Hats Off to the Matchwomen with Louise Raw

LaDIYfest Sheffield presents: Hats Off to the Matchwomen with Louise Raw  – The ‘East End Girls’ Who Made History (in association with Off the Shelf Festival)

Join Louise Raw, author of ‘Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History’, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Matchwomen’s victory and hear the true story of the wild and wonderful women who changed the world.

Free! And open to everyone.
Thursday 17th October at Coffee Revolution, Sheffield University (FB Event)

Almost the worst thing a woman could be in the East End of 1888 was a matchmaker. As Irish, working-class East Enders, the Bryant & May women already had three strikes against them. As far as polite society was concerned, the matchwomen should have been shame-faced, humble and known their place. They had other ideas.

Instead they created their own identity as ‘matchgirls’, with their own fashions and hairstyles. They were famous for their colourful hats, and set up ‘Feather Clubs’ to buy the biggest, brightest ones they could find, which they shared.

In the summer of ’88, they went on strike against management bullying and appalling, toxic working conditions: wages were so low the women were malnourished. Their employers’ neglect put them at risk of ‘phossy jaw’ from airborne phosphorus particles, which decayed the jawbone and caused an agonising death.

The striking matchwomen paraded the streets of the East End, singing protest songs and telling their story. They marched to Parliament, impressing MPs with their courage.

Bryant & May were forced to give them better pay, safer conditions, and the right to form the largest all-women union in Britain.

Yet history has denied them their victory for too long: the strike has either been ignored by historians or de-valued as ‘just’ an unimportant protest by illiterate ‘slum lassies’ , who could not have possibly understood what they were doing, and were probably ‘made’ to do it by middle-class socialists.

None of that is true. After several years of research and tracing their grandchildren, I was able to show that the women in fact inspired tens of thousands of other groups of exploited workers to form their own new unions. The modern movement for workers’ rights had begun, the matchwomen leading the way.

Come and hear the true story of the wild and wonderful women who changed the world. – Louise Raw


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