Changing the world of work for women

Gender equality is vital for sustainable development. This is the message of International Women’s Day, which in 2017 focuses on ‘Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030’.

The United Nations website UN Women states: “The world of work is changing, and with significant implications for women. On one hand, we have globalization, technological and digital revolution and the opportunities they bring, and on the other hand, the growing informality of labour, unstable livelihoods and incomes, new fiscal and trade policies and environmental impacts—all of which must be addressed in the context of women’s economic empowerment.”

It is rather disheartening to read this statement, written as it is 99 years after the women of Britain achieved their objective of gaining the parliamentary vote. The campaign had, in fact, began in 1865 with the formation of the Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women as just one part of a movement to address the lack of equality women suffered in many areas – including in the world of work. Leaders of the Votes for Women campaign had argued that with increasing participation by women as members of the electorate and as serving members of the House of Commons detrimental social, cultural and legal codes of practice would be overturned and women would be able to take their place as equal with men in the world of labour. However, and as many disputes, laws and acres of newsprint has testified, we still today have the ‘glass’ (if not in some parts of the world a ‘concrete’) ceiling, which puts a barrier on women’s progress.

The glass ceiling still exists, 99 years after British women achieved the objective of the parliamentary vote

UN Women highlights that only 50 per cent of working age women are represented in the labour force globally, compared to 76 per cent of men. It reports that ‘an overwhelming majority of women are in the informal economy, subsidising care and domestic work, and concentrated in lower-paid, lower-skill occupations with little or no social protection.’ Its calls for gender equality in the world of work as ‘imperative for sustainable development’.

The UN claims, in addition, that in order to fulfil the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development ‘achieving gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, rests upon unlocking the full potential of women in the world of work’. This strikes a similar note to the contents of the following letter narrating the work of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, one of the longest serving campaigners for women’s equality in the 19th and early-20th centuries, wrote that: ‘Queen [Victoria gave] her name and a subscription in 1869 to the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, (this the Empress Frederick, who was staying with her, induced her to do) [even] though she bitterly opposed the entrance of women into the medical profession.’ Hence, although it is well known that Victoria was not a supporter of ‘feminism’ per se, she did understand that, for the nation to prosper, women’s work was essential to progress.

It is somewhat astounding to note the similarities between the texts of the late-19th century and today when women’s work is considered. ‘Unstable livelihoods and incomes’ were a constant theme among the texts of campaign groups – with the era being significant in both the formation of women’s Trade Unions and growing industrial unrest, exemplified in some cases by strike action such as that by the London Matchgirls in 1888. Supported by Annie Besant, a well-known advocate for women’s emancipation, the strike had been promoted by the dismissal of a worker in July 1888. Equally significant were the poor working conditions in the match factory, including fourteen-hour workdays and the multiple health complications of constant exposure to white phosphorus. The strike lasted only 23 days, ending following a meeting on 25 July when the management of Bryant and May accepted some of the demands of their staff. Besant, however, after undertaking personal primary research into the women’s working practices, termed the conditions of the workforce as White Slavery in London in an article in The Link periodical. It includes the following paragraph:

‘I was called out of a meeting against the sweating system on Wednesday night, by a workman friend of mine, who came to me from Bow with the news that Bryant and May’s factory was in a state of commotion, and the girls were being bullied to find out who had given me the information printed last week. Cowards that they are! why not at once sue me for libel and disprove my statements in open court if they can, instead of threatening to throw these children out into the streets? But they hope thus to terrorise the girls from giving evidence, and so prevent their treatment of them from leaking out. They will not succeed in their despicable policy, for work will be found for the girls they “sack”, and dismissal thus robbed of its terrors…’

It is somewhat astounding to note the similarities between the texts of the late-19th century and today when women’s work is considered

The International Women’s Day 2017 website asks of us that we act ‘through purposeful collaboration, [so as] we can help women advance and unleash the limitless potential offered to economies the world over.’ This is precisely the type of co-operation put into action in 1888, between the middle-class Besant and the labouring women of Bryant and May. It is a cause for concern, however, that these calls for collaboration still have to be made, and we must ask to what extent our individual consciences are responsible for ensuring like injustices have, after over a century, still the capability to occur beneath all the equalities legislation that has been passed.

Another key theme of International Women’s Day this year (8 March 2017) is that of the Gender Pay Gap. This continues to deny women equality of opportunity in the workplace and stands globally at 24%. Again, there are many instances where the issue of remuneration dominated the texts of Victorian and Edwardian feminist campaigners, although the issue differs from ‘equal pay’ in its terms of reference.

The UK arbitration service ACAS comments: “The gender pay gap differs from equal pay as it is concerned with the differences in the average pay between men and women over a period of time no matter what their role is. Equal pay deals with the pay differences between men and women who carry out the same or similar jobs… The gender pay gap shows the difference in the average pay between all men and women in a workforce. If a workforce has a particularly high gender pay gap, this can indicate there may a number of issues to deal with, and the individual calculations may help to identify what those issues are.”

