Interview: The Binds That Tie
Unions: Worth Cycling For
Industrial: The Elephant in the Corner
Legal: A Law Unto Themselves
Politics: Ethically Lonely
History: Women, Unions, Banners and Parades
Women: Relaxed and Comfortable?
International: The Last Social Democrat
Review: The Corpse Bride
Culture: Tony Moore Holds His Own
The Locker Room
A Free Vote
John Bares All
Tom A World Away
Women, Unions, Banners and Parades
Marina Warner has pointed (in a too long book) to the allegory of the female form, as represented in historical iconography. She referred to the French revolutionary paintings (from the 1830s) where the bared breasted women lead the revolt for liberty, equality and fraternity. Women were certainly central to the 1789 revolution but women's place in the polis following these revolts remained firmly at the rear.
"Although the absence of female symbols and a preponderance of male in a society frequently indicates a corresponding depreciation of women as a group and as individuals, the presence of female symbolism does not guarantee the opposite, as we can see from classical Athenian culture, with its subtly psychologised pantheon of goddesses and its secluded, unenfranchised women; or contemporary Catholic culture, with its pervasive and loving celebration of the Madonna coexisting alongside deep anxieties and disapproval of female emancipation.
"But a symbolized female presence both gives and takes value and meaning in relation to actual women, and contains the potential for affirmation not only of women themselves but of the general good they might represent and in which as half of humanity they are deeply implicated."(page xx).
Now I am no ancient history buff, and remain ignorant of much union history, but it seems to me, looking at many of the surviving trade union banners in the collection of Sydney Trades Hall that Warner's idea applies to many of the banners. The oldest of the banners, following the work of Walter Crane, the English artist of the arts and crafts movement, used the female figure as the defining symbol for workers striving to break the chains applied to them by bosses and other figures of authority. These banners were the proud possessions of unions of skilled tradesmen, and women were certainly not a part of their workplaces or their organizations. Real women were viewed with suspicion as having the potential to reduce their wages.
Banners of the earliest twentieth century such as the eight hour day banner, not representative of a particular trade or occupation but of the hopes of labour, carry a magnificent intertwined 8-8-8 in beautiful gold studded with jewels, with a sun below illuminating the numbers. On the other side the symbolic female figure, not depicted as a worker carries the same hopes. By this time the 'unskilled had combined in the new unionism, and there were female unions and female members of male dominated unions, but the symbolism remained.
The way women participated draws us back to the allegory. As Harriet Eager notes, in 1902 the Orchestral Musicians' Union had a display that included:
The Goddess of Music, represented by a comely woman, arrayed in flowing robes, and powdered to a deathly whiteness, made her way through the city.
The surviving banners of for example, the Bootmakers and the eight hour day committee have a strong similarity in this image.
The 1912 Miscellaneous Workers' Union banner (union comprising the former Watchmen, Caretakers, Cleaners, Gatekeepers) did show a man and a woman, as women cleaners were a large part of the membership of this union. A male and female handshake, as distinct from the usual male hands is on this banner. The dominance of the male worker remains in the iconography, but is more subtle.
Harriet Eager's thesis on the eight hour parades looks at gender issues and points out that a song written especially for the parades "I'm an Eight Hour Working Man" published in The Eight-Hour Working Men's Holiday Song Book was composed for all in the procession, in the Park or Public Meeting. The assumption being that all participants would be men.
She also points out that the very first eight hour day banner, to be paraded by men, was made in 1856 by women. Charles Vine was secretary of the inaugural eight hour demonstration committee and he informed his daughters that:
This is a drawing of the proposed Eight Hours' banner - the banner of the Australian system of Eight Hours' labour - the details are simplicity itself; the extreme length of the flag is 17feet 2 inches, and the depth is 9 feet, including the red border which frames the blue field on each side of the square, by a width of 1 foot 6 inches...."
Following his directions the women made the banner. Eager points out also that it was very rare for women to make an entire banner, most of which were designed and painted by men (as all the remaining late 19th century -early 20th century banners are). Women only followed men's orders, as per Vine above.
Change did happen, albeit slowly. There were over 100 unions registered in NSW in 1905, with only 12 involving women. However women had begun to play a part in the eight hour parade in their own right in the cities. As we have seen this was well established in Broken Hill in the 1890s. Tailoresses in Melbourne, the Working Women's Union in Adelaide were regulars. Sweatshop workers participated in Sydney in 1910, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported, but were not listed in the official program.
Many of these later banners did dispense with this style of iconography and depicted the industry the workers were a part of. For example the gas industry employees' banner central image is a gas works. The Ironworkers Assistants depicts a large part of an ironworks. What they are highlighting is the rise of industry powering society, but the industry has been built by them, the workers, it is not separate from the labour power that creates it and is necessary to keep it functioning. Perhaps a slip from the high ideals that animated some of the early hopes of labourers, but a recognition and a pride in what they did, in industries where many would have seen the workers as anonymous factory fodder.
