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A history of women and trade unions

Anna Phillips · 5 March 2021

Looking back at some key milestones led by women in the trade union movement that have changed the landscape of workers’ rights in the UK. 

1874: The beginning of trade unionism for women

Emma Paterson founded the Women’s Protective and Provident League (later the Women’s Trade Union League) to promote trade unionism for women.

The League represented workers such as dressmakers, bookbinders, and typists and was inspired by Paterson’s visit to the United States where she studied the Women’s Typographical Society and Female Umbrella Makers’ Union. 

1875: Emma Paterson becomes the first woman TUC delegate

Paterson attended the TUC in Glasgow in 1875 and became a regular at Congress until her death. She had some controversial views, but through her tact and perseverance managed to reduce some of the prejudice that men had towards women activists. 

1888: Equal pay motion and the Matchgirls’ Strike

Women’s Trade Union League secretary Clementina Black moved the first successful equal pay motion at the TUC for equal pay for equal work.

This motion lay the groundwork for the laws on equal pay which govern us today. In the same year, Black was one of the organisers of the Matchgirls’ Strike by the women and teenage girls working at the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, East London. 

1914: First World War

Women’s Trade Union membership increased by 160% during the First World War. Two million women replaced men in employment, while new jobs were created for women in areas such as munitions. These jobs were relatively well-paid but were often dangerous. 

1961: The march of the white coats

Brenda Webber, a member of Prospect’s predecessor union IPCS, led a strike of around 5,000 government scientific assistants over pay, most of whom were women. The strike gained national attention for the ‘march of the white coats’ on Whitehall.

In a story sadly still familiar today, public service workers were facing a ‘pay pause’ leading to a fall in living standards. The Times reported that “on the platform was not a burly shop steward but Miss Brenda Webber”, whom it declared “a charming strike leader”. 

Read more about Brenda Webber and the march of the white coats 

1968: Made in Dagenham

An equal pay strike at the Dagenham Ford factory saw 187 women sewing machinists walk out in protest of unfair treatment over a pay regrade. The strike led to a halt in car production as the car seat covers that the women made ran out.

Weeks into the strike, Employment Secretary Barbara Castle met with the workers and a deal was struck to increase their pay. The Strike inspired the 2010 film Made in Dagenham and a musical in London’s West End. 

1970: Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act, introduced by Barbara Castle, was the first piece of UK legislation which prohibited unequal pay and working conditions between men and women.

It is debatable as to whether the Equal Pay Act has lived up to its name, with the gender pay gap still around 17% over 50 years later. 

1976: The Grunwick dispute

The Grunwick dispute was a two-year strike at a film-processing company in Willesden, north London. Jayaben Desai led the walkout of 100, mainly South Asian, women over working conditions. The workers talked of an atmosphere of fear, control and degrading treatment by managers.

The strike gained support in the trade union movement and on some days, over 20,000 people marched on the streets near Dollis Hill tube station. 

2006: Prospect member heads to European Court of Justice over equal pay

On International Women’s Day in 2006 Prospect member Bernadette Cadman’s claim for equal pay against HSE was heard in the European Court of Justice. Bernadette, despite having completed five years in her grade, was being paid up to £9,000 less than male colleagues doing equal work.

After a ten-year legal struggle, she won her claim. Thousands of other women benefited from her principled stand for equality as employers had to adjust their pay structures. 

2013: Equal pay at the Intellectual Property Office

Six women Prospect members win an equal pay claim at the Intellectual Property Office where the pay system disadvantaged women because it was partly dependent on length of service. The long pay scale was shortened and approximately 185 employees (including men) benefited, many receiving an £8,000 per year increase.

Read more about equal pay successes for Prospect members

2013: First woman general secretary of the TUC

145 years after it was first founded, the TUC elected its first woman general secretary in Frances O’Grady. Her election was hailed as the end of the “pale, male and stale” view of trade unionists. Indeed, many trade unions, including Prospect, now have an incredibly diverse membership which is crucial to supporting our fight for fairness and equality at work.

Anna Phillips is Prospect’s Digital Campaigns Officer


International Women's Day

A woman's place is in a union