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An Historical Introduction to the Campaign for Equal Pay by Mary Davis

The campaign for equal pay has a long history; one which is still ongoing. It is a demand which was not always supported by the trade union movement and in some instances was actively resisted by sections of it. As a movement it does not have a continuous history, reflecting the fact that although a constant part of the labour force in Industrial Britain, women were often a marginalised sector of it and were effectively excluded from many unions until the latter part of the 19th century.

The 1830's

As far as we can tell the demand for equal pay first surfaced in the 1830's. There are four noteworthy examples of this. The first, in 1832, was articulated by women who worked in Robert Owen's 'labour exchange' in Grays Inn, London. These women were supported by male trade unionists; members of the United Trades Association. Also in 1832 women card setters in Scholes and Highton demanded equal pay with men. In 1833 unionised women in the Women Power Loom Weavers Association in Glasgow struck for equal pay. In 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) advocated the demand for equal pay in the pages of its journal the Pioneer on the grounds that 'the low wages of women are not so much the voluntary price she sets upon her labour, as the price which is fixed by the tyrannical influence of male supremacy'[1] The GNCTU had encouraged, with some success the formation of 'Lodges of Industrious Females'. The pages of the Pioneer record the activity of such branches as well as the fears of male trade unionists, (for example the tailors) that women's low pay dragged down the male rate, but on the other hand if women were to gain equal pay, men's livelihoods would be threatened. The response of the male tailors was to argue that women should not be allowed to work in the trade. This line met with great protest from women correspondents to the paper and from the paper's editor, James Morrison. It should be noted that much of the argument around women's work and wages was contained in a section of the Pioneer originally named A Page for the Ladies. In response to popular pressure from (we think) Frances Morrison (James' wife) and other women, this was changed to Women's Page (from 26th April 1834).

There is little evidence of the demand for equal pay re-surfacing until the 1880's. This is partly because after the demise of the GNCTU, following the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the labour movement was more concerned with the issues of Factory Reform, opposition to the New Poor Law and the great campaign for the Peoples' Charter (Chartism). Women played and important role in such movements as they did in Chartism. All of this dominated working class activity in the 1830's and 1840's.

1850's -1880

Women workers suffered a great defeat during this period. Although trade unions were established on a firm footing among skilled and better paid workers, for the most part this meant that women were excluded. 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, was

" 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."[2]

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 most notable example is the formation in 1874 of the Women's Protective and Provident League (later the Women's Trade Union League). The League under the leadership of Emma Paterson fostered the growth of separate associations of women working in such trades as dressmaking, millinery and upholstering. Between 1874 and 1886 over thirty such associations were formed on the same plan, using a model constitution devised by the League. Most of these Societies were very small, weak and short lived. They hardly merit the description 'trade union' since their stated aim was to 'to promote an entente cordiale between the labourer, the employer and the consumer.' Strike action was deprecated as 'rash and mistaken' and instead emphasis was placed on friendly society benefits. But such attitudes were derived from the craft unions, so perhaps our judgment should be more even handed. The difference was that in the women's case their unions were not nearly so successful and the impetus to organise came from the outside. The only matter of real controversy was the League's opposition to protective legislation for women on the grounds that it restricted women's choice of employment and her earning capacity. Apart from the still topical debate on this question, the lasting achievement of the League was to get the first women delegates to the TUC, among whom was Emma Paterson herself. However, the League's position on the question of equal pay was not very robust. As they put it in 1884

'We have always declared against attempts to introduce women into trades at rates of wages far below those previously paid to men for similar work. We have therefore never joined in, or expressed approval of, the abuse heaped by certain middle class papers and economists on workmen who have struck against unfair competition of this kind.' [3]

Nonetheless, an exception to this general rule was made in the case of the Kidderminster Carpet Weavers strike of 1884 in which the male carpet weavers withdrew their labour in protest against the use of women who were taken on to weave velvet; a new product in the town. The WPPL thought that in this case, and in contrast to their usual policy, the men should be condemned because the women were not doing similar work and were therefore not offering any competition.


