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Samuel Bamford, the author of Passage in the Life of a Radical, claims that women first became involved in the struggle for universal suffrage in the summer of 1818. Bamford describes a meeting at Lydgate in Saddleworth where women were allowed to vote for and against resolutions. Bamford points out that: "This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on that bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it."
In June 1819 the first Female Union was formed by Alice Kitchen in Blackburn. Later that year there were Female Reform Groups in Manchester, Oldham and Royton. The leader of the Manchester Female Reform Group was Mary Fildes. A passionate radical she named her two sons after John Cartwright and Henry Hunt. Fildes was also involved in the campaign for birth control and when she attempted to sell books on the subject she was accused in the local press of distributing pornography. Fildes was one of the speakers at the St. Peter's Field meeting on 16th August, 1819. Some reports claimed that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry attempted to murder Mary Fildes while arresting the leaders of the demonstration.
Susanna Saxton, was the secretary of the Manchester Female Reformers. Susanna wrote several pamphlets on universal suffrage. The most popular was The Manchester Female Reformers Address to the Wives, Mothers, Sisters and Daughters of the Higher and Middling Classes of Society. Although Saxton addressed women as "Sisters of the Earth", she argued that women's main role was to support their husbands in their struggle for universal male suffrage. They were also urged "to install into the minds of our children, a deep and rooted hatred of our corrupt and tyrannical rulers." Of the pamphlets published during this period that have survived, none suggest that women should be given the vote.
At one of these meetings, which took place at Lydgate, in Saddleworth, and at which Bagguley, Drummond, Fitton, Haigh, and others were the principal speakers, I, in the course of an address, insisted on the right, and the propriety also, of females who were present at such assemblages voting by a show of hands for or against the resolutions. This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on that bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it. When the resolution was put the women held up their hands amid much laughter; and ever from that time females voted with the men at the Radical meetings.
Among the many schemes which now endanger the peace of our society, are some for the forming female political associations, to inculcate in the minds of mothers and of the rising generation a disrespect for parliament. One of these, it is alleged, has been formed in Blackburn, in this county!!!
A club of Female Reformers, amounting in numbers, according to our calculations, 150 came from Oldham; and another, not quite so numerous, from Royton. The first bore a white silk banner, by far the most elegant displayed during the day, inscribed 'Major Cartwright's Bill, Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Vote by Ballot'. The females of Royton bore two red flags, the one inscribed 'Let us die like men, and not sold like slaves'; the other 'Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage'.
A group of women of Manchester, attracted by the crowd, came to the corner of the street where we had taken our post. They viewed the Oldham Female Reformers for some time with a look in which compassion and disgust was equally blended, and at last burst out into an indignant exclamation - "Go home to your families, and leave sike-like as these to your husbands and sons, who better understand them." The women who addressed them were of the lower order of life.
Sarah George Bagley (April 19, 1806  – January 15, 1889) was an American labor leader in New England during the 1840s an advocate of shorter workdays for factory operatives and mechanics, she campaigned to make ten hours of labor per day the maximum in Massachusetts.
Her activities in support of the mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts put her in contact with a broader network of reformers in areas of women's rights, communitarianism, abolition, peace, prison reform, and health reform. Bagley and her coworkers became involved with middle-class reform activities, demonstrating the ways in which working people embraced this reform impulse as they transformed and critiqued some of its key elements. Her activities within the labor movement reveal many of the tensions that underlay relations between male and female working people as well as the constraints of gender that female activists had to overcome. 
Since the beginning of the women’s rights movement, women who devoted their lives to reform often were middle and upper class women. Women who worked to support themselves and their families had less time and funds to devote to social movements.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, working women began supporting suffrage in greater numbers. They joined labor unions, held strikes for higher pay, and protested for better working conditions. Working women started seeing the vote as a way to gain more political power to further these causes.
Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was among the first suffragists to recruit working women to support suffrage. She started collaborating with the Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1905, to help women form unions and advocate for labor reforms. In 1907, she founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women (later called the Women’s Political Union) to attract working women to the suffrage movement. Blatch also wanted to integrate the more aggressive, militant tactics of labor activists—like parades through city streets and speakers on street corners—into the suffrage strategies to attract more publicity. Working women and their experience with the tactics of labor activists proved vital to winning the vote.
39c. Women in the Gilded Age
The idea was to create a maternal commonwealth. Upper-middle-class women of the late 19th century were not content with the cult of domesticity of the early 1800s. Many had become college educated and yearned to put their knowledge and skills to work for the public good.
