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INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY 2022 Across the generations: the overlooked history of how older women influenced their younger sisters

SELINA TODD reflects on how sisterhood across the decades, far from being ‘natural’ or ‘easy,’ is an incredible achievement that women have constructed for themselves

IN 2005 I published a book called Young Women, Work and Family in England, 1918-1950 which revealed the militant activism of young female workers.  

I’ve been thinking about it recently because the ongoing pandemic has revived debate about what automation and digitisation will mean for the workers of the future. 

It’s reminiscent of 1930s debates about the introduction of mechanised production lines. Most politicians and journalists confidently assumed that most workers were destined to become automatons by the 1960s. 

We now know that in fact, these workers were destined to save the world from fascism. It’s a useful reminder that people, not technology, make history, though never in circumstances of our own choosing.

But even before the second world war, young women workers were challenging the assumptions of their elders and supposed betters. 

They dismissed the “inhumanity” of automated assembly lines by walking out, staging sit-ins and go-slows. They didn’t stop the assembly lines being introduced, but they did moderate employers’ demands for ever-faster results and bigger profits. 

By asserting the value of their labour, they ensured that assembly-line workers were classed as semi-skilled, a step up from the cheaper “unskilled” designation employers had wanted to give them. 

While political leaders despaired of such “frivolity,” these young women’s desire for a life away from work bore important results. 

Their strikes and protests for holidays encouraged the TUC to campaign on the matter, and helped bring about the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938.    

When I first wrote about these young workers I wasn’t much older than them. What interested me was how narrowly we’ve defined political action and political actors, past and present — in ways that often overlook women’s contribution to our movement. 

Going back to their stories almost 20 years later, I’ve noticed that I, too, had overlooked aspects of this history. What interests me now is how influential older women were on some of these young workers, and the rapport they struck up across the generations. 

There were mothers whose discontent inspired their daughters to live life differently. Some actively encouraged their girls to forge a different life to their own either through education or, if that wasn’t available, through trade unionism. 

But many young women were embarking on a very different life from that their mothers had known. Most working-class women had worked before the first world war, but the vast majority were servants. 

After the war that changed, and by the 1930s factory work was their biggest employer. As young women entered this new world, older workmates showed them how to avoid the eye of authority, made sure they didn’t work too fast and helped them out when they were too slow. 

For some young women, older female neighbours and workmates became valued advisers and supporters. Many young women learned about sex at work, from the same older women who told them why to join the union and how to face down the boss. 

In a world of limited choices and uncertain futures, these older women showed the new girls how to carve out a bit of autonomy over their bodies and their lives.

In turn, the girls of the 1930s became the voters of 1945, the mothers of the post-war baby boom, and campaigners for equal pay in the 1950s and 1960s. 

They literally gave birth to second-wave feminism. As a movement, Women’s Liberation was ignorant of its own history; the suffragettes weren’t on the school or university curriculum. 

But at the first Women’s Liberation conference in 1970, Audrey Wise (at 38, older than many of the feminists there) was invited to talk about women’s role in the labour movement. 

Feminists who’d helped put equal pay on the statute books were generous with their advice to those younger activists who wanted to listen. 

As women fought their way into new kinds of jobs and forged new ways of life, liberal feminism posited that we could do anything if we “leaned in.” 

But many of those women were conscious of benefiting from the support and work of feminists in their workplaces, who supported individual women while also fighting to implement the Equal Pay Act of 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975.

What I’m describing here is a particular kind of female solidarity. It’s often called sisterhood. That’s a misunderstood and ambiguous word — we don’t have much knowledge or understanding of women’s relationships with one another, or language to describe them. 

Like so much of women’s lives, sisterhood is often seen as natural, easy, even romantic. And if it’s absent, then that’s a sign that women are naturally, inevitably, divisive and difficult. 

The history of women in our movement shows us that sisterhood is hard work. Think about women from different classes finding common cause in the Co-operative Women’s Guilds, or finding ways of working together in the trade union movement. 

Consider mothers and daughters. The women I’ve written about know there’s nothing romantic or easy about that relationship. They recall mothers watching daughters seize opportunities they would have loved, resenting them and supporting them in equal measure. 

Some women were, understandably, too envious or disappointed to help. Their daughters turned to other older women for support and advice about how to survive and even thrive in a man’s world. 

What the lives of these young women — born in the 1910s, the workers of the 1930s and the mothers or mentors of the feminists and socialists of the 1970s — show us is that sisterhood is an incredible achievement. 

One manifestation of women’s exploitation is limited opportunity. Another is the myth that we must compete with one another for the attention of men. 

Enabling other women to achieve opportunities, or creating opportunity for them, is an act of defiance. So too is focusing one’s energies on other women rather than on men. 

In doing so, the women of our movement did not hinder socialism by putting their own interests first. Instead, they show us what solidarity looks like and what it can achieve.

Selina Todd is professor of modern history at the University of Oxford. Her latest book is Snakes and Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth (Chatto & Windus).

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