By Katy Clark
Last month I spoke in a debate in Parliament commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Bow Match Women’s strike in which 1,400 women walked out of the Bow Bryant & May factory in July 1888 and secured improved working conditions from their employers.
These women were working for minimal pay in some of the most appalling conditions imaginable. One of their demands for example was to be permitted to eat their lunch away from factory, in which rooms were made toxic by white phosphorus fumes. Their victory was one of the earliest in a struggle for gender equality. While it was important to highlight the enormity of their actions and achievements the occasion was also an opportunity to emphasise the ongoing battles for equality which are being fought to this day.
In many ways we can look with pride at the victories won by those who’ve fought for equality and the fairer, more equal society which their determination and sacrifices brought about. June marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davidson who died after stepping in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby. The enormous sacrifices made by the suffragettes secured full voting rights for women in 1928. An equally significant anniversary this year was the 45th anniversary of the Ford Sewing Machinists strike of 1968 which secured not only equal pay at the Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham plant where the strike took place but also paved the way for the 1970 Equal Pay Act which outlawed gender pay discrimination in the workplace. These hard-won achievements have created a society in which we have seen an increasingly prominent role for women and in which women have succeeded in the some of the highest positions in politics, industry & society.
Unfortunately any satisfaction must be tempered with the knowledge that we remain a deeply unequal society. November 7th was Equal Pay Day. This is the day from when women in effect ‘stop earning’ because of the 15% gender pay gap between men and women in full time work. For those women in part-time work this jumps to 35%. Less than one in four MPs at Westminster are women which puts the United Kingdom below Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Sudan in terms of female representation. Only three of the United Kingdom’s top one hundred companies are run by women and only one of the judges currently serving on the Supreme Court is a woman.
Most alarmingly many of the steps taken by the current Government are rolling back the progress which has been made. Women have been disproportionately hit by the Government’s public sector cuts and female unemployment remains higher than at the last General Election. The provisions in the last Labour Government’s landmark Equality Act have either been scrapped or watered down and the introduction of charges for employment tribunals mean that it’s harder for women who have been discriminated against to seek access to justice. The devastating impact which these cuts have had have been shown in a recent study from the TUC has highlighted that more young women are now trapped in low skilled work than were twenty years ago.
The current situation highlights that equality is not something which can be achieved simply by observing the passing of time. Instead progress must be won by challenging the inequality and fighting which remains. In 2013 we should be striving for a society in which women are entitled to the same opportunities as men and paid the same rate for the work which they do. Until that time the fight fought by the Bow Match Women, the suffragettes and the Dagenham machinists and many more continues.