Today is international women’s day. An annual festival to mark the achievements of women, but also to consider the continued acts of discrimination, oppression, and violence that women face on a daily basis. This year’s celebration coincides with the centennial commemorations of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, the first British measure of parliamentary franchise reform of the twentieth century, and the first Act to enfranchise women. The equal franchise came ten years later with the passage of the fifth Representation of the People Act in 1928. The 1928 Act was the last major measure of franchise reform until 1969 when the Labour government under Harold Wilson extended rights to men and women between the ages of 18 and 21. The battle now is to extend those rights even further to young people aged between 16 and 18. It would be the last great measure of parliamentary franchise reform, bringing to an end a process of democratisation that began in 1832.
Forty three years ago, nearly, Elaine Morgan delivered BBC Wales’s annual radio lecture to mark the International Year of Women. Established in 1938, and delivered in English and Welsh in rotation, the annual lectures were a highlight of BBC Wales’s autumn calendar and were an opportunity for a leading intellectual or cultural presence to ruminate on a subject of significance. The first lecture was given by Thomas Jones CH, the most famous was that delivered by Saunders Lewis in 1962. But Elaine Morgan’s lecture broke the established tradition that only men delivered the lecture, that only men formed the upper echelons of Welsh cultural and intellectual life. She was the first. Few women followed. It might be easy to lambast twentieth century Welsh society for that – and this would invariably mean lambasting the establishment and lambasting the mechanisms of the Labour movement which largely formed the Welsh establishment (and its opposition). Elaine began with these words:
I imagine the reason I was offered this subject to talk about (Woman and Society) – and probably the main reason I am here at all – is that this is 1975 and International Women’s Year. I don’t know how much impact it’s made on you to date. I get the impression that in most parts of Wales we haven’t hung out a great many flags to celebrate the occasion, though I am still hoping before the year has ended to hear that somewhere or other in the Principality someone has wound up a meeting with the words, ‘Now I will ask you all to rise and join in the singing of our National Anthem “Hen Wlad fy Mamau”’.
More than forty years later, these words hardly sound out of place in our own times. There are a few more flags, a few more public exhibitions, but if next year was declared international year of women, would we really be able to say we had moved on? After nearly twenty years of devolution, the most senior roles – First Minister and Deputy First Minister – have only ever been held by men.
But let’s look at that assumption about women, politics, and the Labour patriarchy. Women have always been political. That probably seems like a rather trite sentence, but it needs reiterating nonetheless. Their politics have not always been radical, at least in the sense of a political spectrum that associates radicalism with the left. Many Welsh women were active in their support of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party – perhaps, as Sam Blaxland has argued, a radical choice given the established nature of politics in Wales over the course of the twentieth century. But we should be cautious in over-stating this. Women were an extremely active part of the labour movement forming more than forty per cent of individual members of the Labour Party throughout the 1930s. Although this dipped slightly in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, by the early 1950s women’s membership of the Labour Party across Wales was around forty five per cent. In a number of constituencies, particularly in large urban centres, and in Monmouthshire, women were actually the majority. In 1950, there were (according to the party’s published figures) three hundred and seventy five women members in the Rhondda, compared with fewer than three hundred and fifty men. In fact, across industrial South Wales, together with its urban fringe, that is Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, women formed the majority of individual members in no fewer than nine of the twenty two constituency parties.
Elsewhere in Wales, particularly in rural north and west, and in the industrial parts of the north-east, women were outnumbered by men in the Labour Party by substantial margins – in Denbighshire the difference was around fifteen hundred men to three hundred and thirty women, for instance, and in Carmarthenshire there were around sixteen hundred men and six hundred women. If it be the case, therefore, that the patriarchal nature of valleys life (which is difficult to deny) was more oppressive than that of other parts of Wales, these figures present a significant challenge to some of the more strident anti-labour (and anti-Labour) assumptions. Populations differed, of course, and we should be mindful, always, that membership did not mean power. Power in the Labour Party in the industrial south was held by the trade unions, rather than individual members. But this did not mean it was never challenged. As Steven Fielding has shown, women on Llanelli Labour Party’s general management committee exercised a form of block voting to maximise representation and in Swansea women activists were willing to stand outside the Labour fold when they felt they were not being given adequate opportunities to stand for election or the regard held by men for the women’s section was insufficiently high. And as more women entered the workplace, often in precarious positions, they too joined trade unions and began to agitate for reform – culminating, indicatively, in the wage disputes at the Hoover factory in Merthyr in 1969-70.