The women of Broken Hill did more than symbolic duty prior to 1900, despite not being employed in the mines that were basis for that towns' growth and for the wealth of the BHP. Sara Bloodworth has written well about the rebel women of Broken Hill and she shows how women were taking part in the great strike (a defeat of 1892) and in the annual eight hour marches under their own banner:
Large and enthusiastic meetings of women continued even after some militants thought the strike was defeated, with seven of the strike leaders jailed and hundreds of scabs working. Women crowded the streets for the annual eight hour procession. Some who claimed to have taken blacklegs out of the mine rode on a vehicle displaying a banner emblazoned 'Women's Union'. They were involved in riotous scenes confronting scabs on Saturday nights:
Mary Lee, Vice President of the Working Women's Trades Union, Adelaide, wrote to the Barrier Miner:
... Sir, this strike has one feature which renders it more profoundly interesting than any of its predecessors...which must secure it a prominent and distinguished page when the history of these colonies shall be written. It is that the women of Broken Hill are the first great body of working women who have raised their voices in united protest against the glaring injustice that 'the present constitution will not allow them a voice in framing the laws ...
Bloodworth goes on to note that the women's part in the history of Broken Hill has remained unexamined even with the rise of women's and union history since the 1960s. Perhaps because, as with union legends and iconography, the male dominates in Broken Hill far more than anywhere with underground mining being a very male preserve up to today.
The role women played in that dispute and in the following famous clashes in Broken Hill (1909, 1915 and 1919-20) is followed by Bloodworth and to some extent the allegorical view as outlined by Warner is reinforced. Anne Summers thesis of Damned Whores or, in this Case "God's Police" is perhaps also the case, with Tom Mann, for example urging women on to ensure that the men did join the union. The battles in Broken Hill during the First World War over conscription also saw women playing a leading role in the anti-conscription movement.
The influence of the IWW was also a factor. The IWW had a far more advance view of the role of women than other labourist circles and this was reflected in the agitation and publications of Broken Hill. Tom Mann argued for equal pay in one of his pamphlets. Bloodworth also notes that Tom Barker, of the Industrial Workers of the World told an anti-conscription rally: 'He could see the time coming when men and women would conduct the economic affairs of the world on their own behalf.'
The Damned Whores view was used by the conservatives and mine owners to attack the strikers and their women supporters (the Amazon Brigade'):
'the females they hardly deserve to be called women, were vowing vengeance, and that one woman related kicking in a hat with gusto ... it can positively be said that but for them there would not have been the least interference with personal liberty.' The paper lectured the men about the 'extreme danger of allowing women of the class that were present interfering in their affairs', while asserting that most of the men 'rather resented the presence of these females'.
Stirring division was of course an established ruling class strategy. And one that played on the male-female divide displayed perhaps in the union banners depicting the allegorical female form. Anne Summers (page 310) gives a good example of this with the Female Employees Union forming in Sydney in the 1880s and being threatened by the Trades and Labour Council in 1892 (the height of employer attacks). The union subsequently collapsed.
What the Broken Hill radicals were closer to than most labourists was the notion of equality. The conservative press of Broken Hill constantly reminded the women of their role as home makers, whilst the radical press (The Barrier Truth and the Flame) was depicting a new world for women. Men and women played an equal role in the socialist Sunday School. As Bloodworth sees it:
Workers' ideas change in the course of struggle. The act of going on strike, of marching together down a street, has the potential to challenge both women and men's deeply held ideas about appropriate behaviour. In the industrial and political struggles for which Broken Hill became famous, women's activity itself helped to break down oppressive stereotypes. The need for solidarity led some men not to just grudgingly accept this challenge, but to encourage it. But this was not an automatic process. The very fact that socialists like Tom Mann at the height of the struggle argued for women's involvement, the fact that the union paper commented on it and also helped carry the arguments indicates an ideological struggle had to take place. For this there had to be militants who saw the need to challenge the ideas that divide workers. It was in the periods of struggle that their influence was most significant.
Bloodworth argues that this development of ideas in struggle is crucial for men and women to truly revolutionise society, rather than seeing it as what women did that was incorporated into labourist reformism. Challenging the dominant mode of production from a women's point of view was crucial to class struggle to overthrow that mode. She argues that analyzing historical imagery and suggesting it is possible to overcome dominant ideas without revolutionary action. Bloodworth's examination of the history of Broken Hill between 1889 and 1920 leads her to conclude that this is not so.
Sara Bloodworth (1996) Militant spirits: The Rebel Women of Broken Hill
in Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History Edited by Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O'Lincoln. Published by Interventions, Melbourne, 1998. http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/rebelwomen/militant.htm
Harriet Eager (2001) Labour's Day: the Eight Hour Parade 1856-1920s (unpublished; University of Sydney History Honours Thesis
Anne Summers (1975) Damned Whores and God's Police: the colonization of women in Australia (Melbourne: Pelican)
Marina Warner (1986) Monuments and Maidens: the Allegory of the Female Form (Picador)
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online