2012 New History
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The Women’s Trade Union League and the National Federation of Women Workers (1890-1920): Women and the Labour Movement in Britain

Wen-hsia Wang

Department of History, National Cheng-kung University

This article deals with three themes: how industrialization influenced British women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, how the Womens Trade Union League (WTUL) organized women to participate in trade unions, and how the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), along with the Womens Trade Union League, struggled against poor working conditions during this period by promoting unionism as well as legislation.

Before industrialization, British women contributed to their families by working in the agricultural sector as well as in textile manufacturing in the putting out system. After the Industrial Revolution, and following the rapid growth that took place in the industrial economy in the nineteenth century, women went out to work in factories instead of working at home. In the Victoria era, it was widely accepted that women were not supposed to work outside unless their families were in desperate poverty. However, the Industrial Revolution created many employment opportunities in modern factories for women. Inevitably, this led to many difficulties in the work place, such as low pay, long work hours, bad working conditions, sex-segregation and so on.

 Womens trade unions established in the late nineteenth century played a significant part in the trade union movement. The Womens Trade Union League and the National Federation of Women Workers worked hard to develop women trade unions and contributed a great deal to social reform, particularly in modern factories with regard to women workers. Their achievements were not only limited to the improvement they obtained for women workers, but included also the encouragement they gave women to become more independent, and increasing social respect for women workers. The main point of this article is to show the growth in social democracy that was characterized by the history of these two womens groups, the WTUL and the NFWW, both of which were established by women trade unionists.


Key Words: trade unionism, trade unionists, women trade unionists, Trade Union Congress (TUC), Womens Trade Union League (WTUL), National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), Emma Paterson, Mary Macarthur, Gertrude Tuckwell