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Last updated:24 May 2018

Jessie Stephen

Jessie Stephen (1893-1979) wrote an autobiography which she called Submission is for slaves. It is a fair description of her life.

She was born the oldest of eleven.  Her father was self-educated and passed on a love of learning to his daughter.  She won a bursary which allowed her to stay on at school until she was 15 (the school leaving age was 14).  In 1908 Jessie had just started training as a pupil teacher when her father lost his job and she had to look for paid employment.  Interestingly she went into domestic service as a better paying proposition than a shop or factory. This was because she would be housed and fed by her employer and this would reduce the strain on her family.

Clerical and Administrative Workers Union members. Front L to R - Helene Walker, Dame Anne Godwin, Henry Chapman, David Rhydderch, Jessie Stephen. Behind - Denis Howell, Frank Leath Jessie was involved in three strands of activism: as a socialist, a trade unionist and a suffragette. She inherited her socialism from her dad who was a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP).  He had sent her to Socialist Sunday School.  She was active in the movement from 12 and became vice chairman of the Maryhill branch of the ILP in 1909, at 16.

In 1912 she became so angry at the working conditions of domestic servants that she canvassed her fellow workers in the west end of Glasgow and recruited them to join a union.  She was successful enough to hold a public meeting which was reported in the Glasgow Herald.  Such was the threat felt by employers that many turned up to heckle.  Domestic servants are particularly hard to organise but the Scottish Federation of Domestic Workers was formed with a weekly subscription of a penny and half penny per week.  To raise more money the union organised social functions and from the funds raised, Jessie was able to travel further afield to recruit new members.  The union also affiliated with Glasgow Trades Council where Jessie met with people from other unions. Because of her becoming known as a radical it became difficult for her to find employment in Glasgow so Jessie decided to move to London where she could look for work through the Domestic Workers Union of Great Britain and Ireland.  When she told the committee of the Scottish Domestic Workers Federation they decided to merge with the London-based union. It was proving difficult for the Scottish union to survive on its own.  When the war broke out the availability of other jobs meant that thousands left domestic service and the union membership declined.

Jessie linked with other organisations and people such as Mary Macarthur who organised in support of women workers.  Mary founded the National Federation of Women Workers in 1906. The model for the Federation was a general labour union, "open to all women in unorganised trades or who were not admitted to their appropriate trade union." 

 At roughly the same time as Jessie became active in the trade union and ILP she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).  The Glasgow group was very mixed with women from wealthy backgrounds, middle class women who were mainly intellectual types and ordinary working class women, many of whom were socialists.  Jessie described it thus: “We had a curious combination. You had very wealthy women, upper class women and the ordinary working class, but we got on well together” (Spare Rib reader: 100 issues of women’s liberation, 1982).

They ran street corner meetings and demonstrations.  The meetings discussed what changes they wanted after they got the vote.  While employed as a maid Jessie took part in a cross-Glasgow assignment for each activist to put a bomb in a post box.  No one was arrested for this.  In 1910 Jessie was part of a 12-woman group from Glasgow and joined activists from all over the country to lobby Lloyd George.

During the war Jessie worked in Glasgow, first as a shop worker for the Coop, then for the Corporation model lodging house, and subsequently for a firm supplying medical accessories to hospitals; she tried her hand (unsuccessfully) at driving.  She was a pacifist as were so many other Clydeside socialists.  She joined the Glasgow branch of the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom which was formed by socialist feminists Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan.  The three of them, along with Mary Barbour, organised the 1915 rent strike.

During this period she met Sylvia Pankhurst who offered her a job with the Workers Suffrage Federation (WSF). This was a successor to the East London Federation of Suffragettes which was set up as a socialist and suffragette organisation by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1914.  They argued that if women had the vote the whole community would have greater leverage in the struggle to improve pay and working conditions, secure decent housing, and to protect children’s health.  They saw the vote as just one aspect of the struggle for equality and adopted a broad campaigning programme.  Sylvia visited Glasgow and met Jessie whom she asked to work for her.  Her job was to tour the provinces to raise money for the WSF and establish new branches.  The WSF worked closely with the ILP, and while working for the WSF Jessie also visited ILP branches.

