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Women Engineers, Health, and Trade Unionism in Post-War Britain

I would say to a young girl, whose dreams are all of glamour and romance. Take a look at the most glamorous women in the world…take, for example, Elizabeth Taylor… take Marilyn Monroe…These women are all you long to be. They are beautiful, talented, famous, rich, but nevertheless, they are working women…They are both members of their trade union…and right now both of them are out on strike…they have both learned a working woman’s best friend is her trade union.” (Address of Mrs M. McKay, Annual Women’s Conference Report 1960, pp.10-11, MSS.259/AEU/4/15/60)

This research, undertaken by Neil Adams as part of the Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme, draws on the archives of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (A.E.U.), held at the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University. The project explores efforts to integrate women into a traditionally masculine occupation in the aftermath of the Second World War. This union began to admit women as members in 1943 following the influx of women into the industry during the war, and rapidly began to specifically target women through booklets, separate conferences and a magazine.

Focusing on these sources, the project examines how both the A.E.U. and its female members devoted attention to health and welfare issues through conference resolutions, pamphlets and magazine articles. The project also explores how the A.E.U. sought to resolve traditionally conflicting images of beauty, femininity, engineering, technical skill and political activism by combining fashion and beauty advice with campaigns for equal pay and maternity leave, and articles urging women to involve themselves in the trade union movement and Labour Party.

Through this case study of a trade union’s efforts to attract female members, the project also touches upon broader historical issues and questions, such as changes in women’s roles and identities in post-war Britain, and how trade unionism adapted to the deskilling of work processes and the growth of female labour that was occurring within the workplace in this era.