Jay Kerslake (Leeds) on the role of poetry in The Woman Worker

The Woman Worker, November 1907. Click for larger image.. Photo: Women’s Rights Collection, LSE Digital Library.

Trade unionism, prior to the First World War, can easily appear a solely male occupation. Female workers were excluded from many unions on grounds of sex and subsequently despised by many of their male peers for driving down wages. This made women especially vulnerable to exploitative labour practices and also weakened male union action, which was undercut by cheap, unorganised female labour. In 1906 Mary Macarthur founded the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) as a general union for all women barred from trade specific unions on the grounds of sex.

From 1907 the NFWW published a magazine, The Woman Worker, to promote its activities. The Woman Worker had an explicitly didactic focus, hoping to reach and educate women who had yet to learn the ‘ABC of the Trade Union and Labour Movement’ (The Woman Worker, volume 2, 1907). The magazine included a broad range of material, from ‘Home Hints’ and fashion columns to reportage on industrial disputes and allegories explaining unionism and socialist politics. It also included literature, which was considered essential to ‘the making and carrying out of plans of social salvation’ (Ellen Creak, The Woman Worker, volume 2, 1907). Poems, short stories, serialised novels and, on occasion, plays were used to entertain and educate readers.

My undergraduate dissertation was focussed on the ways in which the poetry of The Woman Worker communicates and enacts the NFWW’s political vision. Receiving a grant from the Society for the Study of Labour History helped me access archival material at the Borthwick Institute. Not all of the extant copies of The Woman Worker have been digitised and visiting the Borthwick allowed me to consider a far broader range of material, giving me a more holistic perspective on the poems. The poems I discovered at the Borthwick formed the basis of my understanding of The Woman Worker’s pastoral poems as anti-urban. I believe this anti-urbanism forms a central part of The Woman Worker’s utopian vision which looks to a world where workers are allowed not just a fair wage but joy.

Jay Kerslake recently completed a BA in English Literature at the University of Leeds.

Find out more about the bursaries on offer from the Society for the Study of Labour History.