THE NEW BRITAIN TIMES WORKING WOMEN NEED THEIR RIGHTS! As I walk across the courtyard towards the fabric factory in Cottingham, Yorkshire, I notice the smoke that clouds the air and intoxicates me. Entering the main working area, rows of benches are aligned parallel to the walls. All around me, I see women of all ages, mostly pre‐teens, sitting on hard wooden stools, crouched over their yarns and pieces of fabric. None of them are smiling. The large room is very dark, and the few windows seem to be obstructed by piles of merchandise. The workers are pale and tired; many cough violently every few minutes. Several huge machines rumble from the far side of the room, now and then a child’s wail pierces the monotonous silence. A young woman –no older than 17‐ looks up and sighs as she walks toward her crying baby. He is in a corner of the warehouse, wrapped in filthy blankets. I watch as she bends forward and lets a few drops from a bottle fall onto his lips. She stands up and slips the bottle back into her ripped pinafore pocket, nodding at me as she walks back to her seat. The supervisor glares at her; she sits down, and begins to work again, her scarred hands shaking in the chill. There are 134 women working in this factory, and 56 men. Most are aged from 8 to mid twenties; it seems that many of the older workers have died of certain forms of respiratory diseases, or machine induced injuries. I wait outside the factory gates until 9 in the evening, fidgety glances coming from the guard. Visitors do not seem welcome. After talking to some of the women in the factory about the happenings there, I can easily understand why. Male overseers receive 15 to 32 shillings a week, while women occupying the same post get only 9‐10 shillings. The difference in wages is drastic, and although in most cases the work is different, this does not indicate that the difficulty is lesser. More women are hired here than men ‐ they are about 60% of the total workforce of textile factories in Britain. There is no doubt why when we see the wages (1/3rd of that of the men!), or opportunities that are given to the women workers. Men are promoted quite often, higher wages accompanying that. However, the ladies are given jobs that they will have until they are killed from work‐induced injuries: dead‐end jobs. “But ye see, ma’am”, Amanda O’Kelly a 21 year old worker, tells me,” we don’t ‘av a choice. It’s either this or prostitution. Then again, the way we women get treated ‘ere, prostitution wouldn’t be much different.” While saying this, she looks down at the baby she carries in her arms. In these small factories it is not uncommon to see very young, unmarried girls carrying their smallest child with them to work, hushing the child’s cries with a drop of ‘Infant’s Quietness’ or ‘Soothing Syrup’, and plunging the baby back into an opiate slumber. It is an awful hidden reality, but women as young as 14 are raped by Overseers, guardsmen and other such men who work at these factories. However, no help is provided for these women, who are exhausted by their interrupted nights and lack of food. Meanwhile, the men carry on with their disgusting and degrading deeds, leaving the women to suffer from their mistakes. Ms. O’Kelly words bring forwards something else: prostitution. Many women, of all ages, must resort to prostitution to fend for themselves, and their families. These deeds are overlooked by the important people of society, despite them being the users of such facilities sometimes. It is quite simple: the poor women of our country are obliged to work 18 hour days, pay for the mistakes of men who abuse of them (use opiates on their children), or become prostitutes. There is no escape. Thankfully, there are some members of society who are attempting to help working‐class women. I went to Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, the founders of Toynbee Settlement Home. The two are strong believers in philanthropy and the idea that educating people can provoke social change. Their idea was to perform social work in impoverished area. Or, in the words of Samuel Barnett: 'to learn as much as to teach; to receive as much as to give’. I spoke to them
about my visit to the textile factory in Yorkshire. Unlike me, they were not surprised. “You see, nowadays our society’s woman is perceived as too emotional, too fragile. She does not need the right to vote, as she is disqualified by her sex, and supposedly does not have the mind to vote sensibly. Men want women who they can dominate, who are meek, obedient, quietly loving and subservient to the male figures around her. But the Industrial Revolution is not the only thing that is rising: so are the women of our country”, says Mrs. Barnett. She is right. Britain’s women are rising, determined to get the rights they deserve. Suffragettes are getting their point across any way they can ‐ through protest, hunger strikes and parliament members. Not very long ago at all, in 1840, 100 to 300 women met at the first ever Women’s Rights Convention in New York. It shall be followed by many more meetings, and one day, women will no longer have to be abused by superiors, drug their children, stoop down to prostitution or work in conditions so awful that they are literally murdered by them. One day, women will have rights equal to men. Let’s not keep the women of our country waiting: they have worked and suffered for their rights for much too long already.
The women of the Cottingham factory stand silently, listening to orders from the overseer. As he drones on, foul language and insults punctuating his sentences, these women of all ages stand united; they are ready for change. ‐Taken by staff photographer.
Published on Mar 13, 2011