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 & 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.'[4]

As a result Henry Broadhurst (TUC General Secretary) sent Clementina Black a telegram saying that she would not be admitted to Congress and that her delegate fee would be returned. Miss Black challenged this 'ruling' as having no legal force[5] and on the grounds that the Parliamentary Committee had no authority to frame supplementary standing orders especially given the fact that Emma Paterson, who had held the position as Secretary of London Women's Trades Council before her was a frequent Congress delegate. 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 Trades Federation, Midlands Counties) [6]

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'. [7]

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 National Federation of Women Workers under the leadership of Mary Macarthur probably did more than any other organisation (including the established trade unions) to unionise women especially during the mass strike wave of 1910-1914. The Federation saw strikes as the chief means of unionising unorganised workers. The NFWW was entirely unself-seeking in that its efforts were purely for the benefit of the unions rather than its own prestige. Although its membership had risen to 20,000 by 1914, its leaders never intended that the NFWW should remain permanently as a women's union. In fact, in 1920 it quietly merged with the General Workers' Union (now the GMB). The Federation also played another role, which was seen by some as contrary to the interests of trade unions. It, along with many of the other women's organisations (like the Women's Industrial Council) campaigned to expose the evils of the sweated trades. Their propaganda was very effective and played a major part in inducing the Liberal government to pass the 1909 Trade Boards Act which was an attempt to fix minimum wages in certain of the most exploitative trades, usually the ones in which women predominated. This was seen by some trade union purists as an attempt to bypass union organisation and to rely instead on state regulation. The fact that the unions had ignored such trades for so long presumably meant that the women were supposed to be content with nothing forever. Even those male trade unionists like Will Thorne, whose politics should have taught them better, persisted in writing off such reforms as the work of middle class do-gooders. Such a hardly justified attitude to the trade board system blinded male activists to the union recruitment side of the NFWW's work, which had in any case been particularly successful in some of the small 'sweated' factories in London like biscuit making, jam and pickle making, bottle washing and a host of others. It was successful in less traditionally female trades outside London like chain making in Cradley Heath, where the employers initially refused to pay the rate set by the trade board for the industry; the ensuing strike reversed this and resulted in a big growth of union membership. With the help of the NFWW similar successes were recorded among women fishing net makers in Kilbirnie in Scotland after a strike lasting 22 weeks. But for the work of the NFWW, such women would have been ignored even by the more revolutionary syndicalists. Syndicalism, for all its successes in promoting the massive spread of trade unionism in the immediate pre-war years, concerned itself by its very nature on large concentrations of labour in factories and mines and these tended to be male dominated. The ideal of industrial unionism leading to workers control of industry had very little to offer women workers in small workplaces and in industries which were hardly central to the motor of the capitalist system. A strike in a preserve factory, in syndicalist terms, could not be equated with a strike in an industry at the heart of the productive process like mining or engineering.

World War One

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' [8]

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..' [9]

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' [11]

Women Teachers

Bearing in mind that the general perception of equal pay at the turn of the century and beyond, was that if it was to be paid at all it should only be paid to women doing the same work as men, the case of women teachers is particularly instructive. Clearly the women performed the same work as their male counterparts, and yet were always paid considerably less. Thus it was that the National Federation of Women Teachers was founded in 1906, having been originally established two years earlier as the Equal Pay League. Most of its members were also members of the National Union of Teachers or the London Mistresses Association and its objectives were equal pay and increased representation of women in the NUT. The women were dissatisfied with their treatment in the NUT, which one correspondent to The Schoolmistress[12] dubbed 'the men's National Union of Teachers [in which] all women's questions are shelved'. In 1909, the London section of the NFWT broke away from the NUT and together with the Women Teachers Franchise Union formed the Union of Women Teachers, the aim being women's suffrage, equal pay and removal of the marriage bar. In 1920, the remaining NFWT members also left the NUT to form an independent union, the National Union of Women Teachers. The opposition to the demands of women teachers was expressed most vehemently by male teachers. In 1921 the London Schoolmasters' Association issued a pamphlet justifying unequal pay[13]. It was 'dedicated on behalf of men teachers to the boys now in the schools - the future men of the country'[14] . Its motive was to oppose a policy 'which threatens to deprive the budding manhood of the nation of the essential masculine influence so vital to it'[15] It expressed the fear that because women teachers outnumber men by three to one, the profession was being downgraded and men are failing to 'obtain-what has never yet obtained in teaching - a wage that shall be adequate to the need of a family man.'[16] It might be thought that the logic of this argument was that it would have been in the interests of schoolmasters to support the demand for equal pay!

