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A short history of equal pay

It’s Equal Pay Day tomorrow: here’s how you can join a great tradition and get involved.

Seven hundred Land Army girls from all parts of the country voicing their grievances at a meeting held in Caxton Hall, London demanding equal pay for equal work.

Some of the 700 Land Army girls from all parts of the country voicing their grievances at a meeting held in Caxton Hall, London, demanding equal pay for equal work.

Thursday 10 November is Equal Pay Day – when the average full-time female employee stops earning for the year compared to the average full-time man. This year, Stylist magazine is encouraging women to leave work at 3.34pm, in recognition of the UK’s 18.1 per cent pay gap for full- and part-time women workers. See more details of how you can get involved here.

Need more inspiration?

1888 Match Girls’ Strike

Not so much an example of action over equal pay, as fair pay, and one of the first incidents of successful industrial action by women.

It began when, inspired by a speech she had heard at the Fabian Society, Annie Besant went to Bryant & May match factory in Bow Road, London, to investigate exploitation of the women workers there. After interviewing several workers, she wrote an article in the newspaper The Link entitled ‘White Slavery in London’.

It exposed the conditions in which women worked: 14-hour days for which they earned as little as five shillings a week. They were required to stand for the whole time and then fined for anything from taking a toilet break to dropping a match. In addition, workers were suffering from a bone cancer caused by phosphorous, a match ingredient that had been banned in the US and Sweden.

When the article appeared, Bryant & May tried to force workers to sign a statement saying that they were happy with their working conditions. When a group of women refused to sign, the ‘organisers’ were sacked. In response, 1,400 of the women at the factory went on strike.

A page from the register recording women taking part in the 1888 strike.

Page from the Strike register of the striking matchworkers at Bryant & May, London, in July 1888.

After three weeks, the company announced it was willing to re-employ the dismissed women and would also bring an end to the fines system. The women accepted the terms and returned. The Bryant & May dispute was the first strike by unorganised workers to gain national publicity and helped inspire the formation of unions all over the country.

Bus and tram workers’ strike, 1918

In August 1918, women bus and tram workers went on strike for the same increase (five shillings a week) in the war bonus as men workers. The five-day strike was supported by the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers. On 30 August, the women were awarded the full backdated increase and the increase extended to munitions workers.

World War II

The issue of equal pay raised its head again during the war when limited agreement was reached that allowed equal pay for women where they performed the same job as men had ‘without assistance or supervision’. Most employers, however, managed to get round the issue and women earned an average of 53 per cent less than the men they replaced. Semi-skilled and unskilled jobs were designated as ‘women’s jobs’ and exempt from equal pay negotiations.

“On 24 October 1975, 90 per cent of women in Iceland, even those in rural communities, refused to go to work, to do any housework or undertake any childcare.”

At the Rolls-Royce plant at Hillington near Glasgow, women objected to being paid at a lower rate than unskilled men doing the same work and a Court of Inquiry recommended a new grading system. But the women believed the new system would still leave 80 per cent of them on the lowest rate and went on a one-week strike in October 1943. It was supported by most men in the plant.

Women were also discriminated against during the war regarding the level of settlements offered to those who were injured while working in civil defence schemes, such as fire watchers in factories, ambulance drivers, air raid wardens, members of first aid parties and messengers. Women received 14 shillings rather than the 21 shillings a week men received.

A campaign that included unions and some women MPs overcame the initial Government opposition and in April 1943, equal rates were introduced.

The Ford Dagenham sewing machinists’ strike 1968

The three-week strike that eventually led to the Equal Pay Act in 1970. And Made In Dagenham. For a more historically accurate version, you can watch the real women being interviewed about the strike here:

Icelandic women’s strike, 1975

Oh yes, 24 October was branded The Day Off for legal niceties, but was actually a nationwide day of action, where 90 per cent of women in Iceland, even those in rural communities, refused to go to work, to do any housework or undertake any childcare. Instead they congregated in public spaces, 25,000 of them in the centre of Reykjavik, as can be seen from this video:

Many industries were shut for the day and there was no phone service or newspapers. Theatres closed, flights were cancelled and banks shut early.

The following year, Iceland’s parliament passed a law guaranteeing equal rights for women and men. Wage disparity persists, however, in Iceland, as it does all over the world, so every 10 years, on the anniversary of the Day Off, women stop work early to “continue the struggle for equality.”

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Written by Standard Issue