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Women and Trade Unions in France

The Tobacco and Hat Industries, 1890–1914

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Sandra Salin

Based on the thorough examination of French archival sources, this book examines in detail two industries in which women formed the majority of the workforce in France between 1890 and 1914. The choice of the tobacco and hat industries is particularly relevant in the sense that the tobacco industry, unlike the hat industry, was a state monopoly in which women were in the majority and held meaningful responsibilities in unions at a time when women were generally in the minority and under-represented in the labour movement.
The main aim of this comparison is to assess and qualify differences between both industries in terms of workforce and work organisation, trade unions’ attitudes to women and women’s membership and participation in order to get a better understanding of the factors that could have had an impact on female workers’ attitude towards trade unions.
By making women’s presence more visible, therefore more apprehensible, this book contributes to a better understanding of the way in which women perceived themselves, and were perceived, as workers, women, union members and militants in French trade union history prior to 1914.
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Chapter 4: Women on Strike

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← 224 | 225 → CHAPTER 4

Women on Strike

Militancy is always linked to a cause and the struggle to achieve the aims of this cause. It is also related to the belief that situations or conditions can be improved if not transformed. The working-class struggle took different aspects, depending on the strategy workers wanted to adopt. Some chose politics, others trade unionism. Some chose reformism and favoured parliamentary legislation, others syndicalism and direct action. Yet, conversely, some also chose not to belong to any movement, and this was particularly common amongst women as shown in the previous chapter. Yet, this did not necessarily mean that they were indifferent to their conditions as workers; it could also be due to the inadequacy or unsuitability of the means available to them. In any case, working-class militancy was neither the attribute nor the prerogative of only those who belonged to a party or a union, especially when considering the fact that, historically speaking, labour agitation preceded the official formation of unions and parties.

It has already been suggested on several occasions in Chapter 3 that the form or pattern of militancy adopted by women was not always the same as the one adopted by men. They were under-represented in traditionally masculine places or forms of expression, like unions, congresses or federation papers. Therefore, female union militancy was conditioned and determined according to male norms and forms of militancy. Yet, it could be envisaged that women used other places...

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