Saturday, 2 June 2012

Wartime Feminism

(In which Sybil moves jobs and joins the war effort)

I stayed in this office [Lacrinoid products] about eighteen months, and during this time my family were bombed out of our home and eventually lived in Chelmsford so it became increasingly difficult to get to and from work. Also, I wanted to get more closely involved in the war effort, now that the CP was actively supporting the war - although my personal view had always been that support of the war was the only way it was possible to check the spread of Fascism. I wondered about joining the armed forces or land army, but decided to go for factory work, as many local firms were engaged in war work. I got a job in Chelmsford at nearby Crompton Parkinson on a lathe in the machine shop, and it was an experience I have never regretted, although hard manual labour and the night work I hated. Girls, all as inexperienced at the work as I was, volunteered in or were drafted in, and we became a very mixed, friendly and supportive team. The Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) which catered for most of the workforce did not at that time accept women members (this altered in 1943, I think) and so I had to join the Transport and General Workers’ union (TGWU) which did have some members amongst the male unskilled and a few female employees. The machine shop became 100% unionised and I was the shop steward. We became well-known in the factory, and all wore our mob-caps with a red star badge on the front, “working for Joe!” We fought for and got a raise, but the wage was pretty poor considering the hours we worked: the bosses used the war to their own advantage, as they could easily get more workers, as needed.

One girl, Joan, wanted to become a crane driver (unheard of) and was prepared at first to do it for 2/3 the male rate, but became convinced we should hold out for the full rate and refused to go up the ladder to the crane until it was agreed. At 18, she became an excellent driver and soon the men were trusting her to safely carry the huge lumps of metal around, to trundle to the machine needing them. Joan subsequently joined the YCL and became an active union member. This work lasted under two years, as I had in the meantime married and become pregnant, so left the job in 1943 to many tears all round. 

We will leave my working-for-wages story for a while, as it would be some years before I returned to it and then only part-time, and look at my political being, how it came about and my activities therein. For this we need to go back to about 1933.

[to be continued...]

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