Maternal commonwealth meant just that. The values of women's sphere &mdash caretaking, piety, purity &mdash would be taken out of the home and placed in the public life. The result was a broad reform movement that transformed America.
Just Say No to Alcohol
Many educated women of the age felt that many of society's greatest disorders could be traced to alcohol . According to their view, alcohol led to increased domestic violence and neglect. It decreased the income families could spend on necessities and promoted prostitution and adultery. In short, prohibition of alcohol might diminish some of these maladies.
Frances Willard was the president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union , the nation's foremost prohibition organization. Although national prohibition was not enacted until 1919, the WCTU was successful at pressuring state and local governments to pass dry laws. Willard advocated a " Do Everything " policy, which meant that chapters of the WCTU also served as soup kitchens or medical clinics.
The WCTU worked within the system, but there were radical temperance advocates who did not. Carry Nation preferred the direct approach of taking an ax into saloons and chopping the bars to pieces.
Homes for the Destitute
Another way women promoted the values of women's sphere into the public arena was through the settlement house movement . A settlement house was a home where destitute immigrants could go when they had nowhere else to turn. Settlement houses provided family-style cooking, lessons in English, and tips on how to adapt to American culture.
The first settlement house began in 1889 in Chicago and was called Hull House . Its organizer, Jane Addams , intended Hull House to serve as a prototype for other settlement houses. By 1900 there were nearly 100 settlement houses in the nation's cities. Jane Addams was considered the founder of a new profession &mdash social work.
Different Backgrounds, Different Lives
Most of the advocates of maternal commonwealth were white, upper-middle-class women. Many of these women had received a college education and felt obliged to put it to use. About half of the women in this demographic group never married, choosing instead independence. Other college educated women were content to join literary clubs to keep academic pursuits alive.
For women who did not attend college, life was much different. Many single, middle-class women took jobs in the new cities. Clerical jobs opened as typewriters became indispensable to the modern corporation. The telephone service required switchboard operators and the new department store required sales positions. Many of these women found themselves feeling marvelously independent, despite the lower wages they were paid in comparison with their male counterparts.
For others, life was less glamorous. Wives of immigrants often took extra tenants called boarders into their already crowded tenement homes. By providing food and laundry service at a fee, they generated necessary extra income for the families. Many did domestic work for the middle class to supplement income.
In the South, the lives of wealthy women changed from managing a home on a slave plantation to one with hired work. Women who found themselves with new freedom from slavery still suffered great difficulties. Sharecropping was a male and female task. Women in these conditions found themselves doing double duty by working the fields by day and the house by night.
Frances E. Willard
Frances Willard, founder of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, influenced the history of reform and helped transform the role of women in nineteenth-century America.
After graduating from North Western Female College in 1859, Willard became a leading educator, teaching at a number of schools in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York before becoming, in 1871, the first female president of a college granting degrees to women – the newly-formed Evanston College for Ladies. After the college merged with Northwestern University, Willard became the first Dean of Women and Professor of Aesthetics. In 1873, she helped found the Association for the Advancement of Women.
Willard left education for work in temperance in 1874. In that year, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded with Willard as the first corresponding secretary. In 1879, she would become its second president. For Willard, the WCTU was an effective school for women, giving them a chance to achieve identities beyond those of wives and mothers. The WCTU, with Willard was president, became the largest organization of women in the United States. At WCTU meetings, women followed parliamentary procedures they assumed leadership roles and learned to use their skills to achieve many different goals. Willard, herself, traveled throughout the nation, lectured, wrote books, and edited WCTU publications. In 1883, Willard helped found the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
Willard also influenced the suffrage movement. She urged suffragists to work on the local level to achieve the vote rather than focus all their energies on a constitutional amendment. Such a strategy won numerous gains. Moreover, Willard convinced many reluctant women to support the suffrage movement, so they could use the power of the vote to make and keep their towns dry and improve the moral fiber of America.
In addition to temperance and suffrage, under Willard’s leadership the WCTU supported broad social reforms such as equal pay for equal work, the eight-hour work day, Armenian relief, world peace, the protection of women and children in the workplace, kindergartens, mothers’ clubs (the forerunner of the PTA), dress reform, jail reform, uniform marriage and divorce laws, and physical education in grade schools. The WCTU established homes for working girls, shelters for abused women and children, and free kindergartens. In addition, Willard was a founding member of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, one of the first five women elected to the Methodist General Conference, and a founder and first president of the National Council of Women.
