Women at work

Fulwell Bus Depot rest room, 1947

By Professor Mary Davis, Visiting Professor in Labour History, Aston University

1. INTRODUCTION: 1880's - 1914


By the mid 19th century, trade unions were established on a firm footing among skilled and better paid workers, but at the same time women workers suffered a great defeat. This meant that for the most part women were excluded from trade unions. The only trade in which they still remained organised in any numbers was that of weaving. The aim of trade unionism, according to Henry Broadhurst, secretary of the TUC, speaking in 1875, summed up the ideology, which was:
"...to bring about a condition...where wives and daughters would be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world."[1]

From this kind of thinking sprang the widespread acceptance of the notion of the 'family wage' to be won by the male breadwinner. Hence, not only was unequal pay accepted as a norm, but women's work was only tolerated if not threatening to the man. In any case, it was seen as a mark of shame if a man permitted his wife to work, hence the widespread practice, hardly contested by the unions until the twentieth century, of barring married women from employment altogether. Such attitudes and practices help to explain women's increasing job segregation and the fact that so much female labour was literally hidden. It is not surprising therefore that the unions of this period demonstrated a studied indifference if not downright hostility to women workers. Any attempts to organise women in this period came from outside the labour movement, often through the work of philanthropic women.

The twin growth of the women's suffrage movement and trade unions among unskilled workers in the 1880's probably influenced the articulation of the demand for equal pay once more. In 1888 Clementina Black, a delegate from the Women's Trades Council, moved the first TUC equal pay resolution. Only two other women were present as delegates, Mrs Cooper of Westminster & Pimlico Branch of London Tailoresses Union and Miss Whyte of Society of Women Employed in Bookbinding. Miss Black had problems in gaining admission as a delegate. The TUC Parliamentary Committee had ruled (in contravention of Standing Orders), after delegates credentials had already been issued, that the only delegates who would be admitted were
'...such persons as are or have been bona fide workers at the trade they represent, and who, in the case of delegates from Trades Councils, represent upon such councils their own particular trades. No delegate who fails to comply with this condition can be admitted to Congress.'[2]

However, in the end she did attend as a delegate and was thus able to propose the following resolution:
'That in the opinion of this Congress it is desirable in the interests of both men and women that in trades where women do the same work as men they shall receive the same wages.' (seconded by Mr Juggins of the Midlands Counties' Trades Federation) [3]
The motion was carefully worded, as Clementina Black was at pains to explain. She was not referring to women who did different work to men even if they worked in same trade. She pointed out that:
'where women were employed merely because they were cheaper, all work gradually fell into their hands, whether it was suitable work or not, and that this resulted in lower prices all through that branch of work, to the general injury of men and women alike'. [4]
Mr. Juggins in seconding the motion, spoke about the deplorable condition of women in the chain and nail trade. This motion, however, was not acted upon and could only be used in campaigning when women were in a stronger position numerically and politically in the trade union movement- this was to come much later.


The war witnessed the massive recruitment of women into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight. This was especially marked after 1916 when conscription was introduced. Women workers, the subject of so much exploitation and the object of so much suspicion, were drawn into the mainstream of the labour process and, to a lesser extent, the labour movement during the war, especially because of the issue of dilution- a euphemism for paying women considerably less than the male workers they replaced. Women's trade union membership increased by about 160% during the war, but apart from the National Federation of Women Workers, the Workers' Union was the only union to make a serious commitment to organising women. By 1918 the WU employed twenty women full time officials and had a female membership of over 80.000. This was more than any other general union and represented a quarter of the WU's own membership. There is little evidence, however, that the demands of women trade unionists, especially for equal pay, were ever placed high on any bargaining agenda during the war. Early on, in 1915, a conference called by the Women's War Workers Committee, drew up a comprehensive list of demands including the rights to training, trade union membership and pay parity. However, when in 1918 the first Equal Pay strike occurred, it was initiated, led and ultimately won by women. This was the strike of women tramway workers, starting in London and spreading to other towns in the south east, over the offer of an unequal war bonus. The strike also spread to the London Underground. Mary Macarthur described the strike as 'a landmark for the women's movement and for trade unionism' [5]

The successful tram and tube strike of 1918 resulted in the decision of the government to establish a special enquiry as to whether the principle of wage equality between men and women should be applied to all industries. The result of this was the Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry. Beatrice Webb was a member of the Committee and disagreed with its findings on the grounds that the Committee members unsurprisingly refused to challenge the existing principles of wage determination and wealth distribution in capitalist society. Furthermore she criticized the Committee for accepting the commonly held presumption
'that industry is normally a function of the male, and that women, like non adults, are only to be permitted to work for wages at special hours, for special rates of wages..' [6]

