A TRADE union for women workers which led to Britain’s first female MPs, was the subject of a talk at Salford’s Working Class Movement Library.

Dr Cathy Hunt, a former senior lecturer in History at Coventry University, discussed the development of female trade unions such as the National Federation of Women Workers.

This is part of the Working Class Movement Library’s Invisible Histories series of lectures, which have been a fortnightly staple for more than four years, spanning many topics and seeing experts from varying fields come to speak.

Much focus was upon the initial founder of the Federation, the Scottish suffragist Mary MacArthur, who had struggled against social conventions and hierarchy to establish the union.

MacArthur’s aim was to prepare the women of Britain to “be organised alongside men”, seeing the Federation as a means to take female workers and mold them into “fully fledged trade unionists”. This involved taking the many tea parties and picnics the group held to spread awareness and attempting to mobilise them to greater action.

Entrance to the Working Class Movement Library at Salford.

The federation had great success, organising many effective strikes, seeing payment improvements for women working both at home and in factories. This is along with the great political success, with all three of the first female Members of Parliament being organisers in the Federation.

In its early days it struggled, with groups disbanding when male employers walked past in fear of losing their jobs, forcing secrecy and late evening meetings that not all could attend.

The advent of the First World War brought  greater change, seeing the organisation grow rapidly and the new demand for work due to shortage in man power opening many doors for women workers to develop.

Dr Hunt said: “Always be careful not to talk about Federation members as victims, I don’t think they’d like to remembered like that.

“They were strong women. Survivors marching with pride.”

Among the audience was Unite union member Mary Sayer, who spoke about the importance of youth awareness of unions both old and new.

Sayer, national organiser for Unite in schools, is responsible for making young people aware of the existence of trade unions, something she states to be nearly non-existent prior to her visits.

Unite is based in Salford Quays and regularly organises action and awareness campaigns to support its members.

Dr Hunt has had a strong positive relationship with the library, being one of her favourite places to research.


Current exhibits at the Library outside of these regular talks would be the “Voices of Revolution”, Russian revolution exhibition that opened in late October, that will remain until January 18th next year.

One of the many cabinets in the Voices of revolution exhibit.

For more information about events happening at the Working Class Movement Library go to its website. The specialist talks will resume next year.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *