Portrait of Emilie Claeys. The only known photo, about 1900-1920 | Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo004473

Power & Resistance
1855 - 1943
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Emilie Claeys

The ‘Social Question’ in the 19th Century

In the nineteenth century working conditions in the Ghent spinning mills were particularly bad. Women workers had to make do with a wage that was even lower than the man’s starvation wages and they were often victims of sexual abuse. In addition, after a tiring day’s work in the factory, lots more work awaited them at home. For that reason the Ghent textile worker Emilie Claeys committed herself to the emancipation of workers and women.

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In 1886 the 31-year-old Claeys founded the Socialist Propaganda Club for Women. She also joined the recently founded Belgian Workers’ Party (BWP). From 1891 she formed part of the party’s committee. She argued for equal pay and better working conditions. Thanks to her women’s suffrage for a short time formed part of the Socialist electoral programme. However, within the Socialist movement the traditional image of women remained dominant. Some of the issues raised by Claes, such as the reassignment of household chores and her support of birth control met with little enthusiasm. In 1895 a disillusioned Claeys took her leave of the movement.

Beluik Gent.

Brussels, KIK-IRPA, cliché A025603, Edmond Sacré

Living conditions in Ghent, end of the 19th century.

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The ’Social Question’ in the 19th Century

In the second half of the 19th century Belgium became an industrial country. More and more people worked as wage slaves in the fast-growing factory industry. A small group of entrepreneurs made huge profits, while a mass of workers – men, women and children – lived in pitiable circumstances. Working days of fourteen hours were no exception, wages were impossibly low, the work was dangerous and living conditions were unhealthy. There was no social safety net, in the case of illness, industrial accident, unemployment or old age. Workers were dependent on the charity of their employers. When in the 1870s a worldwide recession broke out the social situation worsened. Wages fell and unemployment rose. The situation in the textile industry in towns like Ghent, Aalst, Ronse and Roeselare was harrowing.

Contemporaries were not blind to the deep misery. Particularly the factory work of women and children upset social involved citizens – progressive Liberals, freemasonsfreemasonry is a movment that originated in the 18th century and strives for cooperation, progress and making sense of the world, separate from religious convictions. and Catholics with a social conscience. Yet not even bills forbidding child labour were approved by parliament before the end of the century. Workers had no vote and employers hid behind the so-called ‘economic freedom’ to resist government intervention on wages and working conditions. As a result, Belgium was behind other industrial nations like England and France in the field of social protection.

Focal points

Edward Anseele.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, Van der Sypt

Edward Anseele in 1906.


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Resistance through Association

Workers initially had few means to do anything about their conditions of work and life. Until 1866 striking was a criminal offence and that complicated the setting up of trades unions. The deficient schooling and low wages inhibited the organisational power of industrial workers, male and female, still further. The only weapon that was left to them was the spontaneous strike.

That changed in the last quarter of the 19th century. In the industrial towns sick funds were set up and trades unions that demanded better working conditions. With cooperative businesses such as bakeries or coal merchants’, the young workers’ movement tried to improve the purchasing power of workers’ families.

In Ghent, the most important industrial city in Flanders, the young socialist movement, in which Emilie Claeys was also active, played a pioneering role. A key figure was Edward Anseele, who managed to encourage workers to associate. In 1880 was founded the cooperative bakery ‘Vooruit’ (Onward), the first of a long line of cooperative businesses. With the income from them he financed the Socialist movement, which hence became ever stronger. Partly on his initiative the Belgian Workers’ Party (BWP) was set up in 1885, the political mouthpiece of the Socialists. The BWP had its most important support in the industrial areas of Liège and Hainaut.

Catholics also developed more and more activities for workers, often as a reaction to the Socialist initiatives, which they branded as revolutionary. Particularly after an appeal from Pope Leo XIII in the encyclicala papal circular letter on a religious or moral issue. Rerum Novarum (1891), countless worker’s associations were created.

La Linière Gantoise.

Ghent, Museum of Industry

Women workers in the Ghent flax spinning mill La Linière Gantoise, early 20th century.

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The First Social Protection

In the spring of 1886 workers shut down the Walloon industrial areas for weeks. The revolutionary strike and its bloody suppression by the army shocked citizens and politicians. Moreover, new ideas on society were gaining ground. That change made protective labour legislation possible.