However critical Beatrice Webb was of the prevailing 'principle of no principle' which had determined wage rates thus far in which the 'higgling of the market' predominated, she opposed the formulation 'equal pay for work for equal work'. Her husband, Sidney Webb, had declared against equal pay in 1891[10], but his reasons were different from his wife's. He accepted unequal pay because, according to him, women's work was often inferior and that women did not require so much to live on as men. Beatrice, however, opposed the payment of separate rates for men and women, but nonetheless argued that the demand for equal pay would solve little because it was ambiguous. Instead her solution was a hybrid system based on
'[a] national minimum [wage] as fixed basis, with occupational rates enforced as a necessary condition of employment of all persons engaged for specific occupational grades' [7]


The peak of women's trade union membership reached in 1920 (nearly one and a half million, 25% of the total female workforce), had dropped to a mere one million by 1939, despite the fact that the percentage of women within the total workforce had risen. This bleak statistic cannot be accounted for by suggesting that women somehow became 'anti-union' in the inter war years. Obviously the decline in membership has to be placed in the context of the overall decline, but within this there were specific features which help to explain the factors affecting women, chief among these were the attitudes of the unions themselves. In the general climate of unemployment, cost cutting and reversion on the part of the unions to narrow and sectionalist attitudes, women workers were perceived as a threat. Their employment was rising (from 27% of the total workforce in 1923 to 30% in 1939) at the expense, or so it was thought, of that of men.

This provoked two contradictory attitudes on the part of the male leaders, both of which were motivated by self-interest, rather than the interests of women themselves. On the one hand many unions which organised in industries with a high percentage of women workers (e.g. shop workers - Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, teachers- National Association of Schoolmasters, local government- National and Local Government Officers and post office workers- Union of Post Office Workers) sought to restrict the employment of women by calling for a strict application of the marriage bar, or the introduction of one. Almost all of them refused to campaign or shelved demands for equal pay and instead pursued wage claims which increased the differentials between men and women. Others, like the UPOW (Post Office Workers) in 1935, went even further and called on a halt to female employment altogether. In these ways many of the unions contributed massively to the problem that they thought they were addressing, namely the use of women as cheap labour in a time of recession and high unemployment.

On the other hand, the drop in trade union membership was a problem that might be redressed if only women could be persuaded to swell the declining ranks and boost the depleted coffers. Thus at the same time as pursuing negative policies on the employment of women, individual unions and the TUC were actively involved in recruitment campaigns. The TUC did at least recognise that women were less likely to be used as a source of cheap labour if they were unionised. In 1921, it established a Women Workers' Group (later known as the Women's Advisory Committee) and later, in 1926, an annual Women's Conference to assist the General Council in tackling the 'problem' of women. The Women's Committee was left to launch a series of recruitment campaigns which proposed, sensibly, to increase the involvement of women by establishing local women's committees. Such committees would themselves campaign around the issues of most concern to women workers and would, thereby, assist in recruitment.
These attempts were greeted with solid indifference. In the wake of their failure, the General Council itself stepped in 1937 and again in 1939, with its own remedy. It launched two campaigns both based on the assumption that trade unionism would attract women if it appealed to them on the basis of such 'womanly' issues as personal health and beauty. Trade unionism, according to a special leaflet adorned with a radiant looking female clad in a swimming costume, was the 'ticket' to health and beauty presumably because it would ensure that improved wages secured by unions could be used to buy cosmetics and other adornments. Apart from the fact that such male designed campaigns were grossly insulting to women's intelligence, they were an abject failure anyway as the membership figures showed.


The war accorded women workers a high profile. This did not mean that the state, in spite of some temporary concessions, had any intention of meaningfully addressing women's 'double burden'. An uneasy contradiction existed in the official mind between the obvious necessity to maintain wartime production on the one hand, and on the other the desire not to destabilise women's role in the family. It manifested itself in an unwillingness to ensure any lasting or general changes to the social order in favour of meeting the needs of working wives and mothers. Even the frequently cited provision of state day nurseries for working mothers, which was undoubtedly an historic initiative, was in itself the locus of intense ideological debate between realists like Bevin in the Ministry of Labour and the traditionalists of the Ministry of Health. Although the former appeared to win, as witnessed by the fact that 1,345 nurseries had been established by 1943 (compared with 14 existing in 1940), this did not represent a real victory for women workers. Firstly, it failed to satisfy the enormous demand or indeed to provide childcare for the duration of the mothers' working day, hence the great increase in private child minding arrangements and, secondly, it was always clear that this was a wartime expedient only - what the state provided the state could also easily remove.

Apart from long working hours, the strongest and most frequently expressed complaint of women workers was the fact that their pay remained on average 53% of that of the men they replaced. Unequal pay was not new, but the overt injustice of it was all the more marked now that women had temporary access to the traditionally better paid all male craft jobs. As in the First World War, women proved themselves capable of tackling 'unfeminine' work, but despite official encouragement and then compulsion so to do, this transition was strictly regulated. Agreements were signed between employers' organisations and trade unions permitting the temporary substitution of men by women in predominantly male jobs: these were again known as dilution agreements. The most common agreements permitted a phased introduction of eligibility for equal pay although the caveat written to most agreements that women had to be 'able to perform the job without assistance or supervision' was a hurdle rarely passed. In the non-craft sector, there was not such a straightforward dividing line between the work performed by men and women. The employers' strategy was to insist that the women war workers in semi and unskilled work were doing work 'commonly performed by women'. This meant that dilution could not apply to them and hence the argument about pay parity was a non starter.


