In my last blog I considered the continuing need for historians of Wales to strive towards an inclusive history that includes both men and women. This is, as I suggested, an old battle. Indeed, I was prompted after publishing that blog to look through the ‘report back’ section of History Workshop from the late-1970s and early 1980s to get a flavour of the debate within Llafur. Whilst the reports give only a basic sense of the discussion (for there is far more to be said on this topic) it is clear just how revolutionary women’s history was, is, even. Writing in 1978, for instance, Alun Burge records Angela John’s research into pit women which ‘sought to provide a corrective to the traditional images of both Victorian women and the South Wales coal industry’. Anyone who has read her book knows that she undoubtedly succeeded (sadly it is quite expensive to acquire). Those who know Alun’s subsequent research will inevitably smile knowingly at his discussion of Alun Williams’s paper on co-operatives – more on them later. For now it is Angela John’s report back in the 1981 issue of History Workshop that interests us. This details the ground breaking AGM day school ‘Towards a Welsh Women’s History’ which was held at the Polytechnic of Wales (now the University of South Wales) in Treforest, Pontypridd. Here is a flavour of Angela’s report:
The talk [given by Deirdre Beddoe] clearly generated a considerable amount of interest. It was the first time that some members had discussed collectively not just the value of women’s history but the politics of feminism. […] The call (by a male Llafur member) for some ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of women was followed in the afternoon by a marked increase in the number of women elected to the new Llafur committee. One of the main items discussed in the AGM was a report on ‘Llafur in the 80s’ and here again the impact of the morning’s talk and discussion was evident.
This was followed in 1983 by a two day Easter School held in early April, at which several hundred people were present (mainly women, as Angela John records in her summary for History Workshop). This workshop took as its theme ‘Working class Women: The Welsh Experience Past and Present’. Addressed by major speakers such as Sheila Rowbotham, Elaine Morgan, Deirdre Beddoe, and Gwyn Alf Williams, the workshop also featured films of women’s political activity in Wales and the United States, and even included evening entertainment from Bessie Biro and the Refills (sadly they’re not on youtube). Gwyn’s essay appeared in the Welsh History Review as ‘Women Workers in Wales, 1968-82’ and others appeared in Llafur through 1983 and 1984. At the heart of this surge of women’s history was an interest in the political activities of women – see, for instance, Angela John’s article in Llafur ‘A Miner Struggle? Women’s Protests in Welsh Mining History’ – or, as in Gwyn’s case, their labour.
Teasing out of the record facets such as these did a great deal to place women’s history – which was fundamentally tied to the politics of female self-expression – on a par with work being produced about men. From the mid-1990s onwards broader aspects of women’s lives were being discussed (such as access to birth control) but that theme has been aired by people better qualified than I (see, for instance, Kate Fisher’s work). To remain focused on the political history of women, it is perhaps fair to say that, even ten or eleven years after Deirdre Beddoe’s lecture on the subject to the Welsh Political Archive of the National Library of Wales, matters haven’t advanced all that far. The death of Ursula Masson in 2008 undoubtedly robbed the field of its key figure, leaving much work still to be done or to be published. That Lowri Newman’s work on the Women’s Labour movement and Helen Thomas’s on the Women’s Co-operative Guild remains identified only by a few articles and DNB entries disguises just how much research they have actually carried out. Sam Blaxland’s vital work on the Conservative Party will add to this. But no-one has yet picked up Sue Bruley’s work on the Communist Party, for instance, and moved it forward. Best served, then, are women’s suffrage, nationalist, and liberal associations, and key individuals such as Rose Davies, Elizabeth Andrews, and, thanks to Jasmine Donahaye’s remarkable scholarship, Lily Tobias.
So where to begin? Well, with the statement that women have always been part of the labour movement. It needs reiterating because so often labour historians forget or disregard the contribution of women because they did not serve in positions of power. They were not, until very recently, the elected members of political institutions, they were rarely the secretaries, treasurers, and chairs (or presidents), and their names rarely appear in the newspaper reports that labour historians treasure like Roman archaeologists and their tesserae. How else – why else – would a newspaper so antithetical to the Chartist movement as the Monmouthshire Merlin declare disgustedly in 1839 that women were being ‘enlisted’ to the cause and that some Chartist meetings were predominantly female in composition. Or the Chartist meetings held on the Heolgerrig side of Aberdare mountain at which workingmen, boys, and women, mingled together to hear speeches in favour equal rights and for working people to obtain the vote. These things are obvious to anyone brought up on stories of the Chartist march into Newport in 1839 but as yet we do not possess a history of Chartism in Wales written entirely from the perspective of the women involved (unless, somehow, I’ve missed it). David Jones’s 1983 article nevertheless points the way to the possibilities of one.
