Ada Nield Chew: "I could not stay silent"

As the misery and injustices of the capitalist system are laid bare in the starkest manner and the life chances for our children diminish before our eyes, the words of a young and politically inexperienced Ada Nield Chew should be taken on by us all: “I feel it to be personally degrading and a disgrace upon me to remain silent and submit without a protest to the injustice done me.”

Ada, then working in a clothing factory, wrote these words as part of a series of letters she had published anonymously in the Crewe Chronicle in 1894, describing the injustices of factory life. Ada explains the piece-work system: in her section women work between 9 and 10 hours a day; however, much of this time is spent not earning money but waiting for work, gathering materials to work with, waiting for work to pass inspection, etc. This results in women needing to take work home, adding a further 4–5 hours to the working day, in order to earn anything like a living wage. She then declares:

“We are not asking for pity, sir, we ask for justice. Surely it would not be more than just to pay us at such a rate, that we could realise a living wage — in the true sense of the words — in a reasonable time, say one present working day of from 9 to 10 hours — till the eight hour day becomes general, and reaches even factory girls. Our work is necessary (presumably) to our employers. Were we not employed others would have to be, and if of the opposite sex, I venture to say, sir, would have to be paid on a very different scale. Why, because we are weak women, without pluck and grit enough to stand up for our rights, should we be ground down to this miserable wage?”

Ada was sacked from her job once her identity as the letter writer had been discovered. But uncowed and undeterred she went on to develop her political ideas through reading, argument and writing; and she used all of these skills to organise within her class.

Ada was a formidable speaker, always ready to describe the situation of working-women and raise demands to improve their lot.

Ada joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). In early 1905 she wrote a letter published in the Clarion challenging the policy of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by the suffragette “nobility” Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.

Ada argued that the WSPU policy was for “the entire class of wealthy women be(ing) enfranchised, (while) the great body of working women, married or single would be voteless still, and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they (would) vot(e) naturally in their own interests…” Christabel responded the following week and a fervent exchange went on.

History proved Ada to be right: Emmeline Pankhurst went on to stand for Parliament as the Conservative Party candidate in 1928. And it was Emmeline and Christabel who wandered the streets of London handing out white feathers to any young man not in uniform during the First World War — defending their own bourgeois class interests. For her part, Ada opposed the war and argued against Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS, when she suspended all activities for the duration of the war.

Ada Nield Chew was born more than 140 years ago into a poor working-class family, one of 13 children. Her formal education was brought to a halt at the age of 11. She fought within herself and against others so that her background should not impede her. Instead it propelled her forward.

According to her daughter Doris, Ada was “keenly aware of the difference in education and upbringing between her and the middle class women around her”. Yet she fought against this, was unafraid to speak out against injustice, refused to be silenced or immobilised by those considered to be “better educated” or by their elevated position.

Ada Nield Chew’s political activity should influence working class women in 2011. It should inspire us to “protest the injustice done” to us all — to fight the onslaught of attacks on every aspect of our lives as the bosses’ class takes our jobs, our benefits, our health care and pensions, our children’s chances of going to university. We must not allow them to make us pay, yet again, for the inevitable crisis of capitalism.

These are fine shoulders on which to stand.

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