Ada Nield, the second child in a family of thirteen of William Nield, brickmaker, and his wife, Jane Hammond Nield was born in Audley, Staffordshire, on 28th January 1870. Ada was taken from school at the age of eleven to help look after the family, especially her younger sister May, who was an epileptic.
As the authors of One Hand Tied Behind Us (1978) have pointed out: "She had to leave school at eleven and take on the heavy responsibility of looking after her seven younger brothers, combining this with various odd jobs. Her father, a poor farmer, had to give up his farm for lack of capital, and moved his family to Crewe where he could more easily find another job."
In 1887 the Nield family moved to Crewe, and Ada worked at a shop in Nantwich. Later she found employment in the Compton Brothers clothing factory. In 1894 she published anonymously in The Crewe Chronicle, a series of letters describing conditions in her factory. As her biographer, David Doughan, pointed out: "These letters were circumstantially critical of the pay and conditions of factory women, especially compared to those of their male colleagues doing the same work. This resulted in Ada losing her position"
Ada Nield now joined the Independent Labour Party and soon afterwards the local branch stated: "It has been agreed at ILP meetings that the rights of women workers must be recognized, that common cause must be made with these our sisters, and that something definite must be done sooner or later - and the sooner the better." Ada, now a committed socialist, was also elected to the Nantwich Board of Guardians. According to Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999): "In 1896 she spent several weeks travelling around the north-east in the Clarion van, holding meetings to publicize the policies of the ILP." Ada was also a regular contributor to The Clarion and The Labour Leader. One biographer has commented that Ada "was very diffident about her personal appearance, but contemporaries record that she was very good-looking, with striking red hair."
In 1897 Ada Nield married George Chew, an ILP organizer. The following year, her only child, a daughter, was born. The couple settled in Rochdale where they ran a small shop. In 1900 she was given a full-time post by the Women's Trade Union League and she would take Doris, her young daughter, with her on her travels. During this period she became friends with Ramsay MacDonald, Margaret MacDonald, John Bruce Glasier, Katherine Glasier, Selina Cooper, John Robert Clynes and Mary Macarthur.
Ada Nield Chew was a member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and was totally against the policy of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The main objective of the WSPU was to gain, not universal suffrage, the vote for all women and men over a certain age, but votes for women, “on the same basis as men.” This meant winning the vote not for all women but for only the small stratum of women who could meet the property qualification. As one critic pointed out, it was "not votes for women", but “votes for ladies.”
On the 16th December 1904 The Clarion published a letter from Ada Nield Chew on WSPU policy: "The entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still, and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into Parliament."
The following month Christabel Pankhurst replied to the points that Ada made: "Some of us are not at all so confident as is Mrs Chew of the average middle class man's anxiety to confer votes upon his female relatives." A week later Ada Nield Chew retorted that she still rejected the policies in favour of "the abolition of all existing anomalies... which would enable a man or woman to vote simply because they are man or woman, not because they are more fortunate financially than their fellow men and women". As the authors of One Hand Tied Behind Us (1978) pointed out: "The fiery exchange ran on through the spring and into March. The two women both relished confrontation, and neither was prepared to concede an inch. They had no sympathy for the other's views, and shared no common experiences that might help to bridge the chasm."
In January 1908 Ada Nield Chew and Edith New chained themselves to the railings of 10 Downing Street. According to The Daily Express: "Each suffragist wore round her waist a long, steel chain - not unlike a very heavy dog chain. Each took the loosened end of the chain, threw it round the railings, and fixed it to the rest of the chain. This was done so deftly that it was not until the police heard the click of the lock that they understood the clever move by which the suffragists had outwitted them, and prevented for a time their own removal. Votes for women! shouted the two voluntary prisoners simultaneously.
In 1911 Ada Nield Chew and Selina Cooper became organizers for the NUWSS. She was also an active member of the Fabian Women's Group and wrote for various journals including The Common Cause, The Freewoman and The Englishwoman's Review.