For the women of the mid-Victorian era the issue was not so much one of pay parity (at least at first) rather one of the legal right to receive their earning at all. Many people are unaware that prior to the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act, 1870 married women had no rights whatsoever to their earnings. Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy recalled that her husband, when acting as a textile mill manager in the northern town of Mobberley, in 1866, undertook, as ‘the first reform’ he introduced ‘the payment of the married women’s wages to themselves, – the husbands till then had come for the women’s wages, as if they were their own.’ The 1870 legislation, extended as it was in 1882 to secure greater reforms, at least set some sort of benchmark for better security for married women in the workplace, but globally many nations at least are still little further forward in the matter of ‘equal pay’ – let alone the western concern with the gender pay gap. To truly understand the international situation is a serious step in making changes and we must work towards this in the coming months and years.

The final issue I will discuss is the effect of globalisation and industrialisation on women’s place in the world, both in the global and domestic economy. The UN talks of a ‘globalization, technological and digital revolution’ that is changing the nature of women’s work in the 21st century. This appears to be a simple truism, and although, of course, the ‘First-Wave’* feminists of the Victorian years did not have to contend with the vagaries of the digital age, global trade issues significantly influenced both their work and their domestic life.

Free trade ‘deals’ dominated many column inches in the newspapers of the day, and Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, a critic of the ‘free-trade’ free-for-all of the late-nineteenth century made her opinion crystal clear in a pamphlet entitled Foreign Investments and British Industry in 1888. Wolstenholme Elmy wrote that every woman was a ‘domestic Chancellor of the Exchequer’ and how they spent their ‘pence, their shillings and their pounds’ had significant implications for the future of humanity world-wide. Elizabeth’s husband, Ben, owned a three-mill manufacturing plant in the Cheshire town of Congleton. The impact of cheap, mass produced silk goods from northern Italy has serious undermined the British industry – and for this Wolstenholme Elmy blamed not only the Italians, but the British entrepreneurs of Manchester’s ‘Cottonopolis’ who sought to maximise profits over better working conditions for their employees. She makes a particularly harsh attack on John Bright MP in The Sugar Bounties, a paper that she includes within the broader selection in Foreign Investment, which also includes A Woman’s Plea to Women, in which she sets out her view of women’s role as ‘international’ consumers.

Both Wolstenholme Elmy and her husband were prominent members of the Fair-Trade League (founded May 1881), which sought to promote positive trading practices that would benefit all – much like the current Fair-Trade movement, whose definition of action reads as follows…

‘Fairtrade is a global movement with a strong and active presence in the UK, represented by the Fairtrade Foundation. Fairtrade is a movement for change that works directly with businesses, consumers and campaigners to make trade deliver for farmers and workers. The international Fairtrade system (which the Fairtrade Foundation is a part of) represents the world’s largest and most recognised fair trade system.’

In a speech given to the Fair Trade League in Congleton in 1886, Wolstenholme Elmy put forward the view that.

‘[t]he honest and enthusiastic Free Trader of forty odd years ago (1840s) looked far into the future and “saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that should be”… every diverse gift of climate, soil, natural wealth, and individual and national faculty developed and trained to its best and highest for the common good of all.’

By the 1880s, however, she argued that this post-Enlightenment liberalism had dissolved into a vision much less than the ideals the radicals of the 1840s had sought – and she saw worse to come for,

‘never…will this beautiful ideal be achieved by the methods approved and advocated by the doctrinaire Free Traders of the present day… [modern] Free Traders would seem desirous to erect this maxim, which, at its best, can only be taken as a canon of the narrowest economic expediency. [In, short that] higher law of justice and humanity can be undercut [at will].’

Looking back from our present position, where Free-Trade has led the way in transforming the global economy, and where the words ‘tariff’ and ‘protectionism’ once again seem central to current thinking, we would be wise to reflect on these words from 130 years ago. Feminists working in a global context have rightly questioned whether or not the universal ‘category of ‘women’ can be applied to their lives. But whether women’s work is in the domestic, the voluntary or the remunerated sector we can gain much from reflecting on the emancipation campaigns of the past. The way women view themselves as workers can be a uniting factor over that of the segregation of how, and where, we live. We are all workers, it is simply the nature of that work that differs.

Dr Maureen Wright
Department of History and Politics
University of Chichester

Photo essay: Changing world, changing women (UN Women)



  • #BeBoldForChangeNow
  • *First-Wave feminists are defined as those women working for women’s emancipation between the mid-nineteenth century and 1918.
  • Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy Papers, Add. Mss. 47449-55, British Library.
  • Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy (1886) A Woman’s Plea to Women, Macclesfield Courier, 20 November.
  • Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy (1888) Foreign Investments and British Industry. Manchester, UK.
  • Besant, Annie. White Slavery in London. (1888) “The Link : A Journal for the Servants of Man”.
  • Raw, Louise (2009). Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in Labor History. Continuum UK.
  • Wright, Maureen (2014). Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist movement: the Biography of an Insurgent Woman, Manchester UK.

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