On Saturday 17th August 1918 a strike began without warning in London among women bus and tram workers. These wartime workers walked out in defence of the principle of equal pay for equal work. Despite promises that where men and women did the same jobs, pay would be the same, the Committee of Production had, earlier in the year, awarded an increase of five shillings per week to men only. The five shillings was added to the war bonus that workers were given on top of their wages to help them cope with the spiralling costs of living during the First World War. It was argued that the brunt of these costs was felt more acutely by men than by women, because men had wives and children to support. The women were having none of this and the injustice and inaccuracy of the reasoning was what led to the strike.
Despite the disruption caused to workers and day trippers alike, there was a great deal of support for the women who were backed in their action by transport unions, male colleagues and public transport workers in towns beyond the capital. Initially the strike had no official support but as it spread rapidly to garages and depots, the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers was quick to back the women. Its Executive Council passed a resolution endorsing the actions of their members and calling upon all its bus and tram members to come out on strike in support and to extend the dispute into the provinces. Reports suggest that services in London and the suburbs were seriously reduced. The traffic manager of one of the affected firms, the London General Omnibus Company, stated that around 3000 buses and trams were withdrawn on the first day of the strike alone with over 10,000 employees involved.
There were ‘indescribable’ scenes in long queues for trains and emotive reports of soldiers home on leave having to lug heavy kit bags across the capital, two of whom apparently collapsed under the strain and had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Visitors to the city were said to be confused but stoical Londoners apparently enjoyed the chance to get some extra fresh air, taking to walking in far greater numbers than usual. Some workers even confessed that it was something of a relief not to be enduring the heat and overcrowding that had become standard on the capital’s buses and trams during rush hours. Although London County Council kept its services running, some of its conductresses came out in sympathy and they were joined by female workers on the Bakerloo tube line, one of whom said that she thought it was about time the Underground girls were listened to. For doing the same work as the men, she remarked how unfair it was that the women railway workers were paid 12 shillings and 6 pence less. According to one trade union journal, ‘the weather was hot, and the way was long: such tubes as were running were blocked to suffocation: but amidst all the irritation and inconvenience caused to the ordinary citizen, hardly a voice was raised in deprecation of the principle for which the fight was being waged’.
The dispute, which lasted for a week, ended in success and women were granted the five shillings which was then extended to women in war industries. It was a hugely important but by no means straightforward landmark case for equality and one well worth recalling, particularly at a time when we are still – one hundred years on and nearly 50 years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act – uncovering new instances of gender pay inequalities on an alarmingly regular basis.
According to the secretary of the National Federation of Transport Workers, the women were ‘smarting under a sense of injustice’ and the men were loyally cooperating with them. Men, however, had a vested interest in protecting wage rates and feared that where women were paid less than them, the wages of all workers could be dragged down to the lower level. So, as the strike spread south west to Bristol, Bath and Weston super Mare, and to the south coast at Brighton and Hove, Hastings and Folkestone, many male workers lent support to protect their own pay and status.
This struggle for equal pay seemed, according to the Labour economist Sidney Webb, to have come about ‘all in a rush’ and he thought that now there might well be wide acceptance of the equal pay for equal work principle – already adopted by the Labour Party – with ‘momentous social changes to come’. It was astonishing, Webb remarked, how quickly ‘we reach conviction when there are eight million women electors (for the Representation of the People’s Act had passed in February 1918)’. But let’s not forget; this was wartime and not all support for the women was due to a desire to raise their status or to value their position in the workplace.
Women’s work on and beyond the Home Front was vital to the war effort, particularly as men signed up or were conscripted into armed service. Hundreds of thousands of women moved from traditional (and low paid) female employment, such as domestic service and food production, into work previously regarded as belonging to men. Women worked in service industries, they drove delivery vans and they began working on public transport in considerably greater numbers than before the war (from 300 to 4,500 on the buses and from 1,300 to 22,000 on the trams by 1918). Whilst the railways would not take on women as drivers and there were very few tram or bus drivers, the public grew used to the sight of women ticket collectors and conductresses. They also recognised and appreciated that with fewer tram cars and buses on the roads than before the war, the new workers were working in difficult conditions, dealing with larger numbers of passengers and a great deal of overcrowding.
