Object of the Month – August 2014

August 2014 – National Federation of Women Workers badge – 1906-1921

The National Federation of Women Workers badge‘You cannot exploit the women who are trained and organised… the industrial question is not a sex question. It has got to be decided in terms of skill, not of sex. Men and women’s interests are identical. In the future there will be numbers of people who will want to widen the breach between them. But close up the ranks. Do not give people an opportunity of taking advantage of differences between you.’ Gertrude Tuckwell, The Woman Worker, 1918.

The National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) was founded in 1906 by Mary Macarthur with the aim of unionising female workers. It campaigned for a legal minimum wage for women employed in the ‘sweated’ industries. The ‘sweated’ trades involved long, arduous hours in unsanitary and often dangerous conditions for very little pay. The exploitation of these women was enabled by their lack of unity and organisation. It was particularly difficult to organise them due to the isolated nature of their work, financial struggles and opposition from many male unionists. However, the NFWW successfully united many smaller unions with unorganised women workers throughout Britain. The union pursued successful strike action in which women obtained fairer pay and was instrumental in persuading the government to pass the Trade Boards Act in 1909 in an attempt to fix minimum wages.

The NFWW badge is packed with potent symbolism of their aims; the badge marries traditional patriarchal symbolism with typical trade union motifs to elevate the disenfranchised women workers to a level equal with their male counterparts.

The clasped hands of friendship are very common in trade union symbolism, illustrating the unity of the working classes campaigning for workers’ rights. However, many unions were exclusively male, and many opposed the unionisation of women. The inclusion of this symbol on the NFWW badge illustrates conformity with other unions and their aims, but addresses gender equality by subtly altering the usual symbol; the difference in style of the sleeves suggests that the hand on the right belongs to a woman. The badge symbolically unites men and women to fight injustice.

National Union of Foundry Workers badgeThe National Federation of Women Workers badgeIn the traditional symbol (left) the sleeves are identical, on the NFWW symbol (right) the right sleeve is fitted with a lace cuff to emulate contemporary female fashion.

The bundle of rods commonly appears on trade union badges; it is the fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of power and authority. This highly political symbol was used during the French Revolution and to represent the new French republic. The use of the symbol on trade union badges could reflect ideas of social reform. In adopting a traditionally patriarchal symbol of power, the NFWW badge shows women exercising the same power as male unionists. The bundle of sticks also symbolised the workers in Mary Macarthur’s philosophy:

A trade union is like a bundle of sticks. The workers are bound together and have the strength of unity. No employer can do as he likes with them. They have the power of resistance. They can ask for an advance without fear. A worker who is not in a union is like a single stick. She can easily be broken or bent to the will of her employer. She has not the power to resist a reduction in wages. If she is fined she must pay without complaint. She dare not ask for a ‘rise’. If she does, she will be told, ‘Your place is outside the gate: there are plenty to take your place.’ An employer can do without one worker. He cannot do without all his workers.’ Mary Macarthur, The Woman Worker, 1907.

The compelling motto ‘to fight, to struggle, to right the wrong’ which accurately describes the aims of the NFWW is taken from Tennyson’s poem Wages. This literary allusion is a reference to the union’s campaign for a fair wage, but also a nod to the poet laureate who opposed social and gender inequality.

In 1921, by merging with the National Union of General Workers, the NFWW achieved its goal of uniting men and women workers in their fight for workers’ rights. The NFWW no longer exists independently, but this badge remains tangible evidence of the union’s influence.