Industrial women: organising, strategy and community in Sydney 1917-1940

Document Type


Publication details

Webb, R 2004, 'Industrial women: organising, strategy and community in Sydney 1917-1940', PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW.


This thesis examines the presence of women as trade union organisers and labour activists in Australian labour history. It recognises that labour historians have acknowledged and explored women’s presence as workers, that is, as wage-earners in labour history. However, women’s role as wage-fixers, that is, as industrial negotiators and union operatives, has not been a primary concern. I address this by examining interwar labour movement organising in Sydney by and for women. These organisers and activists had a significant impact on the situation of women workers in the interwar years. Those who did this most successfully collaborated with other labour women, and also crossed class lines to collaborate, where necessary to their industrial goals, with non-labour women. By investigating women organisers’ union involvement and labour strategies and their connections with other activists, and by examining some industrial campaigns and changes to the industrial climate in the interwar years which influenced the situation of female workers, the study demonstrates that, in order to be effective, industrially active labour women organised collectively through occupational, ideological and social networks. These networks linked a range of organisations and collectives, drawing on the resources of the labour movement and the women’s movement. This networking was prompted by the largely male culture of the labour movement. Organisers for women could not rely on full support for female workers’ issues from within their male dominated unions, or even from the broader labour movement. By highlighting the tactics they used to defuse or bypass that institutional gender bias, by analysing the individual and collective situations of industrial women, and by focussing on organising for women in several unions, in particular unionism in the printing industry in New South Wales, I not only show ‘how’, but also importantly ‘why’ networking between industrial and labour women, and feminists was initiated and sustained in the inter-war years. The analysis supports my central contention that such collaboration was a gendered response to male-structured organisational restrictions on females as workers, union members, and as union employees. These women exploited their networks for industrial ends. Their strategic networking bridged divisions between labour women and the women’s movement.