Despite promises that where women replaced men, equal pay would be granted, women soon discovered that employers (and government) looked for ways to claim that the work that they did was seldom equal to men’s. In engineering, for example, where women’s labour in the munitions’ factories ensured the regular supply of shells and equipment to Front Line troops, skilled jobs were commonly broken down into several separate processes, making it easier for employers to maintain wage differentiation by insisting, whenever possible, that the new jobs were not eligible for the skilled rates of pay that had belonged exclusively to men before the war. Such so-called ‘dilution’ was not so easy to accomplish on public transport where women were visibly doing the same jobs as men; for example, up to 90 per cent of conductors were reckoned to be women. In recognition of this – but most definitely for the duration of the war only – women were told that their basic pay rates would be equivalent to men’s. This made their exclusion from the 1918 award particularly hard to accept.
Traditionally women’s work was regarded as being less skilled than men’s and yet here, in the case of the transport workers, the public could plainly see that women had not only replaced men but had done so with the greatest of efficiency and enthusiasm. So how could the decision to award them a smaller war bonus than men be justified? It was time to bring out a favourite old rationale; male workers were assumed to be family men with dependents, whereas women workers were assumed to be single with no one to support but themselves. Naturally, then, men worked for – and the labour movement defended – the so-called family wage (never incidentally paid to a woman with children, even if she was the family’s sole breadwinner). The assumptions were of course based on enormous and inaccurate generalisations; as Sidney Webb observed, the average employer got his labour as cheaply as possible, but he didn’t pay a single man less than a married one, or a childless husband less than the father of a family. In the case of the war bonus, the all-male Committee of Production took the view that the burden of increased prices in wartime, which affected food and most commodities, fell more heavily on men than on women. For those working women whose husbands had gone off to fight, there was the army separation allowance, payable to wives and children and it was thought that this should be entirely adequate compensation for receiving a lower war bonus than men. The trade union journal Woman Worker highlighted the ‘ridiculous argument’ that separation allowances were a reason against equality. ‘You might as well say’, it reported, ‘that a man’s wages should be reduced because he had been left a legacy by his deceased aunt’. In other words, the allowance had absolutely nothing to do with the pay that women were entitled to for doing the same work as men.
The transport companies believed they had another reason for keeping women’s bonuses lower than men’s; women, they maintained, were more expensive to employ than men. Because their attendance was allegedly less regular than men’s, a large reserve staff of women had to be kept on the books. The women strikers were having none of this nonsense, pointing out that no member of the spare staff was paid unless she actually worked, so there could be no loss to the firm.
Beyond the general support given to the women, there were plenty of warnings flying around about the consequences of awarding equal pay in all industries and these show just how far the argument for equality had yet to go. The Times declared that whilst the women bus and tram workers had a good case, the principle was no matter for sentimentality and that there were many cases of ‘conventional’ rather than ‘real’ equality where general standards of work would be pulled down unless wage differentiation was maintained. It gave, however, no examples of what this was supposed to mean. Instead it went on to say that equal pay would inevitably reduce the employment of women when the men returned from the war but ‘that is another remoter question’ (how many times had women heard that one – be patient, wait until the class struggle is won). Sidney Webb, whilst agreeing the principle, also feared that equal pay would lead to the workplace segregation of the sexes after the war. Even trade union leader Mary Macarthur, champion of women war workers, believed that the principle of equal pay for equal worth was essentially meaningless, because of the risk that employers would interpret equal as identical, whereas ‘it hardly ever is’. She also feared that equality of opportunity for women industrial workers would work against women, resulting in their coercion, through the combination of ‘economic necessity and unscrupulous employers’ into work that they did not want to do or that was dangerous and unsuitable and would lead to the removal of a great deal of protective factory legislation.
