On International Women’s Day 2020, the importance of women’s friendships is uppermost in my mind. Very recently, I have been reminded how much I love and value the women in my life and I have been thinking a great deal about the loving support that has upheld so many women in their times of trouble. In neighbourhoods, women have always rallied round during difficulties and crises – in childbirth, in illness, in death and in the agonies of domestic disputes. Women were there to sustain with tea, childcare, physical comfort and righteous indignation. Women supported other women simply because it was the right thing to do, because they knew that it was the best – sometimes the only – way to deal with physical and emotional pain. Even in the grimness, women shared moments of humour, using laughter to block out unkindness and to strengthen solidarity. They did all this not because they regarded men as the enemy but because they recognised both the understanding that can unite women and the healing powers that female friendships can provide. At the same time as wanting to thank the women with whom I share so much, I reflect also on the bonds that got some of the women in history who I most admire through the worst of times and helped them on towards better times. Even when these were a long time coming, the women were there anyway, giving all that they could.
In the British labour movement of the early 20th century, female friendships and solidarity among women were vital to those women striving to secure a place for themselves as leaders and organisers of women workers. The trade union world was dominated by men, who were unused to the sight and sound of women on public platforms, delivering messages that too many believed women were not qualified to give, and to women workers who should not even have been in the workplace alongside men. It was an adversarial and combative world, dealing with aggressive employers who too often believed that women should be grateful for any pay that they received. Women activists had to overcome barrier after barrier in order to provide guidance and encouragement and to try to help make improvements for all women. Economic independence remained out of reach for many who needed it but that did not stop the fight for fairness, safety and raised, decent standards of living. When Mary Macarthur, founder of the all-female National Federation of Women Workers, started the Woman Worker, a journal for women workers in 1907, her hope was that it would ‘bind women together in friendship and unity’. The first serialized story carried by the journal featured a young woman worker called Margaret. It highlighted the doubts that a young man had about women’s capacity for loyalty and comradeship or indeed their ability to stick to a cause. He, like so many others, was completely wrong; women, despite the high stakes, proved their determination to correct injustice time and time again as they stood, marched and sang together in defiance of bosses who treated them with disdain. The gratitude felt by the box makers at the Corruganza factory in south London in 1908 towards their forewoman, Mary, spilled into the reports of a bitter pay dispute; Mary had risked her future to defend the girls whose pay was being reduced, even though her own wages were secure. Confronting the factory manager, she was sacked on the spot despite her 16 years of service. That she ‘stuck up for us’ meant a great deal to women who were fighting to maintain wages barely enough to cover the essentials of life.
Women trade unionists took advantage of rare opportunities to let off steam together, like the Edmonton branch of the National Federation of Women Workers, whose members, in the days leading up to the First World War, took the boat to Kew where they were met by cars and taken to Hampton Court. The weather was perfect, all meals were served outdoors, there was dancing, running races and the chance just to wander through the grounds, talking and relaxing. All agreed that it was one of the most enjoyable outings they had ever had. Women had far less time for this sort of event than men, for whom a degree of leisure was built into the working day – lunch breaks in which no shopping had to be done for the family, a quick half in the pub on the way home or a union evening meeting in the club. Trade unions knew the importance of women meeting together free of the fear of being watched by the boss or criticized or mocked by their loved ones – like Margaret in the story in the Woman Worker. Telling her lover that she could only go walking with him until her union meeting, he tried to persuade her not to go. She explained that she must, because, as branch secretary, it was her duty. Her young man laughed and told her that of course she must have her ‘little amusements’ and she could call them ‘business’ and ‘duty’ if she liked, but still he believed that her commitment to the union was nothing more lasting than a fad. Women, then, needed other women, if they were not to be constantly undermined by those who thought they had a larger claim on their time.
Women leaders were just as reliant upon each other’s support as were rank and file members. When Mary Macarthur left Scotland for London in 1903, she went to live with Margaret Bondfield, who was already a senior trade union official for the Shop Assistants’ Union. Not only did Bondfield offer Mary a temporary home, comfort and support, she introduced her young friend to other women in the labour movement who immediately recognised the brilliant potential of the exuberant 23 year old Scot.
Mary Macarthur went on to have a remarkable career and she surrounded herself at all times with a loyal band of women who would move heaven and earth for her. They worked together to get things done, to spread workloads and to rally when needed. As Mary Macarthur’s final illness in 1920 became unstoppable, these women formed the closest of circles around their friend, once again offering the loving support that had helped to sustain her the previous year when she had lost her husband. They were all women who had outstanding careers of their own, women including Susan Lawrence, who became one of the first women Labour MPs, Madeleine Symons, who was trade union worker, JP and social activist, and Gertrude Tuckwell, a labour movement campaigner who all knew the central importance of female friendships to health and happiness. There was no jealousy or point scoring; when Margaret Bondfield and Mary Macarthur first met, at a Shop Assistants’ convention, Bondfield was older and more experienced and yet she claimed to know immediately that the young woman standing in front of her was destined for greatness; here, she said, was ‘genius, allied to boundless enthusiasm and leadership of a high order, coming to build our little Union into a more effective instrument’. Despite the older woman’s seniority at that point, she wrote that ‘it was a dazzling experience for a humdrum official to find herself treated with the reverence due to an oracle by one whose brilliant gifts and vital energy were even then manifest. So might a pigeon feel if suddenly worshipped by a young eaglet’. This was generous praise indeed from Bondfield who went on to become Britain’s first woman Cabinet Minister in the Labour government of 1929 to 1931.
My own experiences of friendship tell me that nothing has changed. The women in my life have been there to pick me up off the floor during my toughest moments and I hope that I have been as valuable to them during theirs. In the last few years, I have talked to many trade union groups about women activists of the past and I have witnessed some incredibly strong support networks of and for women and I am in no doubt of the strength that these give to individual women, activists and grassroots union members. So, this year, I want just to say thank you to all these women. The importance of kindness, empathy and having a laugh together is incalculable. Mary Macarthur was right; binding together in friendship and unity is what sustains us.