Alice Foley

Thirty years to equality at work

Bolton-born Alice Foley first applied for the role of assistant general secretary of the Amalgamated Weavers Union in 1918 – and then waited over three decades to be promoted on equal terms with her colleagues.

30 years for a promotion? Maybe she knew nothing about weaving.

Not exactly. Alice had started working in the cotton mills at 13 years old as a tenter – the weaver’s assistant, responsible for looking after machinery. She came from a poor family, but was more educated than most. Children would often start factory shifts from the age of nine, but Alice’s father had insisted she stay in school. The family were avid readers too.

What union experience did she have?

The government had introduced new social insurance legislation in 1912 that provided sickness benefits and medical treatment to mostly manual workers. Trade unions got involved in implementing the new scheme. Alice – who had been active in the local socialist movement since her teenage years – was hired as the union’s sick visitor, assessing the claims of injured or sick union members. The job demanded both sensitivity and technical knowledge.

Maybe she wasn’t smart enough to be moved up …

Unlikely! When the assistant general secretary (AGS) role opened up in 1918, Alice was shortlisted and took the selection exam. One of the candidates got 72%, while the second-best score was a measly 38%. The outstanding candidate was never named. The board said they wouldn’t appoint anyone. In any case, she’d already more or less taken over the role of the former AGS a year earlier – but without his title or pay.

Why wouldn’t they just promote her?

Probably because she was a woman. It sounds shocking now, but remember at the time women had only just got the vote and the right to stand for election.

Could there have been another reason?

Maybe. But sexism looks like the main one. In 1919, when the executive again discussed the AGS role, they said they wouldn’t consider applications from women.

Ouch. What did Alice do?

As she herself said: she simply ‘plodded on’. Actually, she was pretty busy: she was active in the Co-op and the Workers Educational Association, and was a delegate to the Bolton Trades Council.

So how did she eventually get promoted?

In 1942, the AGS position again became vacant. Yet again, the committee avoided promoting Alice, making her chief women’s officer instead. It wasn’t until 1949, after the then general secretary had retired, that Alice was finally appointed to this role.

Recognition at last!

Indeed. At last, Alice earned the same salary as her male predecessor. She also got some recognition outside the union. In 1950, she was awarded an MBE, and in 1961 an honorary degree from the University of Manchester.