The attitude and strategy of the labour movement leaders on the question of pay and indeed most other aspects of women's wartime employment shows their lack of immunity from the prevailing patriarchal climate. Most unions in the craft sector did not admit women members. The largest of them, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, changed this policy in 1943, although it was not envisaged that this would be permanent. (It was.) In that year, the peak year of mobilisation, one in three engineering workers was a woman. As a consequence, women's trade union membership reached its highest ever recorded figure of almost 2 million in 1943, roughly a quarter of the total membership of TUC affiliated unions. Paradoxically, it was the craft unions, like the AEU, which were the keenest on ensuring that women be paid the rate for the job on the simple argument that if the bosses could get away with diluting wages for women this would drive down the male rate when they returned to their jobs after the war. The non-craft unions, where they failed to secure dilution, contented themselves instead with negotiating a separate national minimum women's rate - this was roughly two thirds less than that of the male labourer's rate.


Unsurprisingly equal pay remained a burning issue throughout the war, with local battles initiated by women themselves. In 1943, the Equal Pay Campaign Committee was established. The Second World War highlighted women's pay inequity as did the lower settlements offered to women by the Personal Injuries (Civilians) scheme. In 1943, some progress was made on the compensation issue when equal rates were introduced. Attention was now turned to the issue of pay. Mavis Tate MP chaired the Equal Pay Campaign Committee (EPCC). The Committee was open to women's organisations only. Other 'mixed' organisations which had asked to join, like NALGO, the British Medical Association, the London County Council Staff Association and the Communist Party were to be permitted to join the Committee. In 1944 the government established a Royal Commission on Equal Pay. The Commission was established for negative reasons - largely because the government was not prepared to implement a prior vote of the House of Commons to establish equal pay for teachers. The terms of reference of the Commission were;
'to examine the existing relationship between the remuneration of men and women in the public services, in industry and in other fields of employment; to consider the social, economic and financial implications of the claim for equal pay for equal work; and to report.' [8]

The EPCC opposed the establishment of the Royal Commission because, in the words of Mavis Tate, 'the consequent delay in settling the question. More than enough evidence has been given already'.[9] Despite the Commission, by the end of the war the campaign for equal pay went off the boil as the government and the TUC concentrated their efforts on persuading women to return to their more traditional spheres of employment - domestic service apparently ranking high on the list of priority jobs. In 1946, the Royal Commission on Equal Pay concluded tentatively that women in teaching and certain grades of the civil service might benefit from equal pay.

Trade unions and the Labour Party were influential during and after the war. Indeed the government's industrial strategy in war and peace depended on the close collaboration if not the incorporation of trade union leaderships. It is for this reason that their attitude to women acquires such significance. There is little doubt that both wings of the movement had never jettisoned their deeply engrained patriarchal assumptions about women's place even during the war when women were so central. The post war reconstruction showed not only how fragile the slight gains made actually were, but how little support there was for maintaining any of them from the labour movement leadership. Without this, defeat was certain. The Welfare State itself, and in particular the Social Security system, arguably Labour's finest achievement, was predicated upon the notion that the whole of civil society was based around family units with a male breadwinner at the head of each and hence that the role of married women in social production was secondary to their domestic responsibilities. Beveridge expressed this exactly in his famous Report of 1942:

'The attitude of the housewife to gainful employment outside the home should not be the same as that of the single woman. She has other duties...Taken as a whole the Plan for Social Security puts a premium on marriage instead of penalising it...In the next 30 years housewives as mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British Race and of British ideals in the world'



Aside from the health service, a huge deficiency of Labour's social insurance scheme, unremarked at the time, (and hardly commented upon by male historians since), was the effect that it had on women. The benefit system was firmly based on the notion that the whole of civil society was organised into family units with a male breadwinner at the head of each. Married women, therefore were not entitled to benefits on the assumption that they were, like children, dependents of the male head of household. Even if they opted to pay their own contributions, they could only receive reduced rate benefit on the spurious argument that their expenses were lower. Wittingly or not Labour fell for the capitalist ideological construct of the family wage developed in the nineteenth century, which as we have seen bore no relation to women's reality then, much less in the inter and post war period when the economy was just as dependent on the employment of female labour regardless of marital status. Such state myopia in relation to women had a practical motivation in that the welfare system was far cheaper to administer if its benefits were only fully accorded to adult males, but it was also based on deep-seated suppositions that the place of women was in the home and that their entry into social production was secondary to their domestic responsibilities. The Beveridge Report was thoroughly impregnated overtly sexist and indeed racist ideas on the 'place' of women and the role of motherhood.