Those disputes in the factories undoubtedly echo the earlier wage and condition campaigns in the department stores of Cardiff before the First World War, but this should not blind us to the reality that just as men’s politics changes from generation to generation, even with a material foundation, so too does women’s politics. And if we genuinely wish to recognise the agency of women in the political sphere then we must recognise the fallacy of the male gaze on political action (as Sue Bruley, Anglea John, and Deirdre Beddoe, amongst others, have demonstrated). And recognise, too, that women’s sense of the moral economy may well have considerable crossover with men’s, but it is not always entirely comparable. A women’s history of the labour movement offers strikes and campaigns against poor material conditions, yes, but it also involves campaigns for nursery schools, maternity clinics, birth control, independent housing rights, consumer credit protections, women’s aid, peace, life-long education, protection from domestic violence, independent legal representation, and much more besides. It does not take you very long when exploring the records of the criminal justice system to realise, perhaps out of masculine naivety, that almost all sexual crimes have been (and are) perpetrated by men on women. And those are only the cases that make it as far as the police station.
Welsh labour history is often accused of being overly patriarchal, blinded by its own sense of the achievements of the labour movement, and its own allegiance, to the negative consequences of male-orientated class politics. But this is an unfair accusation based on a misreading of the literature, a deliberate misreading of the intentions of the practitioners themselves, and a failure on the part of the detractors to ‘fill in the gaps’ left by an earlier generation’s attempt to sketch out Labour Country. There are a series of major moments that provide a counter sketch – the suffrage campaigns, the attacks on the Public Assistance Offices and participation in the hunger marches, and the creation of women’s groups during the miners’ strikes of the 1920s, the 1970s, and the 1980s – but these are staging posts towards a history, not the full history itself. Or, rather, the full herstory. It is beholden on labour historians to fill in the gaps, yes, but they knew that, even if their detractors refuse to acknowledge it. In the words of Dai Smith:
We should be far more concerned at the continuing absence of any sustained history of women in Wales. A society whose dependence on female labour, at the workplace as well as in the home, has been lengthy and complex and needs an analysis of the social culture erected, often with calculation, around this more real biological divide. Women were never ‘outside’ the actual history of Wales; they have been almost forgotten in our written history. … Arguably [women] will require a separate history before they can figure in our male-dominated historiography with integrity, and therefore integrally.
That was written in 1980. The first full history of women was not published until 2000, and that is limited to women in the twentieth century. Where are we with continuing with that project nearly twenty years on? Have we really moved away from a narrative and counter-narrative composed of set pieces? Yes, as I’ve written previously, but not as far as we probably could have got.There are many reasons for the paucity of such work, not all of which we are honest with ourselves about.
In Wales we live with a kind of intellectual amnesia, I think, and this is nowhere more apparent than in our collective treatment of women’s history in all its forms. I do know that there is a considerable amount of work done on women’s labour history by research students, most of it remains unpublished, however, such is the challenge of our ‘national’ intellectual life. I know also that there is considerable evidence in the records waiting to be excavated and drawn together to produce a genuinely rich Labour History of Women. Somehow before we reach the fiftieth anniversary of the international year of women, in 2025, or the centenary of the equal franchise in 2028, we have to be able to remedy the paucity that exists. To balance out the presumptions with contextualised analysis. To complete the project identified more than my lifetime ago. And finally to begin the process of writing – and acting – integrally.