Ada Nield Chew influenced the NUWSS decision in April 1912 to support Labour Party candidates in parliamentary by-elections. Emily Davies, a member of the Conservative Party, and Margery Corbett-Ashby, an active supporter of the Liberal Party, resigned from the NUWSS over this decision. However, others like Catherine Osler, resigned from the Women's Liberal Federation in protest against the government's attitude to the suffrage question.
The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies established an Election Fighting Fund (EFF) to support these Labour candidates. The EFF Committee, which administered the fund, included Margaret Ashton, Henry N. Brailsford, Kathleen Courtney, Muriel de la Warr, Millicent Fawcett, Catherine Marshall, Isabella Ford, Laurence Housman, Margory Lees and Ethel Annakin Snowden.
On 4th August 1914, Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS, declared that it was suspending all political activity until the First World War was over. Despite pressure from members of the NUWSS, Fawcett refused to argue against the war. Her biographer, Ray Strachey, argued: "She stood like a rock in their path, opposing herself with all the great weight of her personal popularity and prestige to their use of the machinery and name of the union." At a Council meeting of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies held in February 1915, Fawcett attacked the peace efforts of people like Mary Sheepshanks. Fawcett argued that until the German armies had been driven out of France and Belgium: "I believe it is akin to treason to talk of peace."
Ada Nield Chew was completely against this policy: "The militant section of the movement... would without doubt place itself in the trenches quite cheerfully, if allowed. It is now ... demanding, with all its usual pomp and circumstance of banner and procession, its share in the war. This is an entirely logical attitude and strictly in line with its attitude before the war. It always glorified the power of the primitive knock on the nose in preference to the more humane appeal to reason.... What of the others? The non-militants - so-called - though bitterly repudiating militancy for women, are as ardent in their support of militancy for men as their more consistent and logical militant sisters."
Ada Nield Chew disagreed with this policy and like Catherine Marshall, Helena Swanwick, Maude Royden, and Selina Cooper she refused on principle to undertake war work. Later she joined Mary Sheepshanks, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Emily Hobhouse and Chrystal Macmillan in becoming a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
After the war Ada Nield Chew ceased to be active in politics. According to David Doughan: "She now concentrated on the family business, starting an independent mail-order wholesale drapery line which met with such success that by 1922 she had to rent a small warehouse. She retired from the mail-order business in 1930. Although a seasoned traveller to all parts of Britain, she had never been abroad until 1927, when she and her daughter holidayed in the south of France. This she followed with a visit to her brother in South Africa in 1932, a round-the-world tour in 1935, and motoring holidays in France and Switzerland."
In your issue of 5 May you were good enough to publish a letter of mine on the above subject, and also to invite me to write you further on our wages, hours of work, and conditions of employment. Before responding to the same I have waited in the hope that an abler pen than mine might take up my subject and say a word on our behalf. I conclude, however, that sufficient interest is not taken in factory girls and their wrongs outside their own sphere to call for any comment. Speaking for ourselves, sir, I can assure you that this question of prices paid for our work and the general inadequacy of the same in proportion to the work done is one naturally of keen interest, and forms the subject of constant discussion and complaint - entirely amongst ourselves, please take note, sir! Notwithstanding this general private discontent, we unfortunately as a body regard the existing state of things as inevitable, and have not sufficient courage, and do not know how if we had, to make a resolute stand against the injustice done us. I feel my position, sir, in this matter of giving information, to be one of peculiar difficulty. On the one hand, to be quite fair to myself and to those I am endeavouring to represent, I ought, and would like to describe fully and explicitly the exact kind of work done by us, the exact amount of it, and the exact price paid for that amount, and to give my own experience without reserve. But on the other hand, were I to do this I should be making revelations which would lead to instant recognition by many people of the particular factory in which I am employed, and probably also, sir, to the identification of your correspondent, which I shall do well to avoid. And therefore, on that account I feel reluctance to reveal them, greatly as I value this opportunity which you, sir, have so kindly given me of emphasising - for it must already be known - the fact that we are suffering from a great evil which stands in urgent need of redressing.