'That attitude of the housewife to gainful employment outside the home should not be the same as that of the single woman. She has other duties...Taken as a whole the Plan for Social Security puts a premium on marriage in place of penalising it...In the next thirty years housewives as mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British Race and of British ideals in the world.'[10]

Such assumptions were given a further ideological boost in the post war era by the 'scientific' findings of the psychologist John Bowlby who popularised the theory of 'maternal deprivation'. He issued dire warnings about the harmful long term effect on children and adolescents who received anything less than 100% of their mothers' attention during their first five years of life. Apart from the impact that this had on female work patterns, the unchallenged acceptance of such views fed the truly reactionary Labour policy of closing the state day nurseries which had been opened to meet the need of women workers during the war. This was a useful cost cutting exercise, but there is no doubt that it was motivated by anti-feminist considerations. A Ministry of Health and Education joint circular sent to local authorities in 1945 expressed it thus
'The proper place for a child under two is at home with his (sic) mother...the right policy to pursue would be to positively discourage the mothers of children under two from going out to work'[11]
Hence despite the undoubted merits of the welfare state in general, its benefits for women left much to be desired and indeed its family centred orthodoxy did much to keep women locked into traditional subservience. In practice the principle of universality was to apply only to the male half of Britain's population.

Aside from the overt sexim, the logic behind this thinking (Beveridge) paved the ideological path for removing any incentive or practical help for married women workers and rendered them ineligible for full state benefits. Nonetheless, married women had always worked and continued to do so after the war in even greater numbers. However the fact that the TUC readily assented to the Labour Government's decision to close wartime nurseries and decided by 1949 that equal pay was 'inappropriate at the present time' because of 'the continuing need for counter inflationary policies', served only to show how much their thinking was in tune with the ideology of women's oppression and the ingrained ideology of the 'family wage'. The following statement from the 1948 Annual Report of the TUC illustrates the remarkable ideological harmony between it and Beveridge:
'There is little doubt in the minds of the General Council that the home is one of the most important spheres for a woman worker and that it would be doing a great injury to the life of the nation if women were persuaded or forced to neglect their domestic duties in order to enter industry particularly where there are young children to cater for'

The wartime public exposure of women's double burden was more significant than any of the very limited solutions. In reality the war meant for women more of the same except for the fact that dilution temporarily broke the old patterns of job segregation. Nonetheless the war did raise women's expectations about the possibility of a better deal in the post-war reconstruction. Women's participation rates in the work force continued to increase, although their membership of trade unions dropped slightly. Deeply engrained prejudices about women's role were not overcome during six years of warfare.


Despite government inaction, the campaign for equal pay continued after the war. The EPCC pursued the campaign until the organisation folded in 1955. It was hoped in particular that women teachers and women civil servants would win equal pay, given that the 1946 report of the Royal Commission had expressly recommended this. In fact, women teachers had to wait until 1961 before they achieved equal pay. In the case of women civil servants, after mass public campaigning, including demonstrations and petitions, a scheme was introduced in 1955 to establish equal rates of pay for men and women doing equal work in the non-industrial civil service. However, this was to be achieved gradually over seven years. The Institute of Personnel Management reported some controversy over the definition of equal work. For practical purposes the Whitley Council definition was used; 'grades where there is common recruitment of men and women and where common conditions of employment obtain'. This meant that of the 210,000 women in non-industrial civil service only half were eligible for equal pay; the remaining half worked in women only jobs/grades and hence, using the Whitley Council definition, were ineligible.

However inadequate the settlement, the principle of conceding equal pay to civil servants inevitably encouraged the aspirations of many other women in public sector employment. In 1956, the Union of Post Office Workers announced to their conference that they had negotiated an agreement with the employers in which women staff had the option of either full equal pay providing they accept 'liability for all duties and attendances associated with the work' (this included night duties)[12], or to retain existing conditions of service and thereby obtaining 95% of male rate. The pattern that emerged in this and similar agreements is that women could obtain equal pay for the same work on the same conditions as men. Given that the vast majority of women worked in segregated areas of employment, they were clearly excluded and thus it was unsurprising that from the mid-1950's all three parties in Parliament declared formally, at least, in favour of equal pay. However, apart from some professional women, some local government workers and some women civil servants, the 1950s were a bleak decade for women workers with nothing done to apply the principle of equal pay to the private sector. Government and trade unions appeared to accept the dubious argument that the British economy would collapse if women obtained pay parity with men.

