The solution to all these problems, thought the feminists, lay in women's trade unions. These developed in Britain and the United States in the 1870s. They were invariably founded by middle-class feminists. The leading figure in the British movement was Emma Paterson, a women's suffrage activist, who joined with other middleclass reformers such as Charles Kingsley, Arnold Toynbee and Harriet Martineau in forming a Women's Protective and Provident League in 1874. When the League attempted to affiliate with the Trades Union Congress, permission was initially refused; the unionists disliked the prospect of admitting 'middle-class ladies'. But in 1876 the League succeeded. After Paterson's death, the League was led by Lady Dilke, wife of a left-wing liberal politician. The League faced several crippling difficulties. Most women's trade unions affiliated to it were ephemeral; many of them, like the Matchmakers' Society, owed their existence to strikes. The most successful of them joined the men's trade unions. In 1886 there were 2,500 women in women's unions, while the female membership of the mixed-sex cotton workers' union stood at 30,000. In 1889, the Women's Trade Union League became a Federation of all trade unions admitting women. This was partly a tactic designed to overcome male opposition to the unionisation of women, expressed in statements such as that made by Henry Broadhurst, the secretary of the British Trades Union Congress, who declared:

This was not the feeling of the majority. But while the women's unions remained separate and under middle-class feminist leadership, they made little impact. It was only after the turn of the century, under the energetic leadership of Mary Macarthur, who helped the integration of the women's trade unions into the trade union movement and cooperated closely with the Labour Party, that they met with any measure of success. By 1905 they had 70,000 members, recruited from trades where there were no other opportunities for them to unionise. The opposition of male unionists had been overcome only when it was clear that the women's unions were fighting with them, not against them.4 The price for this was the abandonment of ties with middleclass feminism.