Women Workers and the Trade Unions: New Revised Edition

By Sarah Boston


This updated edition of Sarah Boston’s classic study of British trade unionism offers a detailed account of cis women’s role in labour history. Divided into fourteen chronologically organized chapters, taking us from 1874 through to 2010, it manages to cover a huge amount of ground, and foregrounds not only the changes but also the continuities between labour struggles across the centuries. These continuities are found not only in the need for agitation around pay and conditions, but also (unfortunately) in the struggles waged within and against the unions themselves. From Victorian unions fighting to perpetuate the sexual division of labour, to dockers and tramway workers refusing to work with women during World War One, to male trade unionists viewing ‘women, not capitalism, as the cause of unemployment and falling wages’ in the 1930s (p. 156) – across the chapters we encounter numerous reports of division rather than unity. This cuts both ways, of course; in the nineteenth century, Boston reminds us, employers used female labour in order to help break strikes. Such a move was made particularly easy by the unions’ efforts to exclude women from particular roles and trades.

Writing from the position of an active trade unionist, Boston is quick to recognize that the attitudes and policies of the labour movement have too often reflected ‘the dominant capitalist sexist ideology’ (p. 11), whilst also acknowledging the gains that women have won both through and within the unions. She celebrates various successes of workplace organizing (the ’68 strike by machinists at Ford’s Dagenham being one famous – if limited – example), and seemingly remains optimistic about the prospects for gender equality within the trade union movement as a whole; Frances O’Grady’s appointment as the TUC’s first female general secretary gives this book its “happy ending”. And yet, the text suggests, meaningful improvements in the lives of working women have stemmed as often from external bodies or contingent historical circumstance as they have from the calculated efforts of any union. Two chapters here address the crucial role played by British women during the Worlds Wars, for example, outlining the increased access to waged work that women experienced during these times, as well as the concerted efforts (by both government and unions alike) to push them out of their new positions once the troops returned home.

In her discussion of the period between 1976 and 1986, meanwhile, Boston attributes many significant and positive developments in gendered cultures of work to the European Economic Community (EEC), and the changes it brought about in employment law. The TUC is described as being somewhat half-hearted in its pursuit of equal pay legislation, despite a motion on the matter having been carried at the TUC conference as early as 1963. This reluctance could perhaps be attributed to the TUC’s historic attitude towards the negotiation of equal pay; its position in the mid-twentieth century was that it ‘did not want legislative interference in free collective bargaining’ (p. 266). Ultimately, it was pressure from the EEC that prompted the Conservative government to amend the Act. Indeed, Boston singles out EEC rulings (or the threat of such rulings) as a major contributing factor in various reforms during the 80s, from amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to the extension of the invalid care allowance to married women. Many of these prominent changes to women’s working lives, then, did not originate from the unions – an important thing for a self-reflective and critical study of trade unionism to acknowledge.

Boston’s text is a valuable history of the struggles that women have faced in the labour movement, managing to address a broad period of time without ever losing sight of the minutiae of workplace organizing. There are many interesting specifics to be found in Women Workers and the Trades Unions (the account of the strike at Murrays Confectionary factory in 1911 stands out in my mind; during the strike, the workers – dubbed Murrays White Mice because they left work each day covered in white dust – managed to intercept a convoy of food being taken to blacklegs, before scoffing the lot and writing a jaunty strike song about their exploits!). However, whilst Boston does include one or two engaging historical details, this is perhaps not a book intended for the general reader. The frequency with which the page becomes clogged with acronyms is testament to that; ASTMS, USDAW, AUEW, BECTU, NJACCWER, AWKS – the abbreviations are not always easy to keep track of.

It is also a shame that Boston reserves her comments about the intersection of gender with race, ability, and sexual identity in the trade union movement for so late in the study. She does not address the issue of race, for example, until chapter 12, meaning that the struggles of non-white women workers before the 1980s are sadly overlooked (this is despite the fact that, by the first years of that decade, female black and ethnic minority workers had a significantly higher rate of trade union membership than white women –57% of West Indian working women were in trade unions, for example, compared to 34% of white female workers). Discussing the underrepresentation of people of colour on the committees of some public sector unions, Boston remarks that these unions ‘made little connection between problems of race and sex, and also failed to look in any depth at the particular problems that ethnic minority women faced’ (p. 323). Such comments astutely point to the limitations of trying to address gender as a single, isolated axis of oppression; I would have liked to have seen this insight applied to the text itself, with more attention being paid to compound discrimination and privilege throughout. Incidentally, Boston’s later material on racial inequality at the fin de millennium – including her account of South Asian machinists taking a clothing chain to a tribunal – is some of the most compelling in the text.

My final remark about Women Workers and the Trade Unions is perhaps a trivial one, and concerns the book as a physical object. Lawrence and Wishart have rather failed to do justice to Boston’s hard work in producing this revised edition. There are numerous printing errors, discrepancies in formatting, and missing endnotes in my copy. Such errors in no way detract from the content, however, and this text remains a thoughtful, detailed, reflective, and carefully researched study into the history of the trade union movement – one which ultimately argues that ‘greater negotiating strength can be achieved through the equality of men and women members’ and that ‘in equality there is unity and in unity there is strength’ (p. 447).

This review was provided by Helen Hester, a Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, sexuality studies, and theories of social reproduction, and she is a member of the international feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks. She is the author of Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), the co-editor of the collectionsFat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism (Ashgate, 2015) and Dea ex Machina (Merve, 2015), and series editor for Ashgate’s ‘Sexualities in Society’ book series.