I curated the exhibition ‘All Work and Low Pay: the Story of Women and Work’ at the Women’s Library, showing from October 2011 to August 2012. This drew on the unique documents and photographs in the Women’s Library and the TUC archives, supplemented with artefacts from collections throughout Britain. The main difficulty was covering such an enormous topic in a relataviely small space; in order to do this we adopted a thematic approach, with displays on ‘Home/Work’, ‘Working Lives’, ‘Out of the Cage’, ‘Striking Women’ and other topics supplemented by a time-line and graphs of employment statistics. Researching the graphs – helped by Anna Martin – made me realise just how much has changed since a hundred years ago, when women were routinely paid 50% of the male wage. But it also highlighted the continuities, especially in the issues facing women juggling work and family lives. Women have always worked throughout their lives – even in the ‘housewife’ era of the 1950s millions of married women were at work – and denying this was so means that issues like childcare and pensions are never adequately resolved.
Researching the exhibition was a huge challenge but very rewarding, as it gave such an insight into so many women’s lives; not only the exceptional individuals who launched petitions and campaigns, but the many women working long hours in exhausting jobs like forging chains, picking potatoes, or spinning cotton. This was the reality behind the 1968 Ford strike which inspired the 2010 film ‘Made in Dagenham’; women who were vital to production but paid as unskilled workers. Including tools used by women – from a potato basket to a canteen kettle to a weaving shuttle to a chain forging hammer to a nurse’s stethoscope – helps to highlight how central women’s work has always been to the economy, and the many forms it has taken.