After a conference attended by several of the transport unions, the women agreed a return to work ahead of talks and days later they were awarded the five shillings bonus, backdated to when the men had first received it. There was much praise for the women strikers’ bravery. Workers in essential war industries were effectively (officially at least) banned from strike action during the war and Mary Macarthur’s union, the National Federation of Women Workers, offered up its hearty congratulations to the ‘bus girls’, thanking them for a very valuable demonstration which was much appreciated by those in munitions, to whom the five shillings advance was extended from September. Not all, however, were so effusive in their praise; The Times accepted that the women’s demands had been met with sympathy but condemned such ‘sudden and revolutionary attacks on our social life’ that only have to repeated often enough ‘to ruin the best of causes’. Worse was the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph which, after acknowledging the women’s fight and victory, chose to run a story about some of the more ‘extraordinary’ causes women workers had struck over, including (allegedly) the removal of a chewing gum machine in a factory in New York, the dismissal of a handsome foreman and an incident with an engagement ring ( which even a read of the article makes clear was nothing to do with the viewing of a worker’s ring and everything to do with the rough push that a worker received from a supervisor to get her back to work). 
Whilst the strike was successful (and as Woman Worker stated, how unfortunate that a strike is necessary before some people can assimilate the simplest facts), it can’t be claimed that this wartime dispute was the start of an unstoppable move towards equal pay. When the results of a government committee on women’s wages were published in 1919, its recommendations were mixed, to say the least. It did accept equal pay for equal work as a general principle but as it also accepted the concept of ‘women’s work’, where wages should be based on the needs of an 18-year-old single woman, the application of the equal pay principle was constrained from the start. As Gail Braybon writes, ‘thus, the ideas that equal pay was for men’s protection and that women’s wages were inherently less important, were maintained’.
In a post-war world, in which all pre-war work practices had been restored to protect the labour rights of the working man, and in which government and trade unions agreed that married women should ideally not seek employment outside the home, the battle for equality of both pay and opportunity had a very long way to go. Despite the gains of the war, in terms of pay, opportunities and a nation’s gratitude, despite the gaining of the parliamentary vote by some women in 1918, and even despite the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, ensuring women access to the professions, women workers found themselves at the back of the queue in a world which continued to assume that becoming a wife and a mother were their ultimate goals. If women didn’t take the low paid work that they had done before the war, they found themselves denied unemployment benefit. Thousands of women in industry had their wages rates slashed in the early 1920s.
The 1918 equal pay strike was an important step along the way to full gender equality. Despite women’s hopes that the war would transform their status as workers, this was not to be. As Mary Macarthur wrote at the end of the war, ‘the new world looks uncommonly like the old one, rolling along as stupidly and blindly as ever’. The strike is an important reminder – if we needed one – of the barrage of obstacles that continue to be placed in women’s way as they pursue equality in the workplace but it also a reminder that women will rise up to challenge injustices and, however long it takes, they will eradicate inequalities wherever they find them.
For more, do visit the following excellent accounts of and resources for the strike:
The London Transport Women Workers’ Strike, 1918 https://libcom.org/history/london-transport-women-workers-strike-1918
London Buses at War, https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/london-buses-at-war-1914-1918/
London Women Tram Workers – Equal Pay Strike 1918 http://ourhistory-hayes.blogspot.com/2007/02/women-tramworkers-equal-pay-strike-1918.html
The TUC Library Collection http://www.unionhistory.info/equalpay/display.php?irn=856&QueryPage=%2Fequalpay%2Fabout.php
International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance, with special reference to women’s war work, John Rylands Library, Manchester
 Woman Worker, September 1918
 Morning Post, August 19th 1918
 Daily News and Leader, 24th August 1918
 Daily News and Leader, 24thaugust 1918
 Woman Worker, September 1918
 Cathy Hunt (2014), The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-21, Palgrave Macmillan, p 103
 Woman Worker, September 1918
 The Times, August 21st 1918
 Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, August 21st 1918, British Newspaper Archive
 Gail Braybon (1981), Women Workers in the First World War, Croom Helm, p107
 Cathy Hunt, National Federation, p 96