Her first area was based on Sheffield, then Leeds and finally Lancashire.  Meetings were held in a hostile atmosphere as the WSF was pacifist.  In addition Sylvia seems to have been a difficult boss and paid very little.  Jessie said that she “could disarm by her charm when she liked, but at the core she was hard as nails and rather inclined to be as autocratic as her mother Emmeline and elder sister Christabel” (Submission is for slaves – WCML typescript).  

Consequently when a post as a woman organiser for the ILP in Bermondsey was advertised in 1917, Jessie applied.  The MP Dr Alfred Salter wanted Jessie to attract women who worked in local factories as a way to interest them in politics.  This fitted well with Jessie’s experience as a trade unionist, socialist and agitator for the vote.  She signed up 2,000 women workers and organised a meeting at which Mary Macarthur of the National Federation of Women Workers spoke. Mary Macarthur asked for Jessie to be seconded to the Federation.  She became secretary of its domestic workers section.

At the election for the Board of Guardians in 1918, Jessie was elected to a Bermondsey ward which had been Tory for 36 years. There were four Guardians elected and they campaigned for better conditions in the workhouse and for better treatment of poor relief applicants.  Guardians inspected the workhouse and on her first visit Jessie saw that the unmarried mothers were segregated from the married ones; she managed to get the board to stop this practice.  She also proposed that the committee which interviewed unmarried mothers should be female, and introduced more civilised questioning.  When the Poor Law was abolished in 1922 Jessie was appointed vice chair of the health committee and member of the housing committee in Bermondsey.

Jessie travelled all over Britain as an organiser for the ILP.  She stood for South Portsmouth in 1923, 24 1nd 29 without success.  She also travelled to Canada and the United States.  From the information she acquired on working conditions abroad, she spoke up at trade union women’s conferences against encouraging unemployed women to travel abroad to go into domestic service. This was controversial and aroused opposition from Margaret Bondfield and others.

The position of domestic servants remained a cause dear to her and she arranged for the Domestic Workers Charter to be discussed at a conference in 1927.

In 1931 she stood for Kidderminster, again without success.  These were difficult years when she found it difficult to earn a living.   In 1934 Jessie moved to Sussex and earned her living working in a library and typing.  At the beginning of the war she moved to Welwyn Garden City and became supervisor of a typing pool.  After the second world war Jessie applied for a job as union organiser and moved to Bristol where she remained.  She became the first president of the Trades Council, and a city councillor in 1952.  Jessie died in 1979.

Her entire career was spent in the service of others. She clearly annoyed some of the figures in the Labour Party but she remained true to her principles and worked for socialism and better working conditions especially for women.  In her autobiography she said, “It makes one wonder when the movement will begin to treat its women as adults” (Submission is for slaves – WCML typescript).  

In 1995 the inaugural Jessie Stephen Memorial Lecture was held in South Bristol to mark her lifetime service to the labour movement.

Her career was marked by a Spare Rib interview in 1975 in which the headline was:

“You’re a bonny fighter Jessie, but you’ve got the wrong name. I think we should call you Battling Bella”.

 

Resources in the Library about Jessie Stephen:

Submission is for slaves by Jessie Stephen.   One spiral bound typescript volume
Shelfmark: AG Working Class Autobiography Box 3

Arthur Marsh papers, Tape 67: Harry Hardcastle; Jessie Stephen
Side B: Jessie Stephen (Bristol) interviewed by Sid Richards, no date
Shelfmark: Z39 Marsh and Ryan Tapes Box 2

Jessie Stephen: biography file - typewritten articles by Jessie and photocopies of newspaper articles written by her.
Shelfmark:  V Room Cabinet