International Women’s Day, 8th March 2021
The Munition Girls, by Alexander Stanhope Forbes, 1918. Oil on canvas; Science Museum Group ‘Pit Brow Lass’, Wigan, early C20th This photograph of box makers working at home is from ‘Sweated industries, being a handbook of the Daily News exhibition’ by Richard Mudie-Smith, 1906. Sweated workers were known as ‘white slaves’ because of their low wages and long hours. The Sweated Home Industries exhibition was visited by hundreds of people and contributed to the passing of the Trade Boards Act. TUC Library Collection Women employed in steel mills enjoying a smoke during a short break. During WW II they kept the mills operating. Safety wear includes a hood, goggles, a leather apron and gloves. (Photo by Harry Todd/Getty Images) Sheffield’s Women of Steel ststue; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_of_Steel Women of Steel statue, Sheffield Telephone Operators at Consett Iron Company in the 1960s. Women workers helped to solve the wartime labour crisis many performing heavy manual jobs but at a lower rate than men. The practice continued as this 1957 image reveals. Consett was a company town with most of the workforce employed at one of the iron or steel plants. Consett Iron Company was until the 1960s one of the premier world producers of steel. This close knit community was devastated by the closure of the last steel plant in the town, in 1980. Photograph by Walter Nurnberg who transformed industrial photography after WWII using film studio lighting techniques. (Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images) Women in the wartime workforce at Consett Sister in the CIC hospital in 1966 receiving her gift from Mr G M Nave, Works General Manager Women brickmakers at Templetown The redoubtable Theresa Roberts with Tony Benn MP Canteen workers Mrs White, Miss Hutton and Mrs Hobson provide some Christmas cheer in 1966 Women in the draughting office at CIC The National Federation of Women Workers was established in 1906 to recruit women in organised trades or who were not accepted into membership of the relevant male unions. The union was rooted in the ideas and militancy of the early general labour unions and its early battles were campaigns for minimum wages for women in sweated trades. (l-r) Julia Varley, unknown, Mary Macarthur (Secretary), Jessie Stephens (?); TUC Library Collection This leaflet, printed by the Independent Labour Party, advertises a lecture by Christabel Pankhurst on votes for women. The previous year Christabel successfully passed her LLB exam with honours, although she was not allowed to practise. The leaflet uses her academic success as proof that women are as capable as men. LSE Women’s Library This photograph shows the Equal Pay for Equal Work petition being presented at 10 Downing Street by four female MPs: Edith Summerskill, Patricia Ford, Barbara Castle and Irene Ward. Despite being agreed in 1955, equal pay for teachers and civil servants took many years to implement. LSE Women’s Library This article on ‘Leaders and speakers in the women’s suffrage movement’ is from The Queen, the Lady’s Newspaper for 27 February, 1909. It features a photograph and article on Teresa Billington-Greig, the founder of the Equal Pay League in 1904. The League later became the National Union of Women Teachers, which continued to campaign for equal pay in teaching until 1961. TUC Library Collection The Trade Boards Act 1909 introduced minimum wages in certain industries. In 1910, the Chainmaking Trade Board set a rate of 2½d per hour for adult women workers which was almost double the rate paid at the time. Mary Macarthur was one of the workers’ representitives on the Trade Board. The employers at Cradley Heath in the West Midlands tried to delay the implementation of the new wage rate and in response the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) called a meeting in August 1910 at which the women refused to work at the old rates. The resulting strike attracted a great deal of public support and within a month 60% of employers had agreed to the rates. The remaining employers were boycotted until, 6 weeks later, they too agreed to pay. By 1911, the NFWW Cradley Heath Branch had 1700 members. TUC Library Collection This is one of a series of recruitment leaflets issued as part of a TUC national campaign in 1926 to organise women into trade unions. This leaflet refers to the Trade Board Acts and the fight against low pay. TUC Library Collection Cartoon in ‘The Post’ newspaper from the Union of Post Office Workers, 28 June 1941, illustrating an article encouraging women members to become active in their union branches. TUC Library Collection This pamphlet for Labour Party discussion groups was published in response to the report of the 1944-46 Royal Commission of Equal Pay. TUC Library Collection This leaflet, ‘Equal pay for equal work: a new deal for women in engineering’, was published by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions in 1964 as part of a claim to the engineering employers for the gradual introduction of equal pay over three years. TUC Library Collection ‘Welcome to mini skirts but not to mini wages join the fight for equal pay the A.E.F. way’ poster issued by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers and printed in their newspaper ‘The Way for Women and Youth’, December 1968.; TUC Library Collection This photograph shows members of the General and Municipal Workers Union at the TUC International Women’s Year Rally in London on 25 May, 1975. There was a meeting in Hyde Park followed by a march to Trafalgar Square. TUC Library Collection 1985 publication from the Women’s Rights Committee of the South East Region TUC explaining the equal value legislation. A photograph of the 1984 Ford sewing machinists’ strike appears on the front page. TUC Library Collection A 1990 union recruitment leaflet issued by the Southwark Trade Union Support Unit. TUC Library Collection Jayaben Desai, union official and leader of the direct action to secure better, more equal working conditions at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratory in London between 1976 – 78. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayaben_Desai Women and racial inequality: these tables are taken from ‘Moving on up? Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black Caribbean women and work : key statistics’, published by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2007. TUC Library Collection The front cover of Unison Magazine for April-May 1998 shows catering staff at Southlands Lower School in Bedfordshire celebrating after a tribunal ruled that staff had been underpaid for nearly 4 years. The Union argued that sex discrimination and equal pay legislation was breached when the women’s basic pay and other conditions were cut. TUC Library Collection Women at the BBC take action over pay inequality in 2018; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-54901308 Women’s struggle for equality in pay and opportunity continues. The Office for National Statistics figures for the gender pay gap in 2017; the latest data may be found here https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/genderpaygapintheuk/2020
These images are representative of women’s work and their struggle for equality in pay and conditions from the late C19th onwards. The two world wars were changing points in history for women employees, with many entering the workforce for the first time.
The end of both wars saw the reduction in women’s opportunities to work, but the change had been made and the drive for fairness had begun. It continues today.
Many of the images above come from the TIC Library Collection, and have been credited in the caption. We are very grateful for the use of these evocative illustrations of women’s struggle for equality. More information and many more brilliant images may be found at
The images of Walter Nurnberg, a photographer who catalogued industrial processes using film lighting to dramatic effect in the 1960s, are worth seeking out on Getty Images,
Thanks to all contributors to the gallery; your input and support is much appreciated.