The Women’s Library: All Work and Low Pay

The Women’s Library is:

a cultural center housing the most extensive collection of women’s history in the UK.

The library has existed in various forms since 1926 and was run directly by the Fawcett Society until 1977. It is now part of London Metropolitan University.

The exhibit presented artifacts from the by-gone days of women’s liberation from the early days of the suffragettes through to the modern unionized workforce. In 2011, the number of women in trade unions surpassed that of men. Many would see this as a happy result of years of campaigning for equal female representation in the workplace. However, with trade union membership falling, on the whole, our society has degraded into a more and more competition-based economy where women are forced to engage more and more with the rat race of the financial and services sector. This has undermined the proud history of skilled and unskilled labor that women fought for so many years to be represented within.

Women’s work has often been written out of history, producing misconceptions that women did not work or that their work was unimportant either to their households or to the British economy.

Women were cheap labor; the most brutal victims of Britain’s rapid industrialization. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the rise of female suffrage movements coincided with the rise of the trade union movement. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters were heavily associated with Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party. One of the displays at the exhibit which expresses this explicitly is a film by Jill Craigie. Apart from being one of Britain’s first film directors, she was also the wife of socialist Labour MP Michael Foot, and was a staunch socialist and feminist herself. The film To Be a Woman was made in 1951 and asks the very simple question: if a woman can do the job just as well as any man, why isn’t she paid the same amount of money?

61 years later we’re still asking the same the question.

Ideas of women’s capabilities were shaped by class: working class girls were expected to work 40 hours a week from the age of 14, while commentators fretted that middle-class girls might damage their health by mental exertion such as studying for university entrance.

We all remember Harry Enfield Women: Know Your Limits sketch and the fact is that it wasn’t too far from the truth at one point. Middle-class women were encouraged to amuse themselves with petty amounts of education until they were fit to be married off to a wealthy socialite and spend the rest of their lives squeezing out children. It was this lifestyle that the middle class suffragettes and suffragists rebelled against. For the working-class woman, a life of labor was much more likely; before the establishment of the welfare state and child support, mothers had to work vicious hours to ensure they and their children could afford to eat. Luckily, according to the Daily Mail, we may be going back to a similar system soon

Over the years many have fought to break down barriers to professions once limited to men.

The exploitation and degradation of working in a patriarchal workplace still exist to this day. Men can taunt and humiliate their female co-workers at their leisure while women fear to speak out for fear of not having a sense of humor or being politically correct. A similar stigma exists for men working in traditionally female jobs such as childcare or nursing; the former are suspected of being pedophiles, whiles the latter are assumed to be gay. The atmosphere of patriarchal heteronormativity that is pushed upon the workplace extends much further than it does in personal lives with work scarce at the moment, very few people want to risk their jobs over concerns for their own dignity or equal treatment. Most people are just happy to be paid; another tragic effect of the collapse in union power.

On a wall in the gallery, men and women were offered a space to stick notes of their various concerns about work in a male-dominated world:

The concerns of women are still the same as they were in the 1910s not to be sexually harassed, not to be treated as secondary citizens, to be taken seriously and not to be ostracized from society because they have to occasionally give birth. The exhibit and the Women’s Library as a whole stand to remind us of this.

However, this might not be the case for much longer.