective of women who were involved at the time. The Fakenham occupation moves the book onto a different track away from the equal pay debates considered in the previous two chapters, towards working-class women’s fight against factory closures and unemployment. This case study is particularly distinguished by its local context (rural Norfolk) and illustrates how women were taking similar action to one another across England, in a range of industries and both urban and rural locations.
The conclusion summarises the book’s main findings, arguing that labour force participation was often experienced or viewed as claim to political citizenship in late modern England. Women’s workplace protest was not simply a direct response to women’s heightened presence in trade unions and second-wave feminism. The women involved in these disputes were more likely to understand their experiences of workplace activism as an expression of the economic, social and subjective value of their work and an assertion of their personal autonomy. They possessed specific skills and ability, which were closely tied to their sense of self. Revisiting women’s workplace protest from a historical perspective enables one to see how these women were both indirectly influenced by and contributed towards the development of British feminism. Women’s attempts to redefine how their work was valued and to speak with their own voice within the labour movement challenged gender norms and can be described as feminist. However, it is crucial to recognise that the majority of women interviewed did not view themselves or their behaviour as either feminist or political, and stressed their ‘ordinariness’ or individuality instead. The conclusion explains this tension and suggests the women believed they were practising ethics rather than politics.