by Edwin Bentley
Balmaidens: Lynne Mayers, The Hypatia Trust, Penzance, 2004. illus., pp246, £20.00.
Capitalists don’t delude themselves. They are single-mindedly devoted to maximising profits and keeping down costs. No one can blame them for acting like this; it’s simply what capitalism is all about. That’s the mistake that liberal reformers always make; they believe that if everyone is really nice to one another, all will be well.
This book set me thinking about gender issues in employment. Where do we get the idea that that certain jobs are for men, and others more suitable for women? Given what I said about capitalists, the only real reason for discriminating against women or men in certain jobs is the fact of whether men or women are more productive. Patriarchal families, buttressed by religion, taught that the woman’s place is at home, at least within the property-owning classes, but this was simply an outdated social structure dating back to earlier stages of human development.
The early industrialists in Britain never thought for a moment that a woman’s place was at home bringing up children; they never deluded themselves with the idea that children should be at home with their mother. For them, a woman’s place was in the job where she could maximise profits for the capitalist. Women may not have been able to tackle certain jobs because they simply did not have the physical strength of men, but that really was the only consideration. Engels describes the industrial scene in England as one in which women and children were working in jobs that to us seem completely inappropriate.
The other day I read about a Belarusian footballer playing in this country whose mother was identified as a bricklayer, with the assumption that this fact was either surprising, amusing, or both. A lot of people still feel very uncomfortable about a woman tackling such jobs.
The industrial history of this country is not always one of a progressively increased participation of women in industry, at times it is quite the reverse. The involvement of women in very heavy industry, including mining and smelting, would have been viewed as scandalous in this country in the mid-20th century, whereas 100 years earlier it was the most natural thing in the world. Likewise, gangs of women agricultural labourers travelled the country in the early 19th century.
Bal is the Cornish word for mine, so balmaidens are women who work in mines. Throughout the history of mining for copper, tin, and other minerals in Cornwall, until the slump of the late 19th century, much of the surface work in Cornish mines was done by women. Digging and bringing the mineral ore up to the surface was done by men, but the job of breaking up the ore with sledgehammers, washing and sieving and preparing the rock for smelting could be done more economically by employing women and girls.
Mining was literally the only source of employment for the majority of the Cornish working class in the West of the county. Any woman who felt the need to earn money to support herself or to contribute to the family funds had little option. Lynne Mayers’ book captures the day-to-day drudgery of unavoidable hard manual work, but it also shows how women’s involvement in mining sowed the seeds of potentially revolutionary social change.
Mine work for women was viewed as temporary employment. It filled the years before marriage and children, and offered the chance of a job after the children had grown up. Men had the chance of a career structure, with the opportunity – however remote- of becoming highly skilled tradesmen, even mine captains (managers) or engineers. Women were confined to breaking, washing, and sorting ore, and there was little possibility of other employment.
The unspoken assumption is always that women manual workers are only doing the job to earn a bit of pin money, and there’s no need to take them all that seriously. That was the case in the Grunwick dispute 25 years ago. It is a factor in the current scandalous treatment of women workers employed by Gate Gourmet at Heathrow airport.
When they came together to work for the mine owners, the balmaidens entered into an environment where a large number of workers were organised to maximise efficiency of production. A balmaiden ceased to be a mere individual, and entered into powerful working relationships with all the other women working at the mine. These social relationships, an inevitable consequence of industrial production, are both necessary and dangerous for the capitalists. As soon as the workers see the power they have, as soon as they understand that they don’t actually need the bosses to tell them what to do, the whole class structure can come tumbling down. The women at Grunwick and at Heathrow glimpsed something of that reality, and the idea of these economic disputes becoming political terrified the capitalists, who went to any lengths to defeat them.
Although the balmaidens of Cornwall were at the bottom of the labour hierarchy, there were several occasions during the 19th century when they organised themselves. As early as 1806, balmaidens came out on strike in protest against working conditions and wages.
All theses strikes failed, because the women on strike could immediately be replaced by other workers, and so they were often forced to accept lower wages or increased hours. It’s impossible for us to say if there was any awareness of the possibility of economic issues leading to social change. One strike in 1882, provoked by mine owners trying to force balmaidens to work on Sunday afternoons, did result in victory for the workers, but it’s clear that the absence of trade unions in the mines, the lack of political awareness and agitation, and the ever-prevalent power of Wesleyan-inspired religion hampered the development of class solidarity.
By the late 19th century, when Marxist ideas had spread throughout Europe and the revolutionary spark had been lit, the Cornish mines were sunk in a deep slump that only ended with the First World War.
Mayers’ book is a powerful record of a fascinating chapter of working class life, filled with personal accounts and the small details of everyday life that help us to understand the reality of those who created immense wealth for the ruling class of this country.