However, I think that even within the limits to which I shall have to restrict myself I can make good the statements contained in my first letter. I must explain before proceeding further that I shall speak of the branch of factory work known as "finishing". I have reason to believe that the other branches [of female employment] are not overpaid, but I shall speak only of what I know to be actual fact. With regard to wages. We are paid not by the hour or day, but a certain sum per garment. Wages, then, vary greatly. For instance, many different classes of work have to be done, and different prices are paid, not at all, however, in proportion to the amount of work to be done, for while one price may yield us as much as 3d an hour (occasionally), another will not yield us 1 1/2d an hour (quite frequently), working equally hard for each sum. Of course, all classes of work have to be done, and we have to accept with gratitude (or otherwise) whatever sum someone - our employer presumably - thinks it right to give us. We are doing excellently when earning 3d an hour. We not infrequently work for 1 1/2d an hour. An average of about 2d for the average 'hand' may be taken as fair. Occasionally we may get work which will yield us as much as 4 1/2 d an hour, but it is so very occasional that it may be passed by in silence - otherwise, of course, we should have no cause for complaint.
And now to take an average of a year's wage of the 'average ordinary hand', which was the class I mentioned in my first letter, and being that which is in a majority may be taken as fairly representative. The wages of such a 'hand', sir, will barely average - but by exercise of the imagination - 8 shillings a week. I ought to say, too, that there is a minority, which is also considerable, whose wages will not average above 5 shillings a week. I would impress upon you that this is making the very best of the case, and is over rather than understating. What do you think of it, Mr. Editor, for a 'living' wage?
I wish some of those, whoever they may be who mete it out to us, would try to 'live' on it for a few weeks, as the factory girl has to do 52 weeks in a year. To pay board and lodging, to provide herself decent boots and clothes to stand all weathers, to pay an occasional doctor's bill, literature, and a holiday away from the scope of her daily drudging, for which even the factory girl has the audacity to long sometimes - but has quite as often to do without. Not to speak of provision for old age, when eyes have grown too dim to thread the everlasting needle, and to guide the worn fingers over the accustomed task. Yet this is a question which some of us, at least, ought to face, ignore it as we may, and are compelled to do. The census showing such a large preponderance of women over men in this country, it follows that the factory girl must inevitably contribute her quota to the ranks of old maidenism - be she never so willing to have it otherwise.
And now as to the number of hours worked to earn - or rather to get - this magnificent sum. I explained in my first letter that we are subject to fluctuations as to the amount of work supplied us. In other words that we have busy seasons and slack ones. It follows, then, that in busy seasons, to total up to the yearly average I have given, we make good wages - and, of course, work a proportionately long number of hours - and in slack seasons bad wages.
Now, sir, our working day - that is, in the factory - consists of from 9 to 10 hours. Take out of this time (often considerable and unavoidably so) to obtain the work, to obtain the 'trimmings' and materials to do it with, and then to get it 'passed' and booked in to us when done, and then calculate how much - say we are getting 2d an hour - we shall be able to earn in an ordinary working day in the factory. It will be plain that in order to average this wage we have in busy seasons to work longer than the actual time in the factory.
Home-work, then, is the only resource of the poor slave who has the misfortune to adopt "finishing" as a means of earning a livelihood. I have myself, repeatedly, five nights a week, besides Saturday afternoons, for weeks at a time, regularly taken four hours, at least, work home with me, and have done it. This, too, after a close hard day's work in the factory. In giving my own experience I give that of us all. We are obliged to do it, sir, to earn this living wage! It will be unnecessary to point out how fearfully exhausting and tedious it is to sit boring at the same thing for 14 or 15 hours at a stretch - meal times excepted of course.
But we are not asking for pity, sir, we ask for justice. Surely it would not be more than just to pay us at such a rate, that we could realise a living wage - in the true sense of the words - in a reasonable time, say one present working day of from 9 to 10 hours - till the eight hour day becomes general, and reaches even factory girls. Our work is necessary (presumably) to our employers. Were we not employed others would have to be, and if of the opposite sex, I venture to say, sir, would have to be paid on a very different scale. Why, because we are weak women, without pluck and grit enough to stand up for our rights, should we be ground down to this miserable wage ?
