September 16, 1911, To the Editor of The Morning Post
In the summer of 1911 women workers in the Bermondsey district of south London, an area
of factories then largely devoted to food processing—-jams, pickles, biscuits–spontaneously
walked out in protest of their low wages and poor working conditions. It is thought that the
London Dock Workers Strike of that same summer, a strike that was partially successful in
gaining increased wages and improved working conditions, may have inspired the women’s
action. Various labor and women’s organizations, including the National Federation of
Women Workers, moved to support the striking women who were able to gain increased
wages at a number of the factories. Members of the suffrage movement were naturally
interested in women’s economic status and in the trades union movement, and while
Emmeline Pankhurst did not follow her daughter’s path, Sylvia Pankhurst’s commitment
to labor, to trades unions and to women’s economic rights forged a link between labor and
the suffrage movement. Emily Davison was clearly among those who saw the connection
between the women’s movement and the right to bargain for decent wages and living
conditions. Most of all, she valued the concept of union that underlay the labor movement.
Her defense of the strikers is a clear and cogent contemporary description of how enthusiasm
for the trades union movement grew in London between 1910 and 1914.
Sir, — It is with interest that many of us read the fourth of the articles by your Special
Correspondent on the Revolt of Labour which deals with the women’s strikes. But as a
woman who went down among the women-strikers to ascertain the real facts of the case
for herself, I feel that I must take exception to some of the statements made by the writer of
First and foremost, it is a downright misapprehension of the facts to declare that
these girls came out on strike in an irresponsible, frivolous way with the idea of taking a
sort of Roman holiday. The first feature which struck me and another woman-observer
was the deadly earnestness of the girls in their action; and no wonder when we came to
hear their stories. If ever a strike was justified it was so in the case of these girls: tea and
cocoa packers, tinmakers, makers of jam, confectionery, and biscuits, their labour was
undoubtedly being exploited, if ever labour was exploited. Decent, honest-looking enough
girls they seemed, who had been roused into thought by the sight of the great industrial
upheaval which was taking place around them. They saw responsible, serious men laying
down tools and taking part in one of the greatest manifestations of labour ever made in the
country. The natural outcome was the thought: ‘We, too, are labourers; why should we,
too, not stand out for the right to live?’ These girls, most of them, earned hard-earned
wages averaging from 5s. to 10s. [a week] in a working day often lasting from six in the
morning till eight at night. They were also victims of the miserable ‘piece work’ system.
When they saw men striking for 35s. and more a week for a far shorter day what wonder
that they realized that something would have to be done for them.
Secondly, I object to the statement that ‘women who had never shown the least sign
of discontent and some whose wages and conditions were far above the average of the
district were drawn in the excitement and the chance of a holiday.’ This is an entirely
misleading statement. The spirit which had manifested itself among the women was that
of ‘union’ in the best sense of the word. The most luckily-placed women felt the common
bond of a common interest. Each felt morally responsible for the sweating conditions, if
they were allowed to continue. In short. Amongst those poor women of Bermondsey was
manifested the true spirit which should animate Trade Unionism to-day. It was the insight
into the real meaning of ‘res publica,’ the public welfare. Miss Mary MacArthur and Dr.
Marion Phillips supplied the finishing touch of good leadership.
One part of the article gets, however, to the root of the matter when it is indicated
that what enabled the women to win was public opinion. It was that fact and their own co-
operative powers which made them win. But wherever we went we found these women-
workers alive to the necessity of the vote to working women as a means of protection.
EMILY WILDING DAVISON
31 Coram-street, Sept. 15