“Lose Not Those Things That We Have Wrought”: highlighting the collections related to women workers in Britain


In the first of two blog posts celebrating International Women’s Day on Sunday 8th March, we turn the spotlight on material in the library that documents the history of women workers in Britain. Tomorrow’s post will focus on the international women’s movement.

Women’s Trade Union League badge, with the motto “Lose Not Those Things That We Have Wrought”.

The library’s collections relating to women workers dates from the late 19th century, when the first women’s unions were formed. The Women’s Trade Union League (which had previously been known as the Women’s Protective and Provident League) had been founded by Emma Paterson in 1874 and its records merged with those of the TUC and the Labour Party in 1922 to form what is now the TUC Library. We hold the League’s reports, minutes and journals. We also hold the personal papers of Gertrude Tuckwell, who was involved with the League from 1891 and became its President from 1908 onwards. The Tuckwell archive is a unique resource that documents women’s union organising, women’s working conditions and political and suffrage campaigns, amongst many other topics. You can see the archive catalogue at: http://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/psd/ls/libsites/tuc/gertrudetuckewellpapers.pdf

In addition, the library also holds the records of the National Federation of Women Workers, established by Mary Macarthur in 1906. The Federation was particularly effective in highlighting poor conditions in the sweated trades and its activities were influential in securing the 1909 Trade Boards Act that set minimum wage rates and conditions in some of the most exploitative trades, in which women workers predominated.

Mary Macarthur, founder of the National Federation of Women Workers, speaking at Trafalgar Square, 1908

Pamphlet produced by the Labour Party, 1936.

A number of influential strikes took place between 1910-1914, for example amongst the women chain makers of Cradley Heath in 1910, and during the First World War women entered the workforce in munitions manufacture and other industries. The trend continued in the inter-war period, precipitated by social and demographic changes, and the Second World War would have a transformative effect on the public perception of the value of women’s work. A series of images and documents relating to women in the Second World War can be seen on our website The Workers’ War.

In the post-war period it became more common for women to enter the workforce although they still faced many forms of discrimination, some of which – such as the marriage bar – were not fully eradicated for many decades. A number of images and documents on the subject of women’s work in the post-war period can be seen on our website Britain at Work.

One struggle that has had a long history but came to the fore in the post-war period was that of equal pay for women. Various industrial disputes took place on the issue, such as at the Ford Dagenham plant in 1968, culminating in the passing of the 1970 Equal Pay Act. In 2008 the TUC Library produced a dedicated website telling the story of the struggle for equal pay, called Winning Equal Pay: the Value of Women’s Work.

Although the victory in passing the Equal Pay Act was a significant achievement, women to this day still face many forms of discrimination in the workplace and a pay gap still persists, as can be seen from the badge below produced by the TUC in 2000 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Act.

Badge produced by the TUC in 2000

The TUC Library continues to collect a wide range of reports and publications on the subjects affecting women at work. If you would like to know more about what we hold, or would like to visit, please get in touch at tuclib@londonmet.ac.uk, 020 7133 3726, or visit our website.



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