The Labour Party Manifesto for the 1964 General Election called for a charter of Rights for all employees to include 'the right to equal pay for equal work'. The TUC Congress in September 1965 followed this with a resolution reaffirming
'its support for the principles of equality of treatment and opportunity for women workers in industry, and calls upon the General Council to request the government to implement the promise of 'the right to equal pay for equal work' as set out in the Labour Party election manifesto'[13]

The Labour Party's election pledge may have been prompted by its desire to join the European Economic Community (EEC) so that it would be in compliance with the Treaty of Rome's clause requiring member states to adopt the principle of equal pay for women. However, the application was rejected and thus the Wilson government shelved the issue. Equal pay may have been forgotten for another decade or two were it not for the action of women trade unionists - this time in the private sector. In 1968, women sewing machinists at Ford's Dagenham Factory went on strike over a re-grading demand. Clearly this was not a case of women doing the same work as the men, although their argument was that it required equal skill. This led to a number of other equal pay strikes and the formation by women trade unionists and others of the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women's Equal Rights (NJACCWER). A huge groundswell of protest against government and trade union inaction began to manifest itself. In 1968, against General Council advice, an amendment to a Congress motion on equal pay was passed which called for TUC affiliates to support any union taking strike action for equal pay. The TUC even held a one-day conference on equal pay in November 1968. Most unions by this time had declared forcefully in favour of equal pay and appeared to be keen to do something at long last for their women members. May 1969 saw a massive equal pay demonstration organised by NJACCWER. Barbara Castle, the Employment Secretary, in order to forestall further unrest, decided to introduce the Equal Pay Act of 1970. This permitted equal pay claims to be made from women in the public and private sectors if they were engaged in the same or broadly similar work. However, although the Act was passed in May 1970, it was not implemented until January 1976, thus allowing employers just over five years in which to make 'adjustments'. Basically this meant that they had nearly six years to re-grade jobs in discriminatory ways thus rendering them immune from the very limited scope of the act.


Thus the long fight for equal pay was not over with the passage of the first Equal Pay legislation in 1970. What this Act highlighted is that which has been apparent throughout the history of women's paid employment in the 19th and 20th centuries; namely that the real cause of women's low and unequal pay is the issue of job segregation and the consequential undervaluing of 'women's skills'. The prevalence of part-time work for women is made to appear as a great concession by capital to enable women workers to perform their dual responsibilities. In reality, it is nothing of the sort. Part-time work accounts for a staggering 44% of female labour in Britain today (2011) - the highest by far of any EU country. Far from being a kindly concession it is an important device allowing the maximum flexibility of the female labour force at the minimum possible cost - in terms of employment rights, job opportunities and pay - to the state and to capitalism.

Historically, the trend towards part-time work for women coincided with the social reforms implemented after the Second World War. This may seem paradoxical, but can be explained by the fact that the benefit system was based on the pre-supposition that everyone is a member of a family which is looked after by a male breadwinner. Women therefore should not need to go out to work and, anyway should not want to because their place is at home. It was particularly convenient to reconstruct this hoary old myth in the 1950s, since it was (and still is) far cheaper to administer a system which only entitles adult males fully to its benefits. However, while ideology decreed that women's place was at home, the labour market determined otherwise. The years following the Second World War witnessed a labour shortage. Then, as now, increasing numbers of women workers (especially married women) filled gaps, even though the fashionable theories of maternal deprivation (popularised in the 1950s by John Bowlby) issued dire warnings about the harmful effects on children of anything less than 100% of their mother's attention in the first five years of life. Given the gradual closure of war-time nursery provision, the only solution to the conflict between the demand of paid work and the demands of family and home was the compromise of part-time work. Guilt and the 'pin money' myth, and even more rigid job segregation, is the price women workers still have to pay.


Although there was a temporary halt in the growth of women's employment in the early 1980s, it is clear that women in 2011, now 50% of the labour force, are a vital and permanent part of social production. However, the expansion of women's jobs (indeed jobs of all kinds) is based on a much narrower range of employment, reflecting the chronic decline in British manufacturing industry. So, for women and for black people- already the victims of job segregation- the expansion of the labour market in the new millennium will mean more of the same: low paid and low status jobs, the majority of which will be temporary, part-time or casual. The preponderance of such contractual arrangements is frequently justified in the name of 'flexibility' and they are commended to women as being 'family friendly'. In fact the opposite is true. Uncertainty about a regular source of income, together with poverty wages and lack of affordable child care, increases the burden on women and perpetuates a cycle of deprivation. The establishment of a national minimum wage is welcome, but set at the rate dictated by the interests of capital, it will do nothing to resolve the widening gap between rich and poor in Britain, a gap which has reached the highest level recorded since the Second World War, resulting in an increase in the number of workers (nearly 3 million, mostly part-time) earning less than the threshold for National Insurance contributions. Women are twice as likely to be low paid as men. It is in this context that we must view government's drive to get women off benefit and into work- a policy that would be laudable were it not clear that their (as other governments before and doubtless after) intention is to maintain the status of women workers as a source of cheap labour. But we must also note that the growth of poverty pay (below the National Insurance threshold),

'has set a welfare timebomb ticking...Today's low paid workers are set to become tomorrows pensionless elderly underclass'[14]


Of all the countries of Western Europe, Britain has witnessed perhaps the most savage and prolonged assault on the Welfare State. This neo-liberal attack on collectivist welfare has and is having its most serious impact on women, especially women workers. Whilst it is the case that the erosion of collectivist social provision affects all but the very rich, women have been the hardest hit resulting in what may be termed 'the feminisation of poverty'.

