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Reference group
Women's Industrial Council (act. 1894–c.1917) was a pressure group that aimed to ‘watch over’ the interests of working women. It brought together feminists from a variety of social and political backgrounds whose main concern was the woman worker and the need to improve her employment conditions.

Clementina Black, who had been involved in women's trade unionism for almost a decade, was the driving force behind the foundation of the Women's Industrial Council and its subsequent development. The daughter of a solicitor, Black was associated with socialist circles in London when in 1886 she was appointed secretary of the Women's Protective and Provident League, an umbrella group that encouraged trade unionism among skilled working women. Impatient with the league's cautious approach and opposition to protective legislation, she helped to set up a new organization in 1889 for women workers in the East End of London, the Women's Trade Union Association (WTUA). The WTUA had the support of prominent labour leaders such as John Burns and Tom Mann.

Leadership of the association was provided by Black and working-class trade union organizers, including Amie Hicks, an active member of the socialist group the Social Democratic Federation, and secretary of the East London Ropemakers' Union. Her daughter Frances became secretary of the WTUA while the assistant secretary, Clara James, was secretary of the Confectioners' Union. The WTUA was formed in a period of intellectual and social upheaval. The revival of socialism coupled with new unionism offered feminists a different perspective on social problems and a new field of action. At a time when the labour movement focused on the interests of the male worker, many middle-class women, who were critical of philanthropy, welcomed the opportunity to help working women to organize independently.

Despite the efforts of its organizers, the WTUA found it increasingly difficult to sustain trade union membership among low-paid female workers. In 1894, therefore, it was reformed as the Women's Industrial Council (WIC). This marked a change in direction. The emphasis was now on detailed investigation into the conditions of women's work that would lead to proposals for legislative reforms. By 1913 117 trades had been investigated. The council sought to influence public and political opinion by disseminating its findings in books or in the quarterly publication Women's Industrial News. Its members were recognized as experts in the field of women's employment and were frequently invited to give evidence to official enquiries. The council also sought to widen the range of employment available to women and girls through training and education and promoted girls' clubs. It supported the work of factory inspectors and monitored breaches of the Factory Acts. Although the focus of its work was London, there were branches in the provinces, for example in Liverpool.

Clementina Black, Amie Hicks, and Clara James, who had already gained experience in all of these activities in the WTUA, continued to work together in the WIC, where they were joined by a new recruit, Margaret MacDonald, the daughter of a professor of chemistry who had an interest in social questions. MacDonald had gained first-hand experience of poverty through work with school boards, boys' clubs, and the Charity Organization Society. She had already come into contact with socialist ideas before joining the WIC but it was Amie Hicks and Edith Hogg (1856–1900), secretary of the WIC's education committee, who inspired her to declare herself openly a socialist. In 1896 she joined the Independent Labour Party and married James Ramsay MacDonald, the future Labour prime minister. For all of these women the WIC was to be the focus of their work for over a decade, while others gave varying levels of support.

The WIC was a non-sectarian group that helped to provide links between all those interested in the lives of working women. Margaret Bondfield, a leader of the Shop Assistants' Union and a socialist, was recruited in 1896 by the WIC to carry out covert social investigation into working conditions in West End shops and in 1908 she took part in the study into married women's employment. Along with her close friend Mary Macarthur she provided a link with the women's trade union movement, since both women were on the executive committee of the Women's Trade Union League and established the first female general union, the National Federation of Women Workers, in 1906. Catherine Webb, active in the Women's Co-operative Guild, was a lecturer for the WIC and took over from Amie Hicks as secretary between 1895 and 1902. Ishbel Gordon, Lady Aberdeen [see under Gordon, John Campbell, first marquess of Aberdeen and Temair], president of the Women's Liberal Federation and of the International Congress of Women, lent her prestigious support to the council when she acted as president, in 1897–8. The WIC also attracted young Fabian women, like Elizabeth Leigh Hutchins, Lucy Wyatt Papworth (1874–1921), and Dorothea Margaret Zimmern (b. 1883), who carried out many of the investigations and who provided a connection between the WIC and the Fabian Women's Group. Margaret MacDonald was also at the centre of other networks. She was an active member of the National Union of Women Workers, a group comprising organizations concerned with social, family, and work problems affecting women and girls, and in 1906 was a founder member of the Women's Labour League (WLL), a group formed to support the Labour Party and having a close relationship with the WIC.

