The more I read of the allegations about the behaviour of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with a maid from Guinea in a New York hotel, the more I am reminded of my research on the conditions of women in Lancashire’s cotton industry 125 years ago, which I did for my book, Manchester and its Ship Canal Movement (M&SCM).
In the late 19th century cotton industry, women were not only the majority of the workforce but were also in the forefront in pressing for better conditions and for resisting the unreasonable demands and actions of their employers.
Fines, age discrimination, refusals to take account of domestic situations, instant dismissals for minor offences, wage cuts, sexual harassment – these were all common problems faced by women and there are accounts in my M&SCM book (pages 112-118) of women like Rochdale’s Martha Kilburn and Manchester’s Jane Davies, who were willing to fight for their principles and in some cases go to jail.
The example in M&SCM of greatest resonance with what happened last week in a New York hotel suite occurred at the Henshaw Street Spinning Company in Oldham.
The women cardroom workers had in 1886 formed their own union and in the same year persuaded their union Secretary to complain to the employer of the actions of the head carder Robert Yates, who had a record of molesting and sexually assaulting young girls in the factory. He boasted too about his prowess to other people.
Just as DSK has a reputation as a seducer and lapin chaud, about which the French appear to have an attitude of insouciance, so Yates’ reputation for sexual harassment was well known in the factory. When the employer would take no action, all 68 female and male workers went out on strike for almost a year.
The company’s collusion with this shabby feature of a dominant male culture only ended, when the union’s solicitor obtained a conviction of Yates in the Police Court and he was dismissed by his employer. The strikers were not reinstated.
DSK has had the good sense to resign from his post with the IMF, thus allowing the organisation to get on with pressing issues like debt refinancing for a beleaguered Greece and supporting we hope stronger measures on climate change. If the case against DSK for attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment is proved, what can we expect?
In evidence given to the Royal Commission on Labour 1893-4, it was reported that sexual harassment was not uncommon in the cotton industry and that the action taken by the Henshaw Street strikers in 1886 had led to a marked improvement in overlookers’ behaviour and the attitude of employers.
Women then were the catalysts in this process. Now there are other women making complaints about former incidents involving DSK and the BBC has today reported unconfirmed claims of DNA material being found. If DSK – who was strongly tipped to be the President of France next year – is found guilty of the offence, my prediction is that the complainant chamber maid for Suite 28-06 at the Sofitel Hotel will be responsible for significant changes in public attitudes in France to harassment and treatment of women by men.
She will have joined the ranks of brave 19th century women reformers like Martha Kilburn and Jane Davies, but in this age of mass media and the internet she will certainly not have to wait like them for a later historian to pluck her from obscurity!