In search of 'Matron'

My most recent research activity has been for material for a reader, “Welsh women writing politics”, to be jointly edited by Jane Aaron and myself, to be published by Honno: Welsh Women’s Press, next year (2007). I am responsible for, among other things, writings by labour movement and socialist women, up to the First World War. An important small body of writing was produced under the pseudonym “Matron”, in “Our Women’s Column” in the “Rhondda Socialist” (full title, “The Rhondda Socialist newspaper, being the BOMB of the Rhondda Workers”) published in Pontypridd, from August 1911-May 1913, with an all-male editorial board drawn from Rhondda Independent Labour Party (ILP) branches. Thirty-nine issues of the paper were published, first monthly, but as circulation rose from 3,000 to 6,000 by March 1912, a paid, full-time manager was appointed, and publication became fortnightly. However, by spring of 1913, the project was no longer viable, and merged with the “South Wales Worker”, published in Merthyr Tydfil from May 1913 to July 1914. In the same period, the “Merthyr Pioneer” was founded by Keir Hardie and other ILP-ers in Merthyr and Aberdare, and was published from 1911 until 1922. In Swansea, the “Swansea and District Workers Journal” (1899-1914) was published by the Trades and Labour Council, while in the Swansea valleys, “Llais Llafur” (1898-1915) was published in Ystalyfera. A brief survey of these and other publications of the labour movement press in Wales, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is included in Aled Jones, “Press, politics and society: a history of journalism in Wales” (Cardiff, 2003), and studies of aspects of individual publications have appeared over the years in the journal “Llafur”. June Hannam and Karen Hunt have written on women’s columns in the British socialist press in this period, and research has also been undertaken on representations of gender in the ILP press in England in the late nineteenth century. I’m not aware of a thorough treatment of these publications in Wales, which include, especially for the late nineteenth century, Welsh language papers. (Note for researchers: the LRC at University of Glamorgan has the complete run of the “Merthyr Pioneer” on microfiche, and a database of the press in Wales, including locations, can be found on the website of Newsplan Cymru, )

The “Rhondda Socialist” had no 'women’s column’ until December 1911. Until then, the paper concentrated on local ILP, labour movement and coal industry news, and conducted a war of words with Liberalism and Nonconformity, showing no consciousness of the existence of women or their interests amongst the Rhondda working class. The change came in the autumn of 1911, when Penygraig ILP announced that it had booked Dr Marion Phillips as a speaker. Phillips, better known for her post-war role as the Labour Party’s Chief Woman Officer, was already prominent in the Women’s Labour League (WLL, affiliated to the Labour Party) and the ILP. She was to be accompanied on her speaking tour of the Rhondda by Annot Robinson, a former militant suffrage activist, WLL organiser, now National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and Fabian Women’s suffrage group organiser. Phillips and Robinson were described in the “RS” as being Women’s Freedom League (WFL, a militant suffrage organisation) speakers, but this appears to be the result of a common trait in the male-dominated press, capitalist as well as socialist, of being unable to distinguish between women’s organisations, or get their names right, even when they were 'our’ women’s organisations. The absence of women from ILP activities in Rhondda before this date, and ILP perception of their lack of autonomy, is revealed by the Penygraig ILP notes: 'The women folk must be induced to attend these meetings. Married men, bring your wives, Single men, bring your sweethearts.’ Clearly, the readership of the paper was understood to be male, but at least there was a recognition of 'women’s interests’.

This was the beginning of a period when the labour movement, and the suffrage movement in its constitutional form, drew closer, eventually making an electoral pact, and after this date, the “RS” ran fairly frequent, and completely supportive, items on the suffrage movement. Surely prompted by this new interest, the first 'Our Women’s Column’, authored by 'Matron’, appeared in December 1911. It was a long article on the tragedy of infant mortality in the Rhondda, its causes and remedies: in 1910, 770 children under one year old had died in the Rhondda, a rate of 137 per thousand, compared to an average for England and Wales of 106 per thousand. After this, Matron produced a column for almost every issue of the paper, on health, housing, poverty, maternal and infant welfare, women’s suffrage. She acutely, if briefly, analysed the structural and cultural exclusion of women from labour movement activity in the Rhondda, and she wrote on women’s work within the home, passionately indignant at the inequalities she observed within families. Everything she wrote was informed by close personal knowledge of the area she lived in, and a complete lack of sentimentality about domesticity, motherhood and marriage in the conditions of working-class life she saw around her. The much-praised 'tidy wives’ of the Rhondda did not fill Matron with pride. In an article headed 'Household Gods’, she wrote:

““Another service performed in honour of the household gods is the scrubbing of street pavements, the coping stones of walls, and window-sills. The sight of a woman on her knees at this job fills one with disgust. Where does the dignity and glory of womanhood come in here?”“

The time spent polishing brasses, she declared, would be better spent by a woman 'brightening her own soul.’ Having just recently completed a body of work on Liberal women in Wales, I find the contrasts very telling. Liberal women used a language which exalted domesticity and motherhood and household skills as a foundation of women’s claims to the public sphere. Matron saw marriage and family as sites of inequality and oppression.