With regard to the conditions of our employment, those of which I can speak leave nothing to be desired. In the particular factory in which I am employed, we work in greatest freedom and comfort, and I should like to add, that as far as I personally am concerned, from those in immediate authority over me I have never received anything but consideration and courtesy.
In conclusion, sir, I am aware that in writing these letters to you I am probably doing what I was reading of the other day, namely, 'butting my head against a stone wall'; but, as the writer I am quoting went on to say, "How can one be sure it is a stone wall, or one made only of paper, unless one does butt one's head against it?" Now I am not quite sanguine enough to think that the wall against which I am butting my head will give way at least with my solitary "butt". Nevertheless, sir, I am determined to butt my head against it. Indeed, I feel it to be personally degrading and a disgrace upon me to remain silent and submit without a protest to the injustice done me.
And if the wall is of stone, sir, and the only remedy lies in the radical one recommended by the minority report of the Labour Commission, then will you allow me to urge upon your readers, upon those of my own sex who though not yet having the privilege of voting themselves, yet have influence with those who have, to use that influence intelligently, in the right direction? And to those of the opposite sex who do enjoy this privilege, to send only those men to Parliament, of whatever political creed, who stand pledged to do all in their power, with the utmost possible speed, to relieve the burden of the oppressed and suffering workers of this country, not least amongst whom are the factory girls of Crewe.
The entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still, and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into Parliament.
The radical suffragists and the Women's Co-operative Guild shared Ada Nield Chew's ultimate objective - to enfranchise all working women - but unlike her did not feel it made practical political sense to reject a measure merely because it only went half way to accomplishing this.
Christabel Pankhurst, on the other hand, was not prepared even to nod in the direction of Ada Nield Chew. By now her commitment to women's suffrage so heavily outweighed any other political consideration that she could only react to criticism of the Bill with an out-and-out attack. Increasingly for her, it was the principle of votes for women that counted rather than which class of women would benefit.
Christabel, who was familiar with the Clarion's popular appeal (and had once cycled to Chester to attend the annual Clarion club gathering) realized that here was an excellent opportunity to publicize the WSPU point of view. Early in January 1905, she added her voice to the controversy. Ada Nield Chew had alleged that wealthy men would make sure that their wives, daughters and sisters had property enough to be enfranchised so that Labour voters were outnumbered. "Some of us," Christabel suggested acidly, "are not at all so confident as is Mrs Chew of the average middle class man's anxiety to confer votes upon his female relatives." A week later Ada Nield Chew retorted angrily that she had "suffered, ever since I began to think, from a keen sense of injustice of my sex politically", and had considered Christabel's answer, but still rejected the Bill in favour of "the abolition of all existing anomalies ... which would enable a man or woman to vote simply because they are man or woman, not because they are more fortunate financially than their fellow men and women".
The fiery exchange ran on through the spring and into March. The two women both relished confrontation, and neither was prepared to concede an inch. They had no sympathy for the other's views, and shared no common experiences that might help to bridge the chasm. Christabel, daughter of a barrister, had been educated at Manchester High School and was now a university student; despite her connections with women like Sarah Dickenson, she had little personal experience of working women's lives. Ada Nield Chew had known little else: from her Crewe Chronicle days to her current work with the League, her life had been a series of battles against women's low wages and appalling working conditions.
The militant section of the movement... would without doubt place itself in the trenches quite cheerfully, if allowed. It is now ... demanding, with all its usual pomp and circumstance of banner and procession, its share in the war. This is an entirely logical attitude and strictly in line with its attitude before the war. It always glorified the power of the primitive knock on the nose in preference to the more humane appeal to reason.... What of the others? The non-militants - so-called - though bitterly repudiating militancy for women, are as ardent in their support of militancy for men as their more consistent and logical militant sisters.