SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 218 May 2018

Women in the workplace 1910

The Caseroom

By Kate Hunter

Published by Fledgling Press, 2017, £9.99

Reviewed by Heather Rawling

This is an unusual historic novel and well worth reading for its examination of a bitter labour dispute and torn loyalties between class and gender which occurred in the Edinburgh print trade in 1910. The story begins in late 19th century Edinburgh when the main character, Iza, starts work as a typesetter in the male dominated print industry.

Kate Hunter, the author, worked in Edinburgh’s print industry as a young woman, was an active trade unionist and appears to have done extensive research. The novel graphically, yet unsentimentally, describes the living and working conditions of the working class in the city, including the diseases incubated by poverty and poor health and safety at work. The writer neither portrays the central working-class family as ignorant and uncultured nor does she gloss over their prejudices and other imperfections.

Iza’s older brother Rab is steadfastly against women entering the print trade – especially his sister. He would rightly fear that the employers will use the female workforce as cheap labour to undermine wages. Although not referred to in the book, women had been used by employers as scab labour in Edinburgh in 1872 to break a compositors’ strike. Some 800 women worked in the city’s print industry for a few decades. They earned higher wages than women employed in more traditional female jobs, even though their pay was less than the men received doing the same work.

Rab also had the chauvinism of many working-class men of the time: "Ah’m a man at the frame, doing a man’s work. And you? You mean to be a frock at the frame? Better you’d never been born". He says this as Iza defiantly goes to work on her first day, aged thirteen. Rab is reflecting the outlook of many skilled workers of the time, the so-called aristocracy of labour.

However, New Unionism – in which the London matchwomens’ strike of 1888 played an important role – was combating this conservative outlook in the trade union movement. Louise Raw looked at the 1888 strike and how it helped launch New Unionism by developing new methods of struggle, winning the workers’ demands and inspiring the East End dockers’ strike. (Striking a Light, the Bryant and May matchwomen and their place in history, Continuum, 2011)

Iza’s understanding of her oppression as a woman and a worker develops gradually over the years. The novel keenly reflects the conflict and the lack of a revolutionary solution, at the time, to her dilemma. The Caseroom uses a historical dispute to examine the themes of class and gender.

The employers were using technological developments in typesetting to put men and women in competition for the same jobs. In 1910, the Edinburgh Typographical Society sent a memorandum to the employers demanding that they get rid of female labour. These skilled men won support from the Warehousemen and Cutters Union and from trade unions for less skilled workers. Women were paid much less than men for the same work. The Typographical Society wanted to stop the recruitment of women into the trade and instituted an overtime ban.

Feminism and the suffrage movement had a long history in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society was set up in the 1830s, led by the Quakers Jane and Eliza Wigham. This led to the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage. The first Scottish women’s suffrage procession was held in Edinburgh in 1907 and, in October 1909, the Great Procession and Women’s Demonstration took place in the city. These were organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (suffragettes led Britain-wide by Emmeline Pankhurst). The more working-class National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies did not participate even though it had a local branch.

The two causes of trade unionism and feminism collided. The feminists opposed the Typographical Society’s action as an attack on women’s rights. A ‘We Women’ declaration was signed by 300 women objecting to attempts to bar them from the trade. However, the employers conceded to the men’s demand for no new female learners for up to six years. This temporary stop became a long-term ban on female typesetting apprentices in Scotland which was still in effect as late as 1953.

There is much a revolutionary socialist can take from this novel and its historical scenario – and to ponder: what would we have done in such a conflict? While trade union disputes over gender are rare these days, there have been cases where employers have used race or migrant workers in a similar way to attempt to divide workers and undercut trade union negotiated pay rates and conditions.

In Leicester in the 1970s, Ugandan Asians struck for equality at work in a bitter dispute where the white union convenor was complicit with the employers. Supporters of the Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) were active on the side of the strikers. In the Lindsey oil refinery dispute in 2009, the employers tried to use migrant labour to divide the workforce. Socialist Party members again played an important role and argued for trade union negotiated rates for all workers.

In Kate Hunter’s fictional work reflecting historical reality, Iza is not given the option of fighting for equal pay in the Edinburgh of 1910. Such a struggle could have united the workforce in a common cause and prevented the employers from using the women as cheap labour.

The Caseroom also raises other issues. For example, the use by Iza, a relatively well-paid female worker, of a wet nurse so that she could continue to work in her chosen trade. That was in the days before maternity leave and the lack of alternative childcare or feeding options. Iza has other difficult choices to make between love and marriage, friends and trade union. The Caseroom is well worth a read. I look forward to the sequel.

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