Sex in the Chapel, or, you Prefer, a Case of Gender Type-Setting

Frank Farrell

On the 26th of July, 1890 a general meeting of the New South Wales Typographical Association, one of the colony’s largest, most powerful and most exclusive craft unions, rejected a motion calling for” … the admission of female compositors, who may be duly qualified, and may agree to claim equal rates of pay for equal hours of labour with men.” The motion, which was proposed by the colourful labour movement figure John Daniel Fitzgerald, who was a past President of the Association, attracted only four supporters. This was almost certainly the first occasion on which an Australian trade union was directly confronted with a proposal for the full admission of qualified women workers to its ranks. A year earlier, the Association had attempted unsuccessfully to have female compositors removed from the office of The Dawn, a Sydney feminist newspaper produced by the redoubtable Mrs. Louisa Lawson (mother of labour movement poet-laureat Henry L.) Back in October 1880, just months after its formation, the Association had conducted a successful strjke – its first against the employment of female compositors at the Words of Grace office. On thisoccasion, the men belonging to the office chapel (i.e. the shop union) simply walked off the job and, after brief negotiations with the management, all of the women were dismissed.

Ever since the 1880s. gender has been one of the most disunifying elements within the Australian workforce; arguably, no less so than say, religion, ethnicity, race, political ideology and skill hierarchies. Our Branch’s forthcoming conference on divisions within the Australian working class (SUNDAY, 10TH NOVEMBER, WOMEN’S COLLEGE, SYDNEY UNIVERSITY) will seek to probe the historical roots of these sources of division, which have served for so long to set worker against fellow worker, both within and beyond the workplace. Gender divisions will, of course, figure centrally in conference deliberations.

To help provide a little pre-conference atmosphere, as it were, we reproduce below a series of extracts from a public exchange of letters between J.D. Fitzgerald and two fellow Typographical Association members E. Co1ebrook and J.C. Watson – soon after the defeat of Fitzgerald’s 1890 initiative. Although little is known about Co1ebrook, students of Australian labour history should need no introduction to the subsequent Parliamentary career of the upright and politically astute James Christina Watson. Fitzgerald of course also followed a Paf1iamentary career – a stormy one as it happened – both inside and outside the Labor Party. Significantly, in 1891,he became a foundation councillor of the Womanhood Suffrage League.


we know that there are female compositors and we cannot shut our eyes to that fact. I do not assert that this is good. On the contrary , I think it is, to a certain extent, an evi1, and shows that the changed conditions of modern society, the keenness of industrial competition has forced these women into the labour market against their will. They may not think this, but it is so …

This question will have to be answered: Shall we make ourselves as secure as circumstances will allow from the evil effects of the social growth by legalising and controlling female labour on equal terms and conditions with ourselves, or shall we abandon the females to the rapacity of the unscruplous employer, thus forcing them to undercut us in the labour market?

Considering that female compositors can only do a certain class of work, and cannot accept the competition test in all branches of the printing trade – such as night work, stone work, etc. – the society could easily control the entrance of femal e apprentices, if they recognised their right to enter the society, “agreeing to claim equal terms of pay for equal hours of labour …

If, instead of pretending to ignore the female compositors, the society recognised them and made a rule providing that only a proportionate ratio shall be allowed to enter the trade, would it not be better ?…

Mr. J.C. Watson, in arguing against the motion … said that to compel an employer to pay a weak woman the same rate as a man would be an injustice to the employer… Had my motion been carried, no employer could – presuming upon her helplessness offer a woman less that the society minimum: and no woman (would) dare work for less without risking the penalties for doing so.

It has been the lot of the Typographical Association to have been the first trades union in Australia called upon to decide the expediency of admitting women claiming to work equal hours for equal wages … I think the time will come when the … Association will do so in its own interests, in the interests of the fair employer, and last but not least, in the interests of those women who are unfortunately forced by social conditions to compete in the labour market.


The fact that there are some six or seven ladies engaged in the printing trade is surely not a very strong reason why the society should take them into its ranks seeing their admission is characterised by himself as an evil … To talk about admitting and educating them to a standard which will entitle them to the same rate of pay as men is absurd, inasmuch as … there are certain classes of work which females are physically incapable of performing, and whilst these distinctions exist it is unfair to both master and man to ask the same rate of pay … Why should it be necessary for the union to take the ladies under their wing in order that they may secure a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work?…

There can be no doubt the sole motive of most employers who favour female compositors is to introduce a system of cheap labour, which, if once encouraged by the society, will ultimately be used as a means to crush us out of existence. The Bunkum about studying the interests of women, who are unfortunately forced by social conditions to compete in the labour market, needs no further refutation than … the fact that the desirability of importing shiploads of general servants has repeatedly been urged by the press of Sydney, showing that if females require employment in positions for which they are naturally adapted there is ample scope for obtaining the same.


We hear too much of this misleading cry “Equal rights to women” …

Take a trade, for instance, that is closer allied to the female, the tailoring. Whoever heard of a tailoress getting the same wages as a first-class tailor, or the tailors’ society admitting them as members with the idea they will get the same pay? … Surely we will try to lift the female up, not assist to degrade her. To admit her to the printing trade will be useless to her in the home, except to toil and work for some worthless husband.

It is greedy and unscrupulous capitalists that are endeavouring to thrust (and have done) females into avocations that nature never intended them for. If it can be shown to us that females are better adapted, or even equal, for the occupation of a compositor, I feel sure that, as intelligent men, we would bow our heads to the inevitable. It is gross inconsistency and cruelty, in my opinion to talk of admitting females, knowing full well they will not get the same wages as a man, and they must live, while the employers would fast apprentice girls instead of boys, as they are cheaper, and so bring about thot cheap and degrading labour so many speak and write about, while they themselves are the greatest sinners. The trades and labour councils of Australasia will have to grapple with this question, and show the outside world that while we condemn and resist the encroachment of women into male avocations, it is not for the purpose of crushing them out of existence, but to elevate and lift them up from their degradations, and make them, not the competitors of men, but – what has been the teaching of true Christianity helpmate, guide, and philosopher.


It was not until 1916 that the Typographical Association admitted women to membership. Even then, they were not admitted as compositors, but were assigned to a separate Women and Girls’ Section.


Sydney Morning Herald, 6-8-1890, p.6, 9-8-1890, p.4;

Hagan, J.: Printers and Politics. 1966, chs. 4 & 5;

Nicol, W.: ‘Women and the Trade Union Movement in New South Wales: 1890-1900’, Labour History, No. 36.