Nan Sloane, The Women in the Room: Labour's Forgotten History, IB Tauris, London 2018
Nan Sloane's new book, The Women in the Room, recounts the foundation and early years of the Labour Party, but, importantly, ensures that the work of women who were deeply involved in these events are 'added back in'. She suggests that there has been an overemphasis on suffrage such that we lose 'part of our political story' (p2), and her work seeks to expand on the role of Labour women in the struggle for the suffrage but also explores the 'scale and vibrancy' of their fight for women's economic and social rights (p4).
This is a rich and detailed book, with three key themes that intersect at various points in the narrative. Firstly, there is a discussion of women's role within the labour movement and the importance of women defending their own economic interests. The first Trades Union Congress (TUC) was in 1868, but 1875 was the first meeting women trade unionists were able to attend. Sloane traces the difficulties women had in getting issues relevant to women workers discussed at the TUC. An 1888 motion on equal pay, supported by Clementina Black, was passed after much debate, though no-one did anything with it for eighty years. Sloane highlights the work of Mary MacArthur in setting up the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), which brought many trades and workers together in one body, and outlines the success of the NFWW in achieving a legal minimum wage for women chain-makers through the strike at Cradley Heath in 1910. She discusses the impact of war in increasing the numbers of women workers, and the struggles of women trade unionists to protect them from exploitation. The formation of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women (SJC), which became the main point of contact for working women's organisations, was an important part of this. The trade union movement in Britain was too slow to engage with women workers, with much of the movement only paying serious attention to women after the 1970s; nevertheless, as Sloane shows, women were not absent in the fight for economic justice before then.
Secondly, The Women in the Room explores the involvement of women in the formation and development of the Labour Party. Sloane outlines the development of English socialism and notes women's involvement in the Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society. Many of these women had important roles within the movement, taking up office in local government and working as travelling orators. Indeed, given the early deaths of a number of these pioneer women, this study is a poignant reminder of the personal sacrifice some of them made for the cause. Despite women's...