Matchgirls and Dagenham: female strikes which shaped the law

Published 1st July 2016

A tradition of strike action in the twentieth century resulted in legislative changes that shaped workers’ rights in Britain. This article briefly examines two successful strikes in Britain, 80 years apart, which were led by women. These two examples readjust the historical lens that traditionally sees change as initiated by men, instead drawing attention to how women instigated progress for their working conditions. The first case study looks at how agitation resulted in genuine change for working women without legislation. The second sees strike action directly leading to changes in the law which established and protected female workers’ rights. Both a celebration of exploited and vulnerable individuals coming together to defy the odds of the existing power structures to create positive change.

The London Match Women’s strike of 1888 involved 1,400 women and girls protesting their wages and working environment. Mainly residing in the ‘great abyss of poverty’ of the East End, these women rose steadfast against the immensely powerful company Bryant and May. Their employees worked in gruelling conditions typical of Victorian factories; 14-hour days, fines for talking, and pay cuts for taking bathroom breaks were all commonplace. Several short-term factors exacerbated frustrations, including wages being driven down harshly. Bryant and Mays’ workers were also subjected to severely detrimental conditions resulting in considerable health risks from working with cheap phosphorous in the matches they produced. ‘Phossy jaw’ was a terrible type of bone cancer, excruciatingly painful and often with fatal consequences. Taking action, a Matchgirls’ Union was created and after three weeks of striking, the management eventually made concessions acceptable to the workers. Negative publicity, directed by middle-class activist Annie Besant, overwhelmed the owners of the factory, although it would take until 1908 for white phosphorous to be banned. The success of the strike was unprecedented, plays and musicals were written about the triumph of the Matchwomen, and Bryant & May was dogged by the notorious association until it stopped trading in 1979.

80 years later, the Ford Motor Co. plant sewing machinist strike of 1968 took place, and eventually resulted in the 1970 Equal Pay Act. 187 women took action in protest against their work being unfairly downgraded as unskilled and their pay being 15% lower than their male colleagues. The strikers left work for three weeks and mobilised the strike of 195 more women from another Ford plant in Merseyside. Car production was entirely brought to a standstill as a result. Barbara Castle, employment secretary at the time, invited the strike committee to tea in a compelling act of empathy with the struggle of the sewing machinist women. The Ford women strikers managed to reduce the pay gap from 15% to 8%, though this process took another 16 years and a further seven-week strike to win.In common with the Matchwomen’s Strike of 1888, the Dagenham Ford Strike became a popular sensation. The 2010 film Made in Dagenham dramatizes the strike and a stage musical opened in 2014 celebrating their feat of courage.

These two female-led strikes took place in such different eras that the physical conditions of the two workplaces would look markedly different; by 1968 working with deadly phosphorous was not a risk suffered by the Dagenham Ford employees. But the similarities between the cases are many, in that they successfully brought about profound changes in working conditions for women, and captivated public sentiments with the bravery and call to action against exploitative employers that they made.