Lessons from the match stick girls

"There are so many amazing women in the modern trade union movement, and the image of the average trade unionist is not as male, pale and stale as it once was."

Without the courageous acts and determination of women who played an extraordinary role in the history of women’s rights and equality, the world would be a much different place - especially the world of work.

One of these incredible women, who we should celebrate as we approach international women’s day, is the woman who started one of the most famous campaigns in the work place.

In East London, the match factory Bryant & May employed over 1,000 young women and children. They suffered 14 hour shifts, horrific working conditions, pay penalties, and disfigured faces, all for just a few shillings a week. 

For such a small wage, these women were required to dip the ends of matchsticks in a paste made of white phosphorus, and were fined if they dropped a match.

The paste poisoned the workers, caused skin to melt and bones to decay, and without surgery organs would fail and death was inevitable.

Like any other stories of poor treatment and misfortune for the working class, there was a significant lack of public attention or outcry.

Their awful conditions, however, were detailed by Annie Besant in The Link, a campaigning newspaper. As more and more women told their stories, Bryant & May dismissed the ‘ringleaders’ and women walked out of the factory and eventually went on strike. All 1,400 women were out on the picket line.

Without any representation, they went to Annie Besant for help.

The women marched through the streets raising money for their families, and Annie took the campaign to parliament and lobbied MPs, and increased the pressure through the press.

 Byrant & May were eventually forced to review processes in their factories, and the dangerous white match paste was banned and replaced by red, which worked the same and didn’t threaten the lives of the working women, it’s what we still see replicated on matches today.

Most importantly, the firm recognized a union formed by the women, and on 27 July 1888 the inaugural meeting of the Union of Women Match Makers was held.

The 1888 match girls’ strike and their achievements played a huge part in British industrial history, inspired trade unionists everywhere and increased the representation of the unskilled workforce, which had a long-term impact on the trade union movement.

It is no coincidence that just five years later, the Labour Party was set up as the party for working people. Credit should be given to Annie Besant and the women who stood up for their rights, and in doing so inspired a political party that would stand up for all working people.

There are so many amazing women in the modern trade union movement, and the image of the average trade unionist is not as male, pale and stale as it once was.

Women in the movement stand on the shoulders of women trade unionists like Annie Besant, and we remember to build on their legacy in the world of work today.

There is a huge part for women to play in the future of trade unions and women at work.

In sectors where women are making up an increasing percentage of the workforce such as self-employment, there are challenges including maternity leave, equal pay, pensions and sexual harassment. These will not disappear overnight.

In the wider working world we are seeing more women in work than ever before, more young people in precarious work, people increasingly switching jobs, careers and sectors, technology rapidly changing the nature of work, and the decline of traditional industry in certain areas of the UK.

What’s important when facing these challenges is to acknowledge that trade union membership is on the decline, especially in the private sector. Such a decline isn’t inevitable, and there is plenty of work to do for all trade unionists to make unions relevant to all workers in a rapidly changing economy.

 With union membership among women higher than men, there is an additional duty to act. Women were crucial in the formation of unions, and it is women who are vital to the survival of unions.

Women trade unionists must remember Annie and the match girls. We have to ensure that we follow in their footsteps and help bring through the next generation of brilliant women trade unionists. If we do this right, then I believe the sisterhood can tackle the challenges facing the trade union movement, and secure another century of progress for working women.


Kate Dearden is a Young Fabian member. Follow her on twitter at @kate_dearden

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