This is the earliest known photograph of official female delegates attending the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC). Women shown in earlier photographs of the congress were wives of male delegates, rather than delegates in their own right.

Photo of group of Edwardian women

In the picture
The women pictured are, left to right: Jeanie Spence (Jute and Flax workers, Dundee), Miss Lamont (National Federation of Women Workers), Agnes Brown (National Federation of Women Workers), Mary McArthur (national leader and general secretary of the National Federation of Women Workers) and Rachel Devine (Jute and Flax Workers, Dundee).

Mary McArthur

Mary McArthur (1880-1921) worked as a bookkeeper in her father's shop in Glasgow before becoming involved in trade unionism. She is shown third from right in the photograph.

She campaigned on behalf of 'sweated' workers who were forced to work in poor conditions for low pay. She advocated a legal minimum wage, and helped to organise a number of strikes involving female workers. These included the well-publicised Cradley Heath chain makers' strike in 1910.

She also campaigned for universal suffrage, the right for all adults to vote.

National Federation of Women Workers

Mary McArthur is probably best known for establishing the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906. By the end of its first year, the federation had approximately 2,000 members and 17 branches throughout Scotland and England.

The NFWW promoted trade unionism and organised female workers to campaign for a legal minimum wage and improved working conditions.

Mary also established and edited a monthly paper for female trade unionists called the 'Woman Worker'. This was soon issued on a weekly basis, and had a circulation of about 20,000. You can read copies of it in the National Library of Scotland.

Women in the Scottish Trades Union Congress

The STUC was established in March 1897, and the first Annual Congress was held in Glasgow.

It has always had active female members, and Margaret Irwin (1858-1940) was elected as one of the first secretaries of the congress in 1897.

Margaret Irwin

Margaret Irwin was born at sea, and grew up in St Andrews, Fife. She was awarded the Lady Literate in Arts (LLA) from St Andrews University in 1880, nine years before women were given full matriculation rights in Scottish universities.

After her studies, Margaret Irwin became an active member of the suffrage movement and was involved in campaigning for equal rights for women workers.

She became secretary of the Scottish Council for Women's Trades in 1895. In this role, she was instrumental in the formation of the STUC.

Suggested activities and discussion points

  • Look for articles in local and national press which relate to women in the workplace today. List some of the issues that are mentioned, and compare them with the issues that women were campaigning for at the beginning of the last century. 
  • Women were not able to graduate with a full degree from Scottish universities until 1889. What employment opportunities might have become open to them after that time? 
  • Do you think that women face different challenges at work, compared to men? Give reasons for your answer.
  • A film clip on the Scotland on Screen website focuses on unemployed women in the early 1970s. At this time, a third of the workforce were women. Try to find out the proportion of women in the workforce today.

Find out more

Read about the women's suffrage movement in Scotland in our online learning resource 'A guid cause'.

Learn about about women workers in the jute industry in Dundee on the Verdant Works website.


Labour history page