It has long been recognised that women have a higher incidence of poverty than men. Why should this be so? The reasons have already been touched upon and they are connected: namely - job segregation and the long standing and persistent gender pay gap. These 2 issues are connected by the root cause of women's inequality founded upon the contradictions between the social nature of production and the private nature of reproduction ie the conflicting demands of paid labour and family responsibilities (still seen in practice and theory as the primary function of women whatever their marital status). It is in this context that the erosion of the welfare state bears most heavily on women for the following reasons.

Collectivist social provision relieves some of the caring responsibilities of the family (ie women). At its maximal level such provision could (and did in wartime and in the former socialist countries) include the socialisation of some household tasks including childcare. This has long gone in Britain which now has the most expensive (and hence unaffordable) childcare of any EU country. However, the privatisation steamroller has now ensured that the care of the elderly is completely outside the state sector. Hence at both ends of the age span (ie the very young and the very old) are, unless they come from well off families, cared for by women in the home. At a more minimal level the erosion of hospital provision and the insistence that recuperation after serious illnesses takes place at home mean that the care of the sick is also a 'family responsibility'. To this may be added the countless other erosions of caring services such as home helps, after school clubs etc

Why should this impact on women's poverty? Over 50% of women in the UK work. However, 5.3 million women (42% of those in employment) work part-time. Part-time work is more common for mothers: two thirds of women with children under 5 who are in employment work part-time. [15] The pay gap between part-time women workers and full-time male workers is 41%.

Thus family formation and women's role within it impacts significantly the type and nature of women's employment and the lack of social provision not only prevents choice but ensures the perpetuation of job segregation with consequential limitations on promotion prospects and equal pay of women. Job segregation is a main cause of the pay gap. In every occupational group reported in the New Earnings Survey women earned less on average than men, even where they made up more than half the workforce.
Analysis of the Workplace Employment Relations Survey, a project, first conducted in 1980 and repeated in 1984, 1990, 1998 and in 2004, shows that the participation in employment of women of working age has increased from 59% to 70% since 1980, almost entirely due to an increase in part-time employment. Women still earn substantially less - approximately 20% - from their employment than men. While the differences may vary, the pattern is consistent and unambiguous: women doing broadly comparable hours and broadly comparable work earn less than their male counterparts. Among full-time employees, twice as many men are in the top quarter of income earners as women. Women's earnings are considerably lower than men's in places that employ more women; women's earnings also tend to rise more slowly with age and experience.
According to the Labour Force Survey [16] almost all of those in the most highly paid manual occupations are men whilst the majority of those in the low-paid occupations, e.g. cleaners or sales assistants, are women (ranging from 60% to 90%). Even in occupations such as primary school teaching that are relatively well paid, and where women tend to predominate, the average earnings of women are still 17% lower than men.


In considering how to challenge this dire situation, we must pay urgent attention to the wages struggle- a struggle which, over the decades, has failed fully to embrace the aspirations of women workers. As we have seen the TUC passed its first resolution on equal pay in 1888. Over 100 years later, despite legislation (ie, the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1984 Equal Value amendment) women still only earn roughly two-thirds of men's wages (based on average hourly earnings). Yet, despite the breakthroughs in enshrining the principle of equal pay for work of equal value, it remains the case that the law as it now stands is a serious obstacle to the fulfilment of that principle.

Must women workers wait another 100 years to achieve this most basic of all rights?

Naturally, all the protestations from the labour movement will be to the contrary. After all every trade union has policy on the issue - but policy is one thing, the fight for its implementation is quite another. Although the law as it stands is fraught with loopholes and obstacles, the principle which it enshrines is of fundamental importance; it is this principle which has not been properly understood, let alone fought for within the trade union movement to date.

Up until 1984 some excuse for inaction could be found in the fact that the law itself was deficient. The 1970 Equal Pay Act only permitted claims where the women was engaged on 'the same or broadly similar work' to that of a male 'comparator'. Quite clearly this had a very limited application, since so few women are engaged on 'like' work with men. Thus, the Act failed to get to the roots of women's unequal and low pay - the problem for the majority of women workers being that they are in 'women's work', that is to say they are the victims of decades of job segregation. All research confirms that women predominate in a narrow range of occupations, including catering, cleaning, clerical, retail and repetitive assembly work.

However, in January 1984 the Equal Pay Act was amended. The amendment was forced on an unwilling Tory Government as a result of trade union pressure and a ruling from the European Court. The amendment provides another and very important criterion for claiming equal pay. Now claims can be admitted if it can be shown that the value of the work a woman does is the same as that of her male comparators. The law does not lay down hard and fast rules as to how 'value' is to be determined, but mentions the possible use of such factors as effort, skill and decision making. This new principle of equal value is of major significance and merits brief consideration.

