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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Emma Paterson

b. 1848, London; d. 1886, London

Emma Paterson began working with trade unions as secretary to the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union in 1867. A trip to the United States in 1873 planted the seed for what became her life’s work. Inspired by all-female American unions such as the Women’s Typographical Society, upon returning to England she published a series of articles on the sweated conditions and low pay of women workers and advocated the formation of a central trade union for women’s occupations, arguing that trade unionism would accomplish what protective legislation could not. In 1874, Paterson’s ideas were discussed at a conference attended by women’s rights activists, trade unionists, and Christian socialists, where it was decided to form the Women’s Protective and Provident League. (The words “trade union” were deliberately avoided to appease male trade unionists.) Although the WPPL organized some thirty women’s unions, it operated more as a benefit society and did not engage in trade union struggle until it had evolved into the Women’s Trade Union League, in 1891, several years after Paterson’s death. Still, she is acknowledged as a pioneer of women’s trade unionism in England.