Looking at Chartism away from its political agitation reveals two things: their enthusiasm for reorganising the mode of consumption and encouragement of women as unequivocaly part of the community and lines of solidary, as Dorothy Thompson revealed. The former links into the co-operative movement and serves to link the radicalism of the 1830s and 1840s with the revival in fortunes of the labour movement from the 1870s onwards. This is what, if I may adopt an article title by Peter Gurney for a second, we might call the ‘great arch’ – the missing link between Chartism and the forces that gave rise to the Labour Party. Too long historians couldn’t see it, even though they’d probably all been into a co-op! How similar was the process of supporting the Chartist movement with tea parties, processions, making banners, teaching, and signing petitions to later involvement of women in front-line grassroots politics?
The most impressive – and most frequently overlooked – legacy lay not in the women’s suffrage movement or in the liberal associations but rather in the Women’s Co-operative Guild (later the Co-operative Women’s Guild) established in 1883 (or 1892 in Scotland). The Guild promoted women in the co-operative movement, were politically active in a whole spectrum of politics from peace activism to reform of the franchise, and to maternity welfare and contraception. In 1933, the guild launched the white poppy as an alternative to the red poppy sold by the Royal British Legion to mark a commitment to peace. The following year, the twentieth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, the Peace Pledge Union worked alongside the Guild to distribute the poppy around the country. In Pontypridd, it was the Women’s Co-operative Guild who most visibly promoted the white poppy wearing them alongside red poppies on Armistice Day (or, failing a white poppy, a white ribbon). During the period of the Spanish Civil War they even had special ‘peace tablecloths’ which they used during meetings and pushed for Peace posters to be displayed in co-operative shops. And they were particularly vocal when, in 1937, the white poppy wreaths that were placed at the cenotaph were removed and two young men sacked for wearing one. The Home Secretary received a particularly angry letter from the Pontypridd branch!
But how did the Co-operative Women’s Guild develop in South Wales? Elizabeth Andrews provided some clues in her autobiography, A Woman’s Work is Never Done, observing that she helped to found the branch in Ton Pentre in October 1914. Rose Davies helped to form a branch in Aberdare the previous year (1913) and by 1916 there were branches in Aberaman and Mountain Ash, too. Abercynon and Ynysybwl followed in 1918. 1913 also saw the formation of a branch at Ystalyfera – notably before the establishment of the Women’s Labour League branch locally on the last Saturday of the year! In her work, Helen Thomas has recorded over one hundred branches of the Co-operative Women’s Guild in South Wales between 1891 and 1939. A remarkable tally that is simply not matched by historians’ interest (much like the entire Co-operative movement, eh Alun!). Writes Thomas:
The virtual omission of the Guild from the historical record so far has served to obscure a significant and early vehicle by which working-class women in south Wales were able and willing to take a serious interest in economic and political affairs outside the Liberal Party and suffrage organisations and to become active in both local and national campaigns driven by and through the co-operative movement (Llafur, 2012, p. 151).
The earliest branch was formed in Newport in 1891 and was soon followed by branches in Cathays and Swansea in 1892, and Risca and Crosskeys in 1893 (Llafur, 2012, p. 151). If these did not last all that long, it would be incorrect to suggest that the Guild was not actively involving itself in Welsh affairs. The Albion Colliery disaster of 1894, for instance, prompted a message of sympathy from the Annual General Meeting of the Women’s Co-operative Guild which was then meeting in Doncaster. Co-operative societies, similarly, sought speakers from the Guild to discuss women’s issues – sometimes these led to the formation of branches, sometimes not. Suffice to say that the Edwardian period was a time of growth for the Guild in Wales, aided by the growth of working-class organisation. The Barry branch of the Guild, for instance, was founded in January 1902 following a visit to the town by Mrs A. M. Morris, the then president of the South Wales District Women’s Co-operative Guild. It was linked locally to the Barry Twentieth Century Club. It met there together with the Mothers’ Union, the Women’s Temperance Association, and the Workers’ Educational Association. As the club’s president, E. P. Hughes, observed in 1908, ‘the club […is] becoming a convenient focus for work connected with women’.
As might be expected, the Women’s Co-operative Guild had a strong relationship with the Labour Party and the Women’s Labour League / Women’s Labour Associations in particular. In Pontypridd this was emphasised by the sharing of personnel such as Myra O’Brien, the first member of the Guild from the town to be elected to the District Council. There they were also very supportive of David Lewis Davies, the town’s Member of Parliament from 1931-1937, his successor Arthur Pearson and the President of the Ynysybwl Co-operative Society, William Hazell (who stood against Pearson for the Labour nomination in 1937 when Davies died). Pearson, a life-long bachelor, was a particular favourite of the Guild. Such relationships are undoubtedly in evidence elsewhere, but more research needs to be undertaken to establish the precise nature of them. Perhaps the biggest joint campaign of the early twentieth century was that launched in 1914 aimed at the construction of pit-head baths. The list of names at the head of that campaign (as the contemporary press put it) – Mrs D. Watts Morgan, Mrs Thomas Richards, Mrs Alfred Onions, Mrs Vernon Hartshorn, Mrs Tom Smith, Mrs William John – reminds that as we might view coalfield history from the perspective of ‘miners’ leaders’, we might also view coalfield history from the perspective of their wives.