Needless to say, the male teachers (organised in the National Association of Schoolmasters) were in favour of retaining the marriage bar which was in widespread use after 1923 when, following the lead of the London County Council, it was introduced by the majority of Local Education Authorities throughout the country. This time the National Union of Women Teachers was not the only teaching union opposing the marriage bar, although arguably they were more vociferous in their campaign and claimed credit when the LCC removed the bar in 1935.[17]

The NUT supported a parliamentary solution to the issue, relying on a 10 minute rule bill - the Married Women's Employment Bill - introduced (without success) in 1930 by P.A.Harris, the Liberal MP for Bethnal Green. The NUT's argument[18] for the retention of married teachers appealed to traditional 'womanly' attributes. Education, they argued was a preparation for normal life; normal life included marriage and child care. Only a married woman and a mother was fitted to impart such knowledge as well as dealing with the adolescent girl's awakening to sex consciousness. The union was prepared to concede that if a woman teacher chose to have a large family 'that it might be desirable for the teachers to retire from teaching during the periods of rearing their children'[19] with the option of returning when their children were old enough.

The Inter-War Years

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 if 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. It established, in 1925, its own Women's Conference and later, in 1930 a Women Workers' Group (later known as the Women's Advisory Committee), to assist the General Council to tackle 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 Second World War

Women entered social production on a mass scale during both world wars. However, twice as many women were mobilised in World War 2 as in World War 1. By 1943, the peak year of mobilisation, 7.25 million women were employed in industry, the armed services and civil defence. This represented 46% of all women between the ages of 14-59, accounting for 38.8% of the total occupied population.

The generally accepted view is that the Second World War represented a unique and liberating experience for women not only because they proved they could do men's jobs, but also because for the first time the state recognised the problems posed by the conflicting pressures of work and home and took practical steps to solve them. However, in practice the war created major problems for women who faced very long working hours and low rates of pay. The limited provision of state day nurseries and 'British Restaurants' was a welcome but inadequate response to the perennial problem of the 'double burden' facing women workers - that is how to meet the demands of social production and family responsibilities. This contradiction was brought into sharp focus during the Second World War, given that married women accounted for 43% of this female workforce and that the labour of women was seen as so vital to the war economy that it was achieved by means of conscription, introduced in 1941.

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 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 Labour Movement

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.

Equal pay

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 Council. 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 & 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.' [20]

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'.[21] 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 overt racism, the logic behind this thinking 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. The following statement from the 1948 Annual Report of the TUC illustrates this 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)[22], 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 1950's was 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 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'[23]

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 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 January1976, 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'.


[1] Pioneer,5th April 1834, quoted in Frow, E & R (eds.) Political Women 1800-1850 Pluto Press, 1989

[2] TUC Congress Report 1875 p.14

[3] Women's Union Journal no.98 vol IX March 1884

[4] The Women's Union Journal published by the Women's Trade Union League, 15 September, 1888

[5] Strangely when the Parliamentary Committee submitted their amendment to Standing Orders to Congress, Clementina Black was asked and agreed to second it. She did so 'in order to show that I had no unfriendly feeling towards those who had introduced it, and did not suppose, or wish others to suppose it, aimed at me or the women's societies'. (ibid). The London Trades Council successfully moved rejection.

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] National News, 25/8/18. Gertrude Tuckwell Collections 664d, TUC Library Collections

[9] The Wages of Men & women: should they be equal, by B. Webb. Fabian Society, 1919 p.7

[10] The Women's Trade Union Review, October 1891

[11] op.cit.p.55

[12] The Schoolmistress, October 31st 1907

[13] Equal Pay and the Teaching Profession 1921

[14] Ibid p.5

[15] Ibid p.6

[16] Ibid p.35

[17] Another Victory: Removal Of The Marriage Bar. National Union Of Women Teachers, 1933

[18] The Case For The Retention Of Married Teachers. London Teachers Association, 1930

[19] Ibid, p.8

[20] Quoted in M.Cole The Rate for the Job. Fabian Society, 1946

[21] Minutes of EPCC Advisory Council 22nd May 1944

[22] UPW Special Report on Equal Pay, (Telephonists & Telegraphists), p.3, 1956

[23]TUC Congress Report 1965

Professor Mary Davis

Head of Centre for Trade Union Studies

Deputy Director Working Lives Research Institute

London Metropolitan University