So who was Matron? First of all, for inclusion in the reader, I needed to establish that Matron was indeed a woman. There is sometimes an assumption that female pseudonyms, or absence of attribution in the political ' and perhaps especially left-wing ' context, may hide male identities; for many years historians accepted that 'Lily Bell’, the editor of the women’s column in the “Labour Leader” in the 1890s (now clearly identified as the activist Isabella Bream Pearce) was another manifestation of the indefatigability of Keir Hardie, the paper’s editor. According to the editorial announcing Matron’s arrival in the “Rhondda Socialist”, the author of the new column was 'one of the ablest and best known women in the Rhondda’. I have chosen to take that on face value, as far as Matron’s gender is concerned; I see no reason not to, and the content and tone of her columns, briefly outlined above, and perhaps especially the absence of any tendency to tell women how to improve themselves, seems to me to be further evidence of her sex.

What else can be deduced, or legitimately guessed-at? The pseudonym suggests a mature married woman, and claims the authority of such a figure ' experience, knowledge of the world, and of women’s concerns. That might be a disguise, but the columns do have maturity, breadth and depth. What was her class identity? The writing is clear and accomplished, and suggests a good level of education. She might have been one of the female teachers becoming active in Rhondda Labour politics at this time, like Gwen Ray, later Gwen Ray Evans, who was to become politically active through her trade union, the Rhondda Class Teachers’ Association, and who in the 1920s was a member of both the Labour Party Women’s Sections and the Communist Party. What other candidates are there? All very well for the “RS” to describe a 'well-known’ woman of the district, but so few names emerged in this period. The only other Rhondda activist known to have left behind a body of writing is Elizabeth Andrews, so it is necessary to consider her as a candidate. Colleagues with whom I’ve discussed this have mixed views, but most agree that Matron was more to the left, perhaps Marxist, in her politics, than Andrews; however, people change in that respect, and Andrews hadn’t always been a Labour Party employee (or 'party hack’, as some have it). The writing styles are very different, and it seems to me that Matron was educated to a higher level than Andrews, but writing styles too can be changed to suit different readerships. Andrews and Matron shared characteristics as writers: a liking for quotation, especially from the bible; a liking ' a positive relish – for statistics and hard data to support arguments. Their subject matter was often the same, but so it would be, since both addressed the same social conditions affecting working-class women, which only deteriorated in the later period when Andrews was writing, through the strikes and lock-outs of the 1920s and the bitter depression of the 1930s. Andrews made no mention in her autobiography of having produced these writings, but neither did she refer to other writings which we know she produced. On balance, not the same person, I think, though the evidence needed to be examined. The search for Matron’s identity continues.

The “Bomb’s” successor, the “South Wales Worker”, carried no regular women’s column. It ran a series of articles by Marion Phillips, on 'The working woman in politics’. While these dealt with issues such as health, housing and infant welfare, from the WLL perspective, they also aired arguments against conscription, and for arms reduction and prevention of war, which were increasingly heard from the left during the build-up to war in 1914. Phillips’s articles did not address local conditions; they could have been published in any part of the Britain; the “Swansea & District Workers Journal” published at least one of the series. They therefore lacked the immediacy and specificity of Matron’s writings. At the same time, the paper continued to be supportive of the suffrage movement. While the running in 1911-12 had been made by the non-militant NUWSS, in 1913-14 the “Worker” appears to have espoused the militant organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Cardiff WSPU organiser Annie Williams carried out intensive propaganda activities in the Rhondda in these years, was given approving coverage by the “Worker”, and was sponsored for a series of public meetings by the Rhondda branches of the National Union of Railwaymen. In June 1913, the paper reported a Cardiff conference of south Wales Labour local government representatives, at which 'the treat of the day’ was a ten minute address by Annie Williams, which resulted in a resolution condemning 'the murderous treatment meted out to the women by this tyrannical government’, and demanding the end of forcible feeding of imprisoned suffragettes.

The enthusiasm of the “Worker” for the WSPU is interesting. There is no sign that Annie Williams’s work, or the paper’s reports, resulted in the formation of branches of the WSPU in the Rhondda, while branches of the constitutional NUWSS were reported: the NUWSS benefited from the raised profile of the women’s suffrage question as a result of militant activity, as well as from its own pact with the Labour Party. Hitherto, Elizabeth Andrews’s recollection in her autobiography of the hostility shown to suffrage speakers in the Rhondda in this period has coloured historical understanding of the district as unfriendly to the cause. In addition, we know that the WSPU was actively opposing Labour Party candidates in by-elections, seeing the party as part of the Parliamentary alliances which kept the Liberals in power at this time. However, the “Worker”, like the “Bomb” before it, was staunchly anti-Lib-Lab, so the suffragette attacks on the Liberal government were a matter for approval. The paper reported Annie Williams’s words on the ties that bound the working-class movement and the suffragettes: 'women and men must march together to freedom, comrades in the same fight, was the gist of her remarks’. The paper’s reports provide no evidence of any growth in militant suffrage activity by women in the Rhondda, but are clear evidence of a supportive environment for the cause. There is more work to be done, but this brief article opens up the subject of the socialist and labour-movement press in Wales, as a source for exploring the gender politics and culture of the pre-First World War labour movement.

Ursula Masson, December 2006