Firstly, if applied correctly, the amendment would enable women workers to embark on a major wages offensive in their own right, particularly benefiting low paid women in 'women's jobs'. In the limited number of cases taken up to date, the pay difference between women and their male comparators was massive. Second, and perhaps more fundamentally for the working class as a whole, women have the potential to challenge and re-determine the social value accorded to their labour power by the capitalist system.

Given that, according to Marx, a wage is the monetary expression of the value of labour power, the historical and present fact of low wages in general and women's unequal pay in particular can only he explained if we understand that the determination of the value of labour power lies at the very heart of the class struggle. In order for capital to maximise its profits, the tendency is to push the value of labour power to its lowest possible limit within the broad framework of what is socially necessary at any given time for labour to produce and reproduce itself. For women this poses special problems, since the long history of women's oppression in class society means that - as they don't enter the labour market on equal terms to men in the first place -the socially determined value of their labour power mirrors their already unequal status. So, the ability by any section of the workforce to re-determine the value of its labour power is bound to have a major impact on capitalist profit because it affects wages and the rate of exploitation. Women, because their labour power is even more under-valued than that of men are, therefore, victims of super-exploitation.

As we have seen this super-exploitation has been largely overlooked by the trade union movement as a whole (with, of course, some notable exceptions). The tendency has been to regard it as part of the 'natural order' of things; if we allow this attitude to persist women will have to wait another 100 years before any progress is made There is no excuse for inaction any more. The principle of equal value is now enshrined in law and if the movement itself, under the weight of other pressing issues, does not grasp its significance, there will be no point moaning when the employers and governments fail to act within this law or even threaten to alter or remove it.

This is not to say that we should pin our hopes on the law alone. Recent experience in equal value cases has shown that the law is a minefield (even provoking complaints from judges). The tribunal mechanism is strongly weighted in favour of the employers and the average time from submitting a claim to a decision on it is two years. It comes as no surprise to learn that only a tiny minority of the thousands of cases which have gone to tribunals since 1984 have been won. (Hundreds of cases don't even get as far as a tribunal because preliminary hearings rule them out if, for example, there is a 'valid' job evaluation scheme covering the jobs to be compared, or the employer can show a 'material factor' preventing equal pay.

So if, in practice, the law isn't much good, what's the answer? The simple, but effective, solution is to use the legally-enshrined principle of equal value in the preparation of claims for targeted groups of women workers and to negotiate such claims via the normal machinery of collective bargaining. The essential prerequisite for the success of such a strategy is for unions to accord it a very high priority, accompanied by the necessary campaigning and membership education to ensure it wins mass support especially from men. It will be important to show that the ensuing wages push, while initially benefiting women, will not disadvantage men. Quite the contrary, it is never in the interest of men to tolerate a permanent pool of cheap labour. This only serves the general tendency of capital to reduce the value of all labour and thus push all wages down. Indeed, one of the reasons that the employers are so worried about equal value is that they fear 'leapfrogging' claims by male workers.

Some unions are grasping the importance of equal value to a greater or lesser extent, but the majority of TUC affiliates have not considered a strategy, let alone pursued any claims. The net result is that the labour movement has an appalling record of under achievement for women workers; pay differentials between men and women in this country are among the highest in the EU. There is a tendency, however, to presume that the situation can be resolved by a wave of the legislative wand from Westminster or from Strasbourg. Of course, this simply will not happen. Change for women workers will only come about through the determined efforts of our own trade unions. Women will wait no longer.


Surveys and experience show that black women experience an additional ration of inequality in the labour market, suffering higher unemployment rates, lower wages and poorer prospects than their white counterparts. However, it should be noted that apart from census figures there is no local data on black unemployment- there is no ethnic monitoring of unemployed claimants at job centres. The Labour Force Survey (LFS) is the main source of information. This is a sample survey which includes only a very small number of black people. Over the last decade or so a consistent pattern has emerged. The LFS indicates that the unemployment rates for male and female black workers are more than double the rate for white workers. The unemployment rate for black women is not as high as that for black men, although there are considerable variations between ethnic groups with African and Pakistani women having unemployment rates four times that of white women, compared to Caribbean women who have the highest employment rate of all black women.

Once part of the labour force, black women workers continue to experience inequality, much of which is well documented. However, there is a reluctance to acknowledge its main cause - racism, both overt and institutional. This has been heightened by a number of government measures, particularly the Immigration and Asylum legislation which requires employers to check on the immigration status of all their current and would-be employees. The failure to tackle racism outside the workplace has repercussions throughout society. The fact that racist murderers and attackers escape punishment, the alarmingly high number of black deaths in police custody remains unchecked and the subliminal racism of the mass media is largely unchallenged, perpetuates a climate in which racism is tolerated at work and in the streets. The insidious ideology of racism can only be challenged when its existence, in all its forms, is recognised.