Still, it was a slow process. From 1887 wages could no longer be paid in kind or in a pub. The law of 1889 prohibited the labour of children under 12 and limited the working time of girls between 12 and 21 to twelve hours per day. In addition, the law introduced three weeks’ compulsory unpaid rest after giving birth. In 1903 came a law on work accidents, which for the first time offered victims protection. In 1911 underground work in the mines and night shifts were forbidden for women. In 1914 there followed a ban on child labour below the age of 14.

The scope of the first social laws remained limited. In 1914 workers still worked on average ten hours per day and six days a week. Fundamental questions such as benefits in case of illness, old age or unemployment did not find a conclusive legislative solution. Strikes were still made difficult. The increased democratisation after the First World War would change all that.

Banier gildehuis Sint-Niklaas.
Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven. Archief Atelier Van Severen-Ente. 95

The Catholic workers’ movement had its own ‘guild houses’, a reference to the old crafts guilds. This is the flag of the guild house of Sint-Niklaas, 1895-1914.

Half slapend gaan zy naar de fabriek.

Social conditions around 1900 inspired social-realist painters like Achilles de Maertelaere (1882-1964). The title of this canvas from 1905 speaks volumes: The clock strikes 5! Half asleep, they go to the factory.

Paul Lamont

With the ‘people’s houses’ the Socialist movement created public spaces for its members to go. In 1913 in Ghent the ‘Vooruit’ (Onward) reception hall opened its doors. Workers of both sexes could gather there, eat and drink and sample culture.

Private collection Johan Delbecke

In 1913 21 textile companies in Roeselare locked their employees out when a strike for increased wages threatened. That ‘lock-out’ lasted four months and almost 4,000 employees, mainly women, were involved. This photo of ‘the excluded [workers]’ was sold for 20 centimes by the relief fund of the Christian trades union.

Broodverdeler van Samenwerkende Maatschappij Vooruit in Mechelen. De Gentse coöperatieve bakkerij Vooruit was een groot succes. Het initiatief werd met hulp van de Gentse socialisten naar andere steden uitgebreid.
Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo000602, F. Bernabee

Bread distributor of the Cooperative Company ‘Vooruit’ (Onward) in Mechelen. The Ghent cooperative bakery ‘Vooruit’ was a great success. The initiative, with the help of Ghent Socialists, was extended to other towns.

Discover more on this topic

100 jaar Vooruit
100 jaar Vooruit

Bron: VRT Archief, De Raconteurs – 16 apr 2013

Terzake Vooruit
Terzake Vooruit

Bron: VRT archief, AMSAB – 10 okt 2020


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Vader Anseele: Edward Anseele (1856-1938), politicus, ondernemer, mythe

Vrijdag, 2019. 

Bracke Nele
Tussen twee stoelen: Emilie Claeys (1855-1943), feministe en socialiste

Historica, 1997, 2, p. 3-5. 

Brepoels Jaak
Wat zoudt gij zonder ‘t werkvolk zijn?: de geschiedenis van de Belgische arbeidersbeweging 1830-2015

Van Halewyck, 2015. 

De Weerdt Denise
En de vrouwen? Vrouw, vrouwenbeweging en feminisme in België (1830-1960)

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Deneckere Gita
Sire, het volk mort. Sociaal protest in België 1831-1918

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België. Een geschiedenis van onderuit

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Gerard Emmanuel (red.)
De christelijke arbeidersbeweging in België

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Triest Monika
Wat zoudt gij zonder ’t vrouwvolk zijn? Een geschiedenis van het feminisme in België

Uitgeverij Vrijdag, 2018. 

Van Den Berghe Jan
Vergeten vrouwen. Een tegendraadse kroniek van België
Vanschoenbeek Guy
Emilie Claeys (1855-1943). Feministische heilige, socialistische dissidente of speelbal van de wisselvalligheden van het lot. Een kleine oefening in historische kritiek

Brood en Rozen, 1996, 3, p. 67-81. 

Verdoodt Frans-Jos

Sterck en De Vreese, 2020. 


Boon Louis Paul
De Kapellekensbaan

Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep, 2018. 

Boon Louis Paul
Pieter Daens, of hoe in de negentiende eeuw de arbeiders van Aalst vochten tegen armoede en onrecht

De Arbeiderspers, 2014.

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Mathilde, ik kom je halen

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Collectieve Vive La Sociale
Strijdlawijt, Honderd jaar werkmansliederen

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Stijn Coninx (Universal, 2000).