Members of the WIC have been described as ‘social feminists’ because they prioritized employment issues, but they were also involved in the struggle for the vote. Margaret Bondfield, for example, was a leader of the Adult Suffrage Society while Clementina Black was a vice-president of the London Society for Women's Suffrage in 1913 and represented the WIC on a deputation to the prime minister on women's suffrage in 1910.

Despite shared goals there were tensions among the leadership. It was difficult, for instance, to fulfil the ideal of cross-class friendships. Working-class leaders like Amie Hicks and Clara James grew frustrated with investigative work that could turn working women into subjects of research rather than encouraging their independent activism, and they preferred to concentrate their energies on girls' clubs. The clubs were intended to promote leadership and a civic awareness among working-class girls, to improve their physical fitness, and also to provide education and training through lectures and other activities. In 1899 the WIC formed the Clubs Industrial Association with Amie Hicks as president and Lily Montagu as secretary. Montagu, the daughter of the Liberal MP for Whitechapel, Samuel Montagu, had established the West Central Jewish Girls' Club in 1893. She was introduced to the WIC by her old school friend Margaret MacDonald and was active in both the National Union of Women Workers and the council for a number of years. In 1908, when proposed rule changes would have given the central committee greater powers, Amie Hicks and Clara James left the WIC to concentrate on club work.

Other disagreements related to the strategies that should be adopted in relation to specific problems. The first major dispute was over what to do about sweated home workers, who became the focus of national attention after 1906. Clementina Black supported the setting up of trade boards that would establish minimum wages for all workers in specific industries and she worked closely with the Anti Sweating League. Margaret MacDonald, however, proposed that home work should be subject to a system of licensing. When the WIC committee failed to take a stand on trade boards Clementina Black resigned from her position as president until the legislation had been passed.

Married women's work also provoked controversy. In 1908 the WIC initiated a nationwide investigation into married women's paid employment and it received help and support from all the major women's groups that were interested in employment conditions. None the less, there were differences of approach. Mary Macarthur and Margaret MacDonald both thought it would be best if married women remained in the home supported by their husbands and therefore they were keen to improve male wages. Clementina Black on the other hand sought to understand why married women worked and suggested that even a small amount of money could give them a sense of independence. She advocated schemes of co-operative housekeeping and improvements to housing conditions so that married women could be freed for employment. Arguments about how to handle a publication on these issues split the WIC, with Margaret MacDonald and other WLL women resigning from the council in 1910. An important book, Married Women's Work, edited by Black, was eventually published in 1915.

The Women's Industrial Council continued its investigative work until at least 1917, but many of its activities were then subsumed in mixed-sex labour organizations after the war. In the pre-war years, however, it was part of a network of individuals and organizations seeking a collectivist solution to social problems. It provided detailed information on the inequalities women faced at the workplace and, through campaigning work and lobbying, helped to influence legislation to improve those conditions. Although it did not have a consistent ideology, it challenged contemporary views about women's social role by highlighting the complex relationship between paid work and family life and insisting that women were workers as well as homemakers.

June Hannam


BLPES, Women's Industrial Council MSS · London Metropolitan University, TUC archive, Gertrude Tuckwell collection · Women's Industrial News · E. Mappen, Helping women at work: the Women’s Industrial Council, 1889–1914 (1985) · E. Mappen, ‘Strategists for change: social feminist approaches to the problems of women's work’, Unequal opportunities: women's employment in England, 1800–1918, ed. A. V. John (1986) · C. Black, Married women's work (1983) [incl. introduction by E. Mappen] · G. Holloway, Women and work in Britain since 1840 (2005) · J. Goodman, ‘Social investigation and economic empowerment: the Women's Industrial Council and the LCC Trade Schools for Girls, 1892–1914’, History of Education, 27/3 (1998) · J. Morris, Women workers and the sweated trades (1986) · E. Jordan, The women's movement and women's employment in nineteenth-century Britain (1999) · C. Collette, For labour and for women: the Women's Labour League, 1906–1918 (1989)