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Celebrating the 1910 Chainmakers Strike

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Meg was recently invited to speak at the celebration of the Women Chainmakers Festival held at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley. Her speech, given below, celebrated the anniversary of the successful strike by women chainmakers in 1910 - a strike for a living wage, now established with the National Minimum Wage.



It’s wonderful to be here celebrating a part of the Black Country’s rich industrial and political history - the victory of the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath in 1910.


The chainmakers existed on what was even considered at the time as appallingly meagre wages, working at home and without any protection of a trade union. Public disquiet forced the Board of Trade to broker an agreement increasing their wages, an agreement many employers were not happy with. They tricked and bullied their workforce, which resulted in the women going on strike lasting for many weeks.


Their struggle, and that of many workers at the start of the last century, was for a living minimum wage. The women chainmakers were eventually successful in getting their wage increased, others were not. One advance we have made since those times has been the introduction of a national minimum wage which gives a floor for workers pay. We know that the majority of workers to benefit from the Government’s introduction of the national minimum wage have been women.


Undoubtedly one reason for the success of the chainmakers was the involvement of Mary Macarthur - a prominent union leader, especially of women workers. Later, in December 1918 she stood as the first female candidate for the nearby constituency of Stourbridge following the 1918 Act allowing women over 30 the vote.  The male MPs of the time declined to give women the vote on the same terms as men, it wasn’t till 1928 that that was achieved. Of course Stourbridge currently has as its MP, Lynda Waltho - who succeeded another Labour woman MP Debra Shipley who unfortunately had to stand down due to ill health.


When I was invited to come here today I did a little research and discovered a couple of interesting links between Mary and me. She was converted to the cause of trade unions in 1901 by a speech about how badly workers were being treated by their employers. The speech was made by John Turner, who was an official of the Shop Assistants Union whose equivalent today is USDAW - of which I’m a member.


The other connection with Mary is through her husband, William Anderson, who between 1914 and 1918 was the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Attercliffe - next door to my own constituency Sheffield Heeley. There is also the small matter of the proud metal bashing connection between this part of the world and Sheffield.


As Minister for Women and Equality dealing with today’s problems and possibilities I’m inspired by the women of earlier times who made sacrifices trying to make life better, better for themselves, their families, and ultimately for us all. We are the beneficiaries of their struggle. We owe them a debt of gratitude.


Some of them we know about - like Mary Macarthur - the majority act without the attention the press bring. It’s through their past dedication to struggle to make conditions of life better, ‘to cause trouble’, that we can look back and reflect on just how far we have come.


Women on the national stage like  . .

  • The first Woman Cabinet Minister (of any party) - Margaret Bondfield, Minister of Labour 1929-31. She pressed forward the case for union representation in traditionlly female industries, ensuring that women had protection.


  • Ellen Wilkinson, who as MP for Jarrow represented a constituency where nearly 80% of the population was out of work. Who organised a march of 200 unemployed workers from Jarrow to London, where she presented a petition to parliament calling for government action. The first woman to be Minister of Education, persuading Parliament to pass the 1946 School Milk Act that gave free milk to all British schoolchildren.


  • Jennie Lee, wife of Aneurin Bevan, elected as Labour member for North Lanarkshire when she was just 24 in 1929 and who was instrumental in setting up the Open University.


  • Jean Mann, another Scottish woman MP, elected in 1945. Her book Woman in Parliament  describes her 14 years in parliament from a woman’s perspective - some of the experiences unfortunately are still recognisable today. With five children, a long way from home and with little in the way of salary, it must have been a very different life to mine in Westminster. But her book does not concentrate on her difficulties but the fight for better legislation to benefit women and families.


Of course going back further there’s the suffragettes, who fought for our right to vote. Millicent Fawcett, the Pankhursts.


Or even further back, Annie Besant - called by George Bernard Shaw ‘the greatest orator in England’. Her concern was the working poor, and her article ‘White slavery in London’, inspired the famous Matchgirls’ strike in 1888.


Or to go back even further?  Mary Wollstonecraft who in 1792, published Vindication of the Rights of Women, attacked the educational restrictions that kept women in a state of "ignorance and slavish dependence." She was especially critical of a society that encouraged women to be "docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else” and went as far as describing marriage as "legal prostitution".


Or more recent? Barbara Castle - not only did she also have rather flyaway hair - or candy floss as they call it - but she saved many lives through the introduction of car seatbelts, breathalyser tests and speed limits, as well as introducing child benefit.


Then there’s Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House and MP for a constituency just north of here. A formidable personality, some would say terrifying, who has, I suspect, inspired many young woman to think that politics is something that women do.


Then there are the so called ‘ordinary’ women who inspire us. Earlier this year a memorial was unveiled on Whitehall that I walk past regularly. It is a memorial to the women of world war two, who worked for freedom both in uniform, and on the home front. I took down from my constituency two women veterans of the war to watch the official unveiling. They were both deeply moved to see at last a public acknowledgement of their effort during that period after all this time.


I don’t think it’s an accident that when we have a House of Commons where there are more female MPs than ever before we finally get a memorial to the work of women in the Second World War. Now I don’t take the view that only women can represent women, but I do believe we need a broad representation at all levels of society. As I said earlier, it was in 1928 that women in this country had the vote on the same terms as men - so that’s 77 years to reach 20% of the House of Commons!!


I congratulate the organisers of this event, and applaud them for their hard work. It’s important that we remember our past, particularly when it was a victory! I have really enjoyed visiting this ‘wonder of the west midlands’ - a worthy winner of this accolade.  I look forward to visiting once again when the reconstruction of the Workers’ Institute building is completed.  What an excellent way to pay tribute to working women’s contribution to society -an institute dedicated to education and empowering women and their families.

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