By Ciaran Doolin. Reprinted from issue 2 of What She Said, magazine of UC Femsoc.
By 1889 women workers in New Zealand had established their first industrial organisation, the Tailoresses’ Union. Lead by Harriet Morison, the union delivered marked increases in wages and substantive improvements in working conditions. The union was influential in the suffragette movement, achieving a harmony between political and industrial functions that contemporary male unions struggled to match. The tailoresses had overcome the prejudices of their employers and the labour movement, and demonstrated that women were eminently capable of industrial self-organisation. However, most women workers remained unorganised, their lives characterised by drudgery and exploitation. Strikes intensified these conditions. Nonetheless, many working-class women saw the security of their families as integrally tied to the fortunes of the labour movement and backed their husbands when they ‘went out’. The Maritime Strike which rocked Australasia during 1890 saw these tensions between the different perceptions of the role of women come to a head. The rise of class conscious ‘New Unionism’ ran in parallel to a feminist upsurge.
The 1890 Maritime Strike is one of cornerstones of industrial history memorialised by the Australasian labour movement. It had its origins in the development of the class conscious ‘New Unionism’ which swept the world after the dramatic London Dockers’ Strike of 1889. This new approach to organising promoted the solidarity of labour over the loyalties of craft. As one New Zealand Watersiders’ leader declared in the 1890s, “We [workers] have no flag, we have no country”.  Their loyalty was, instead, to their union and their class.
The upsurge in union activism during the late 1880s put the employers on the offensive, and the unions saw their rights as under threat. As an historian of the period, J. D. Salmond, puts it, “All the bad feeling between employers and workers in New Zealand which had been accumulating for years and had found only occasional means of escape, came to the surface. It was an industrial war pure and simple.” By international standards the strike was huge, still more so considering the small populations of the two colonies. In all, 60,000 workers (with 200,000 dependents), went on strike, compared to 100,000 in London.
The direct precursor to the Maritime Strike was a dispute between the Typographical Association and the employers Whitcombe and Tombs. In October 1889, the Maritime Council, a national federation of trade unions, had been formed. It was immediately effective in settling a number of standing disputes. In early March 1890, a dispute between the Typographical Association and their employers was taken up by the Council. After the employers proved recalcitrant, the Council threatened to turn the dispute into a general strike. However, the Council retreated at the last moment and opted for a continued boycott. Industrial tensions were thus at their apex and many in the labour movement were of the view that the very principle of unionism was under threat. It would only take a small push to take the country over the edge.
The Maritime Strike proper began in August via a dispute between the Shipowners’ Association of Australia and the Marine Officers over the right of the latter to affiliate with their Maritime Council. The New Zealand Maritime Council, now affiliated with the Australian Maritime Council, pledged to stay out of the dispute provided New Zealand ships were handled by union labour. When the employers violated this, the spread of the strike to New Zealand was inevitable.
In a staggered fashion, all 22,000 New Zealand workers went out, seamen first, followed by wharf labourers and then the miners. The workers received support from surprising quarters, considering the indirect origin of the dispute. The soon-to-be Liberal premier Richard Seddon denounced as base the accusation that the unionists were holding the country to ransom, and he called on the farmers to join the unionists to defeat the employers. Meanwhile, the government assigned mounted police and the military to maintain ‘order’, while farmers and members of the urban middle class were enlisted as strike breakers. When negotiations to end the dispute proved fruitless – the employers were intent on putting an end to ‘New Unionism’ and refused to compromise – the strike began to fizzle. Finally on November 10, the Maritime Council formally called off the strike.
But what role did the women play in the strike? As historian Bruce Scates observes, “Feeding those families was foremost a woman’s concern. Much has been written of the strikers’ valour and determination, of the way the men defied the shipping companies and the banks. We remember little of . . . the homefront: that unequal, inglorious struggle against hunger, illness and rent”. Added to this ‘homefront’ role was the presence of a large minority of women on the front lines of the dispute: the picket line, the public meeting, the march, and the boycott.
Despite the great suffering the strike brought for women at home, many remained fiercely loyal to the cause. A mother of eight defiantly declared the bosses would never “crush out the union”; it was in “the poor folks” heart to “rebel”. The government would have to “take them out, men, women and children, and shoot them down at once, one and all” before the strikers gave in. Conservatives appealed to women to intervene for their family and home. One woman responded: “we have as much interest in the strike as our husbands have, as much to lose, and as much to gain . . . On its results depends our condition [and our ability to live] in comfort with recognised rights and fair wages or as slaves”. Mary Hoarder’s ‘A Wives Manifesto’ echoed these sentiments and went further, defying any man that put her family in jeopardy. She called for ‘brave women’ to seize their place in the public domain: “The women of Boston insisted on throwing the taxed tea into the sea; we will throw th[ese scabs] into the gutter and if necessary live on one meal a day . . . neither we nor our husbands will ever surrender”.
Women were in the forefront of militant strike action as well. In October, a large group of Glentunnel women descended on the home of a prominent scab, Alfred Ashton, chanting ‘blackleg’, ‘burn him’ and ‘bring him out’. He watched in terror as his effigy was put to the torch: “a great noise of tins rattling rose in the night”. In the same month women in Dunedin lined the wharf and spat on scabs. Indeed, it was common for women to ‘man’ the picket, and they took part in many heated, and occasionally violent, confrontations with the police and strike-breakers. They also attended public meetings, participated in marches, and wrote letters to politicians and newspapers. The boycott was one of the most effective weapons the strikers had at hand, and women were predominantly responsible for enforcing it. It was not just coal or wood that was declared black, but the butchers and bakers who fed the scabs, the boarding houses that sheltered them, the hotels that stood them drinks. In Wellington young women refused to dance near ‘black legs’, “lifting their skirts in unison” and “marching” from the hall.
