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Mary Quaile and other trade union women

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Dare to be Free, Mary Quaile, women and trade unions, Matchgirls Strike, Hyland, Herbert‘If we don’t fight we will never succeed.’

Mary Quaile was the focus at a recent meeting of the Southern and Eastern Region of the TUC’s Women’s Rights Committee.

The guest speaker was Bernadette Hyland, a contributor to the Morning Star, author of ‘Northern ReSisters: conversations with radical women’, and co-author of ‘Dare to be free – women in trade unions past and present’.

‘Dare to be free’ has two parts: one a biography of Mary Quaile (1886-1958), written by Michael Herbert, and the second ten interviews with women who are active in trade unions at grass roots level today, written by Bernadette Hyland.

The common thread is the belief held by Mary Quaile, and her modern-day sisters, that trade unionism can make a real difference to the lives of working women and men.

Mary Quaile’s life reflected the experience of many millions of working-class women at the beginning of the 20th century.

After leaving school aged 12, she took up unskilled work as a domestic and later as a waitress.

But she grew up at a time of great change for working-class women. Locally and nationally, the Suffragettes were breaking all the rules about how women should live their lives.

A burgeoning trade union movement, with activists such as those striking at the Bryant and May Factory, were demanding equality and justice.

In 1861, at a site close to the River Lea in Bow, London, two Quakers, Francis May and William Bryant began to manufacture safety matches and “other chemical lights”. This site was gradually expanded as a model factory. But the public were initially unwilling to buy the more expensive safety matches so the factory also made the more profitable and traditional Lucifer Matches.

Bryant and May was involved in three of the most divisive industrial episodes of the nineteenth century; the sweating of domestic out-workers, the wage “fines” that led to the London matchgirls strike of 1888 and the scandal of “phossy-jaw“.

The Matchgirls Strike won important improvements in working conditions and pay for the mostly female workforce working with white phosphorus.

Mary Quaile was part of the then new trade union movement, which saw a growing number of women refusing to accept low pay and poor conditions, and she went on to become a prominent member of organisations such as the Manchester Trades Union Council and the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) and in the 1920s she was elected to the General Council of the TUC, one of the first women to be elected to the Council.

In 1924 she and Julia Varley attended the National Conference of Labour Women, a conference of International Women Trade Unionists in Vienna and the Third International Trade Union Congress.

‘Dare to be free’ was launched in an event last year. Bernadette Hyland ended her talk by quoting Jane Stewart from UNITE, who she had interviewed for the publication, by saying: “If we don’t fight we will never succeed. Too often things get worse because people do nothing, so not fighting is not an option.”

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