7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Well Researched and Interesting Story Hidden Under a Heavy Layer of Socialist Feminist Polemic,
This review is from: Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History (Paperback)
The section of the book that actually deals with the strike that took place at the Bryant and May match factory in 1888 in the East End of London is interesting and very well written. It is clear that a prodigious quantity of research has gone into the book and great strides have been made in reconstructing the day by day details of the stoppage. The author, Louise Raw, has also done much work in tracking down the descendants of the original striking women in order to provide anecdotal evidence for her proposition that the women initiated their own strike and were not lead by the much eulogised figure of Annie Besant. Besant later became the secretary of the Match Workers Union but, contrary to received socialist history, she was not instrumental in starting or promoting the strike or introducing socialist ideas to the already politically aware working women. The author then provides ample evidence to demonstrate that the Beckton Gas Works strike and the successful Great Dock Strike of 1889 were inspired by the actions of the matchgirls and that the advent of `New Unionism' should be dated from the Bryant and May stoppage of 1888 rather than the subsequent dock strike.
The main drawback to the book (alluded to in my first sentence) is the extraneous and tedious left-wing feminist repetition that occupies the first 54 pages, not to mention the forward by Sheila Rowbotham in the same vein. This part of the book is devoted to the position of working class women in the East End of London and the use of the word `matchwomen' as opposed to `matchgirls'. As we read on and reach page 70 there is still nothing about the strike but more polemic on the role of women in trade unionism and their unjust relegation to the status of minor players by (socialist) historians. It is only on page 80 that we have our first direct reference to new information about a Bryant and May employee. Chapter 3 actually starts to relate working conditions and the street level co-operation between families but again this is done through the distorting prism of gender and class consciousness which I know from personal experience of such communities would have left the people concerned totally mystified. After page 80 the book takes on a completely different feel and is very interesting, very well written and researched, and has something quite profound to say about labour history. It has to be said that this is surely a book for devotees of the subject, or university sociology students, but is quite unsuitable for the general reader.