The response of conservatives to the militancy of many women was nothing less than horror. In their view, Scates observes, “women’s forceful mobilization in the Maritime Strike was little short of madness. It was not so much the unity of the working-class men and women that angered and disturbed them but the apparent inversion of masculine and feminine roles”. A story published in the Otago Witness at the height of the strike illustrates this alarm. In ‘The Reign of Terror: … or What Might Happen to a Man in the Year 2,000’, the author describes a dystopian Dunedin in the 21st century where the strikers had succeeded. Society was now organised by the unions who set wages and working conditions; “the ancient order of things . . . subverted”. Empowered by the vote, women now lived independently of men. The protagonist, an archetypical rugged male, is tired of the new order. In the dingy tea room where he works, he is brought before his employers, the Society of Waitresses, to apologize for asking for lunch during their tea break:
Everyone was chattering. The chairwoman was continually knocking on the desk with a small wooden hammer and crying out ‘Order!’ and ‘Silence!’. ‘There’s a man present!’ one declared. ‘Drive him out!’ demanded the others. I turned to go, when some she Devil cried ‘Duck him in the pond!’ Instantly I was set upon by about 20 strong girls, jostled, knocked down, lifted up, carried out, and hurled, amidst shouts of laughter, into a dirty pool of water.
That night a civil war breaks out across the country, and he joins a squad of men who share his disdain for the system. During the night they encounter a column of waitresses-turned-militiawomen and slaughter them. “If these women have unsexed themselves and demand manhood suffrage, manhood suffrage they shall have,” one of his number cries before opening fire.  That the author intertwines the two movements – feminism and labour – as well as the almost sexualised violent tone with which the story ends is indicative of how profound a threat many in the establishment saw the ‘New Woman’ of the strike.
Contemporary feminists, too, realised the significance of the moment. Going beyond the limited demands of the suffragette movement, Louisa Lawson’s journal, The Dawn, predicted that 10,000 women were about to go on their own strike – for the housewife’s eight-hour day. The Maritime Strike, she concluded, would prefigure a new era of gender relations. Women must break out “of the abominable seclusion” of the home, to take their place as equals in the union hall. “Union men demanding rights and liberties…must grant the same to their wives”.
However, Lawson was to be sorely disappointed. The loss of the strike severely damaged the labour movement, especially in New Zealand where unions had only just gained a footing. The Maritime Council collapsed and many unions went out of existence or were replaced by company unions. Scapegoating ensued and women were an easy target. While the role women played in industrial disputes was frequently acknowledged by unionists in the mining towns, the urban union movement had a more circumscribed attitude towards women. As the strike began to falter the stereotype of the ‘nagging wife’ became common. Moreover, as women occupied the most vulnerable position in industry, they suffered the worst from the decline of union influence. It took well over a decade before the movement regained its power.
Despite the upsurge in feminist feeling that coincided with the Maritime Strike, the rapid progress of industrialisation and the increasing influence of the State in people’s lives combined to reinforce society’s gender prejudices and define the role of women as one of dependence and domesticity. The concept of the male ‘breadwinner’ became near universally accepted by both capital and labour, and by the State. The Arbitration Court, for example, defined the living wage in the early 20th century as the amount needed for a man to support a wife and children. Nonetheless, women were to continue to play an important, and at times leading, role in the labour movement, standing on the front lines alongside the men again during the heady period of strikes in the early 20th century. Moreover, the first seeds of feminism had been sewn and these were later to blossom into a powerful social force.
 For a general history of the New Zealand strike see J. D. Salmond, New Zealand Labour’s Pioneering Days, ed. Desmond Crowley (Auckland: Forward Press, 1950), pp. 79-94; or, for a more extensive treatment, Ian A. Merrett, A reappraisal of the 1890 maritime strike (M.A. Thesis, University of Canterbury, 1969). Maryan Street, The Scarlet Runners: Women and Industrial Action 1889-1913 (Wellington: Working Life Communications, 1993), explores the theme of this essay in more detail.
 Mark Derby, “A Country Considered to Be Free: New Zealand and the IWW”. Accessed April 27, 2014. http://libcom.org/history/country-considered-be-free.
 Salmond, op. cit., 85.
 Salmond, op. cit., 89.
 Bruce Scates, “Gender, Household and Community Politics: the 1890 Maritime Strike in Australia and New Zealand”, in Women, Work and the Labour Movement in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, eds. Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates (Sydney: The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 1991), 75.
 Woman No. 3, Advertiser, 21 October 1890, also second letter, 31 October 1890; ‘Striker’s Wife’, Otago Workman, 3 October 1890. Quoted in Scates, op. cit., 79.
 “A Wives Manifesto”, Globe (Wellington), 6 September 1890. Quoted in Bruce Scates, “Mobilizing Manhood: Gender and the Great Strike in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand”, Gender & History 9(2) (1997): 292.
 Press, 20 October 1890. Quoted in Scates, op. cit. 7, 290.
 Evening Post (Wellington), 8 October 1890. Quoted in Scates, op. cit. 5, 86.
 Scates, op. cit. 7, 291.
 “A Reign of Terror”, Otago Witness, 4 September 1890. Quoted in ibid., 287.
 “The Strike Question”, The Dawn, 5 November 1890. Quoted in ibid., 302.
 Stephen Robertson, “Women Workers and the New Zealand Arbitration Court, 1894-1920” in Frances and Scates, op. cit..
 Erik Olssen, Building the New World: work, politics and society in Caversham 1880s-1920s, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995), 70-73; Erik Olssen, “Women, Work and Family: 1880-1926”, in Women In New Zealand Society, eds. Phillida Bunkle and Beryl Hughes (Auckland: George Allen & Unwin Australia, 1980).