Black women workers are concentrated in particular areas of employment - namely in semi-skilled or unskilled manual jobs mainly in the private sector, at the lower grades and on the lowest pay. Black Caribbean women are roughly equally divided between the public and the private sectors and are least likely to work part time than any other group of women, black or white. Overall, black women are more likely to work in the service industries, although Indian and Pakistani women are twice as likely as other women (black or white) to work in manufacturing industry, particularly textiles.
Hence black women not only experience the inequality of opportunity faced by most women in the labour market, but suffer additional discrimination based on race. All the evidence shows that black women workers disproportionately experience the problems of low pay, poor career prospects and vulnerability to redundancy. The disproportionately high rate of unemployment among black women appears to be mainly due to their concentration in vulnerable jobs, racial and sexual discrimination and the economic recession.

Economic disadvantage due to racism and sexism permeates not only the world of work but all other aspects of British society. Black women suffer disproportionately from the worsening social conditions experienced by the working class as a whole after continuous attacks, since 1979, on all aspects of the welfare state. In short, black women suffer triple oppression based on race, sex and on class.

Whilst there is now some understanding of this triple oppression, there has been a tendency to adopt a mechanistic approach to it. Such awareness as has existed among predominantly white Labour local authorities, political parties and feminist organisations has failed to touch the average black working class woman, hence the lack of any real progress in spite of some positive action initiatives.

Policies developed in the 1980s to give black women their own space by encouraging separate organisation of specific disadvantaged groups, often with financial help from local councils, have done little to change the lot of the vast majority of black women. When the money ran out, the groups were left high and dry, divided and split. At the same time, there has been a gradual shift to the right as more and more local authorities toed the line and started to abandon the policies they had adopted a few years earlier. Some of these policies were misguided anyway and were based more on white middle class guilt and moralism. Very often, reasonable initiatives were subsumed in a welter of equal opportunity policies which reduced the needs of black women to the competing claims of any and every disadvantaged group.

Black self organisation within the trade union movement has played a role in raising awareness of the persistence of racism within the workplace. It has also led to some degree of visibility of black people in their own unions and the TUC. However, given that union density is higher among black people, and is remarkably high among black women, the progress of black people in their trade unions is extremely limited and a cause for great concern. Similar initiatives which were used to raise the profile of women trade unionists must be applied to black members. Care will have to be taken to ensure that black workers decide their own agenda and that the specific needs of black women form a part of it.

More and more black women and black people generally are becoming suspicious of progressive political organisations and trade unions, which do no more than pay lip service to their concerns. To some this is proof that existing political and women's organisations are racist. It is a simplistic approach, but is founded on the fact that these organisations have themselves either ignored the issue of racism or have, alternatively, adopted a line and then proceeded to tell the black community what to. It is not surprising that today many black women, although politically active, still feel isolated and do not believe that they really belong. For far too long they have been ignored, tagged on a list of worthy causes, or worse, been patronised into 'participative politics'.

The ability of black people to organise themselves against racist discrimination since the beginning of mass immigration to the UK in the late 1940s is well documented. The political influence of such organisations has affected many of the changes in today's society, whether this has been through legislation, bringing issues out in debate or putting them on the agendas of political parties of all shades of the political spectrum.

The solidarity that exists among the diverse ethnic, cultural and political black organisations provides the indication of the real needs, problems and aspirations of black people. Within these groups, black women play a central role as they do in their own community and home life. The problems of black people with which they deal are not solely immigration rules, racist abuse, police harassment, discrimination in housing, education, etc, but they are also concerned with the oppressive and exploitative effects of capitalism and imperialism.

Black women will respond to, and work with, political organisations which understand and are willing to listen to them, to share their problems and to fight alongside them for the same goals. The challenge for us is how this can be achieved. Patronage, ethno-centrism and middle class moralism (each or all sometimes masquerading as left progressive politics), have resulted in further alienation and a trend to develop totally separate self-organised groups. The opportunity presents itself for the labour and women's movement to go to black women, to the organisations established by them and their communities and, from a socialist perspective to learn of and from them, open out the political debate on the real issues raised by them and thus strengthen the struggle both here and abroad.


[1] TUC Congress Report 1875 p.14
[2] The Women's Union Journal published by the Women's Trade Union League, 15 September, 1888
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] National News, 25/8/18. Gertrude Tuckwell Collections 664d, TUC Library Collections
[6] The Wages of Men & women: should they be equal, by B. Webb. Fabian Society, 1919 p.7
[7] op.cit.p.55
[8] Quoted in M.Cole The Rate for the Job. Fabian Society, 1946
[9] Minutes of EPCC Advisory Council 22nd May 1944
[10] from the Beveridge Report 1942, quoted in Women and the Welfare State by Elizabeth Wilson
[11] quoted in Women Workers and the Trade Unions by Sarah Boston
[12] UPW Special Report on Equal Pay, (Telephonists & Telegraphists), p.3, 1956
[13]TUC Congress Report 1965
[14] (TUC The New Divide, 1995)
[15] (Source Labour Force Survey Autumn 2002).
[16] (Office of National Statistics, April 2000)