For nineteen years as WCTU president, Willard promoted unlimited aspirations for women: higher education, choice of vocation, and equality of opportunity along with suffrage and temperance.
Year Honored: 2000
Birth: 1839 - 1898
Born In: New York
Educated In: Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, United States of America
Schools Attended: Milwaukee Female College, North Western Female College
Women in Labor History
Profile. Zinn Education Project.
Brief bios of two dozen women of note in the labor movement.
The impact women have made in labor history is often missing from textbooks and the media despite the numerous roles women have played to organize, unionize, rally, document, and inspire workers to fight for justice. From championing better workplace conditions to cutting back the 12-hour day to demanding equal pay across racial lines, these are just a few of the women who have contributed to the labor movement. Also visit the And Still I Rise website that features Black women labor leaders.
Photographer Louise Boyle figures prominently among those of her time whose penetrating images documented the devastating effects of the Great Depression on American workers. In 1937, at the height of a wave of labor militancy, Ms. Boyle was invited to photograph the living and working conditions of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union members from several Arkansas communities. Her provocative recording courageous people linking their futures together despite devastating poverty, physical hardship, and brutal police-endorsed reprisals. Most portray African American farmers in their homes, at union meetings and rallies, or at work with their families picking cotton. Boyle returned in 1982 to rephotograph some of the people and places she had documented earlier. [Description by Kheel Center, Cornell University.] See photo collection on Flickr. Find a free lesson on the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.
Crowd at a Southern Tenant Farmers meeting.
Legendary African-American unionist Hattie Canty migrated to Las Vegas from rural Alabama. In contrast to the AFL-CIO’s George Meany, who bragged that he had never been on a picket line, Canty was one of the greatest strike leaders in U.S. history. Her patient leadership helped knit together a labor union made up of members from 84 nations.
“Coming from Alabama,” Canty observed, “this seemed like the civil rights struggle … the labor movement and the civil rights movement, you cannot separate the two of them.”
Read more about Hattie Canty at Online Nevada Encyclopedia.
In 1982, May Chen led the New York Chinatown strike of 1982, one of the largest Asian American worker strikes with about 20,000 garment factory workers marching the streets of Lower Manhattan demanding work contracts.
Chen, then affiliated with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, was one of the strike organizers.
“The Chinatown community then had more and more small garment factories,” she recalled. “And the Chinese employers thought they could play on ethnic loyalties to get the workers to turn away from the union. They were very, very badly mistaken.”
Most of the protests included demands for higher wages, improved working conditions and for management to observe the Confucian principles of fairness and respect. By many accounts, the workers won. The strike caused the employers to hold back on wage cuts and withdraw their demand that workers give up their holidays and some benefits. It paved the way for better working conditions such as hiring bilingual staff to interpret for workers and management, initiation of English-language classes and van services for workers.
[Description by Cristina DC Pastor, from the Feet in Two Worlds website.]
Read more about Asian immigrants in the workforce at the Feet in Two Worlds website.
Jessie de la Cruz
On September 5, 2013, Jessie de la Cruz passed away at age 93. A field worker since the age of five, Jessie knew poverty, harsh working conditions, and the exploitation of Mexicans and all poor people. Her response was to take a stand. She joined the United Farm Workers union in 1965 and, at Cesar Chavez’s request, became its first woman recruiter. She also participated in strikes, helped ban the crippling short-handle hoe, became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, testified before the Senate, and met with the Pope. She continued to be a political activist until her death in 2013.
Read more about Jessie’s life in the book Jessie De La Cruz: A Profile of a United Farm Worker by Gary Soto.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
“I will devote my life to the wage earner. My sole aim in life is to do all in my power to right the wrongs and lighten the burdens of the laboring class.” In 1907, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn became a full-time organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World and in 1912 traveled to Lawrence, MA during the Great Textile Strike. With the arrests of Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti Flynn at the end of January she became “the strike’s leading lady.”
She was a major organizer of the various trips by children of textile workers to supportive cities like New York. She called the children’s demonstrations “the most wonderful that I have ever seen. I have been in strikes and battles for free speech but I have never seen such an outburst of human brotherhood as I saw Saturday.”
Read more about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn at the Bread and Roses Centennial website.
“Still more fatal is the crime of turning the producer into a mere particle of a machine, with less will and decision than his master of steel and iron. Man is being robbed not merely of the products of his labor, but of the power of free initiative, of originality, and the interest in, or desire for, the things he is making.”
