Back in the 19th century, when Karl Marx was developing his theory of proletarian revolution in the pages of Das Kapital, domestic service was the largest industry in Britain and the vast majority of its workers were women. Today’s British working class is more female than ever before. Why, then, does the phrase ‘ordinary working-class people’ tend to conjure up an industrial worker in a flat cap – in other words, a man? 

In what is the second of a three-part series on new directions in British Labour History, historian-activists Laura Schwartz and George Stevenson set out to explore that question. The series grows out of a research network titled Writing Labour History in Brexit Britain – a network launched two years ago to challenge the predominant conservative narrative that seemed to assume that the “traditional British working class” was white, native-born, and in some fundamental way male. In this episode, Laura and George each recount a neglected story of trades union activism that is simultaneously a story of gender. Together their accounts raise provocative questions about activism, identity, and affiliation – and about the shaping of historical narratives, the ways in which, in some tellings of working-class history, certain workers count more than others, and some forms of work – particularly those routinely performed by women – don’t count as “labour” at all.

The archival extracts in Laura’s story were read by Karen Bartke.

Funding support for this episode was provided by the Humanities Research Fund at the University of Warwick.

Domestic workers protesting in London, 2010. Photo by Charles Hutchins, Flickr

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