Terry Marsland: Union leader who devoted her career to fighting for women's rights

In the 1970s two great campaigning movements came together with consequences that are still being felt to this day.

The impact of feminism on trade unionism produced a raft of new-style trade union leaders, none more influential than Terry Marsland. She was in the frontline during campaigns for equal pay, womens' right to choose on abortion and for better working conditions.

"One of the basic principles of equality," she told Trades Union Congress delegates as she moved the first motion on abortion in 1975, "is that women should have the right to control their own destinies." It was a belief that she fought for all her life.

Terry Marsland was born in 1932 into a large Liverpudlian Irish family. Early influences came from two women: her staunch Catholic grandmother, who introduced her to the theatre and street-corner politics; and her Communist future mother-in-law Marion Marsland, who took her on her first demonstrations. Terry would become a Communist and would never lose her love for her roots and for the sight of the Mersey itself.

Terry would go on to influence many young women finding their own political and trade union feet; many of the present-day leaders would remember her help and guidance. Gail Cartmail, Assistant General Secretary of Unite, remembered the impact Terry had on her: "Terry was a senior progressive union leader who proved 'a woman's place is in her union'. Terry led by example and gave me and many other women the confidence to develop as activists."

She married Michael Marsland, a draughtsman and Communist, in 1953. It was the height of the Cold War, and the family moved to Barton-under-Needwood in the Midlands after Michael was blacklisted. She worked as a school dinner lady and brought up their two daughters; they would accompany their mother to many of the pro-abortion rallies, ban- the-bomb demonstrations or protests such as Greenham Common.

Michael found work in Birmingham as a trade union official with the Union of Shop Distributors and Allied Workers. Terry became assistant to the local organiser of the National Union of Goldsmiths and Silversmiths, taking over when he was sacked. They moved to London when Michael became an official with the Association of Broadcasting Staff, and Terry joined the National Union of Bank Employees as an official, resigning when the union registered under the Industrial Relations Act. In 1973, she became a national officer for the Tobacco Workers Union, becoming its deputy general secretary.

Terry found a natural home in the Tobacco Workers, which with 60 per cent of the workforce being women was one of the first unions to take on board the changes to introduce equal pay announced by Barbara Castle in 1969. The union was one of the first to negotiate new deals with managements when the Act was introduced. She recalled: "When it came to Equal Pay in 1970, our union took it straight on. We negotiated with the employers' federation and with individual managements. We knew that employers were not going to roll over."

Her position with the union, and following its merger with the white collared union Tass in 1986, and subsequently with Manufacturing Science Finance, gave her a platform to build up a structure to fight for better rights for women within the trade union movement and at work, and to become a leading activist for peace and international solidarity. She was always on hand to help women fighting for progressive policies.

It was Terry's speech to the male-dominated TUC in which she persuaded them to support womens' right to choose, as she reminded delegates of the social and economic problems women faced, helping to bring the issue centre stage. "This trade union movement," she said, "must take up the position on this issue. We are responsible for the health and welfare of millions of women, both outside and inside our ranks."

She was a leading member of the TUC Women's Committee from 1977 until her retirement in 1993, and represented the TUC on the Equal Opportunities Commission. She represented her union and the TUC at European and international level, chairing committees and conferences. She served on the Acas council, and was a member of the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Women's National Commission. She was a TUC representative on the European Trade Union Confederation, and for her union, MSF, on the ETUC Industry Committee. She was a vice president of the National Assembly of Women, becoming president in 1992.

Terry was down to earth and direct. Faced by opposition from the EOC, at taking legal action against the British airline industry for setting a size 10 limit on its air hostesses, on the grounds of it being "trivial", Terry jumped up, pointed to her own bottom and declared: "Madame chair, this is not trivial. This is the size of the average British woman's backside and it is a size 16." She won her argument.

She moved back to Merseyside following Michael's death in 1991 and her retirement. She was a member of the Cheshire Fire Authority, and her local health authority, became independent chair of the Warrington Standards Committee and was active in her local Labour Party, which she joined after splitting with the Communist Party. She spoke frequently on equal pay issues, the last time being in March at a conference marking International Women's Day, when she was named as one of the Liverpudlian heroes of the womens' movement. Barbara Switzer, president of the National Association of Women, recalled: "Her major achievements were on womens' rights at national and international level. She was a major influence on women in the trade union movements and womens' movements."

She was shortly to have celebrated her 80th birthday; typically she had asked for a birthday cake with the suffragette movement as its theme.

Teresa Bailey, trade union leader: born Liverpool 6 July 1931; married 1953 Michael Marsland (died 1991; two daughters); died Warrington 3 May 2011.