But what of the Women’s Labour League? Well, it seems to have followed on from the Women’s Co-operative Guild (another reason for emphasising the importance of the latter). In Barry, for instance, a branch of the League was not formed until September 1909 – over 7 years after the Guild. Nevertheless by 1910 there was a sufficient number of branches for a South Wales District Committee to have been formed and for regional meetings to be held. That at Barry in 1910 saw representatives from Cardiff, Newport, and Tondu all travel to the town. Politicisation of women was an equal process, then, to the politicisation of men – indeed, by 1933, individual membership of the Labour Party was very nearly equal. 11,207 men had joined the party in Wales but so had 9,160 women. That figure is important because it represents over a decade of vigorous activism, particularly in the coalfield, that moved the women’s labour movement out of the shadows and into the front line of grassroots politics. Take Pontypridd, again, as an example. In April 1921, amidst the miners’ lockout, the women’s section of the town’s labour party held a meeting of miner’s wives which declared itself standing ‘firm by our husbands in this great struggle for the “rights to live”’. What they said next is interesting and reflects their political awareness: ‘realising as Chancellors of the Exchequers of the home that the wages offered to our families to exist upon with the present cost of living would reduce our status to below the poverty line’. Chancellor! And when these women organised meetings, they opened them up to men to hear the views of the assembled women, not the other way around.
In the aftermath of the 1926 lockout, as many historians have observed, membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain expanded rapidly. What is less frequently noted is that many of these were women. As Sue Bruley notes, the number of women in the CPGB trebled albeit ‘the starting point was one of only a few hundred’. Nevertheless, the politicisation of women was evident. In Tylorstown, there was a women’s section grandly called the ‘Women’s Left Wing Movement’. A few miles away in Maerdy, the branch there was actually run by Ethel Horner, Arthur’s wife. These were the local branches of the All Rhondda Left Women’s Movement. Across the mountain in Aberdare, one local Communist even gained herself the nickname ‘The Red Duchess’! The local police, who were vehemently anti-communist – the Chief Constable, Lionel Lindsay, gives Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon a run for their money – were just as concerned about female communists as they were male ones. Perhaps with good reason since it was women who led the attack on the Public Assistance Committee offices in Merthyr Tydfil in 1934, destroying many of the town’s welfare records in the process!
Anyone familiar with what happened in South Wales during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike – how could you not if you’ve seen Pride – will know that the role played by women during the strike was of especial significance. The above history, outline as it is, can easily be regarded as the ‘pre-history’ of that moment, but to do so would be wrong. After all, we do not think of men’s political action in that way, do we? During the strike, partly because of the growth of the women’s history movement I described at the outset of today’s blog, and partly because of deliberate activity, women were introduced to this history in a way that reinforced the received memory of it handed down from generation to generation and made it relevant to the present day struggles. As one miner’s wife recalled:
I’m thinking of what I was told by my parents after the 1926 strike, our picture of the 1926 strike [… is] they were all together in it. […] I’ll tell you what after 1926 righ through to the 30s what, what kind of um upsurge in the Labour Party was there really in these valleys? What did it produce in people?
Socialism she felt, amidst mutterings of agreement from others in the discussion, came from the conviction of the poorest:
The socialists were the poorest of the poor in the Labour Party, keeping together because if they didn’t they couldn’t afford, the poor had to keep together in order to survive.
Oftentimes the most radical people in the South Wales Coalfield were the poorest: think of Lewis Jones, who finished work in 1929 and never again had a job – he died in 1939. Received memories such as those discussed by women in 1984, 1985 and 1986, put together with contemporary action, found their historical grounding in the Llafur schools and the work of groups such as the Swansea Women’s History Group led by Ursula Masson. She was then teaching in the Department for Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University. One of their most vital outputs is the film ‘Smiling and Splendid Women’ (1986) which documents the experiences of women from the Neath, Swansea and Dulais Valleys Miner’s Support Group. They had previously made a film about women during the Second World War (‘Back of the Front Line’, 1984) and in 1991 produced ‘Swansea Conchie Controversy’.
In a region where radical politics was a defining feature, it is vital that we excavate the full extent of involvement in them, be that the women who took active part in the Chartist movement, the women who campaigned for pithead baths, the Spanish migrant women who fundraised to support anarchist activity at home, or a myriad other examples that it’s possible to give – the role of women in the stay-down strikes of the 1930s, in the white-shirting activity of the Edwardian period, and in the development of Plaid Cymru in the Coalfield after the war, for instance. The irony, I think, is that by doing so the image of the South Wales Valleys doesn’t suddenly morph into one radically different from that present in Dai Smith’s work, in many ways it reinforces the ideas that are there. But then, we might add, of course it does if our subjects are politically active women. Surely that’s the point, isn’t it? That, in the end, South Walian women were just as bolshie as the men.