In 1886, year after her arrival from Lithuania, Emma Goldman was shocked by the trial, conviction, and execution of labor activists falsely accused of a bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, which she later described as “the events that had inspired my spiritual birth and growth.” A born propagandist and organizer, Emma Goldman championed women’s equality, free love, workers’ rights, free universal education regardless of race or gender, and anarchism. For more than thirty years, she defined the limits of dissent and free speech in Progressive Era America. Goldman died on May 14, 1940, and buried in Forest Park, Illinois. [Description adapted from PBS American Experience.]
Velma Hopkins, center, became active in the Civil Rights Movement. Here she is escorting the first black student to the newly desegregated R. J. Reynolds High School in North Carolina. Image: Digital Forsyth.
“I know my limitations and I surround myself with people who I can designate to be sure it’s carried out. If you can’t do that, you’re not an organizer.”
Velma Hopkins helped mobilize 10,000 workers into the streets of Winston-Salem, NC, as part of an attempt to bring unions to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The union, called Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO, was integrated and led primarily by African American women. They pushed the boundaries of economic, racial and gender equality.
In the 1940s, they organized a labor campaign and a strike for better working conditions, pay, and civil rights. It was the only time in the history of Reynolds Tobacco that it had a union. Before Local 22 faced set-backs from red-baiting and the power of Reynolds’ anti-unionism, it gained national attention for its vision of an equal society. This vision garnered the scrutiny of powerful enemies such as Richard Nixon and captured the attention of allies such as actor Paul Robeson and songwriter Woody Guthrie. Although Local 22 ultimately failed to slay the giant, the union influenced a generation of civil rights activists.
[Description adapted from Jonathan Michels article, “Marker to honor 1940s labor union in city,” Winston-Salem Journal. Quote excerpted from the book Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South by Robert Rodgers Korstad.]
Before becoming a labor organizer, Dolores Huerta was a grammar school teacher, but soon quit after becoming distraught at the sight of children coming to school hungry or without proper clothing. “I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.”
In 1955, Huerta launch her career in labor organizing by helping Fred Ross train organizers in Stockton, Calif., and five years later, founded the Agricultural Workers Association before organizing the UFW with Cesar Chavez in 1962. Some of her early victories included lobbying for voting rights for Mexican Americans as well as for the right of every American to take the written driver’s test in a native language. A champion of labor rights, women’s rights, racial equality and other civil rights causes, Huerta remains an unrelenting figure in the farm workers’ movement.
Biography adapted from City University of New York’s “Women’s Leadership in American History” (website unavailable) and the National Women’s History Museum.
“I asked the newspaper men why they didn’t publish the facts about child labor in Pennsylvania. They said they couldn’t because the mill owners had stock in the papers.” “Well, I’ve got stock in these little children,” said I,” and I’ll arrange a little publicity.”
On July 7, 1903, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones began the “March of the Mill Children” from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island summer home in Oyster Bay, NY, to publicize the harsh conditions of child labor and to demand a 55-hour workweek. During this march she delivered her famed “The Wail of the Children” speech. Roosevelt refused to see them.
Read about the march here (thanks to Bread and Roses 1912-2012 for the link) at the Global Nonviolent Action database.
Learn more about Mother Jones at the Zinn Education Project website.
“Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.”
These words were spoken more than 120 years ago by Mary Lease, a powerful voice of the agrarian crusade and the best-known orator of the era, first gaining national attention battling Wall Street during the 1890 Populist campaign. As a spokesperson for the “people’s party,” she hoped that by appealing directly to the heart and soul of the nation’s farmers, she could motivate them to political action to protect their own interests not only in Kansas but throughout the United States. “You may call me an anarchist, a socialist, or a communist, I care not, but I hold to the theory that if one man as not enough to eat three times a day and another man has $25,000,000, that last man has something that belongs to the first.” Mary spent most of her life speaking out in favor of social justice causes including woman suffrage and temperance, and her work reflected the multifaceted nature of late nineteenth-century politics in the United States.
“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”
Clara Lemlich was a firebrand who led several strikes of shirtwaist makers and challenged the mostly male leadership of the union to organize women garment workers. With support from the National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL), in 1909 she led the New York shirtwaist strike, also known as the Uprising of the 20,000. It was the largest strike of women at that point in U.S. history. The strike was followed a year later by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that exposed the continued plight of immigrant women working in dangerous and difficult conditions.
Anna LoPizzo was a striker killed on Jan. 29, 1912 during the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, considered one of the most significant struggles in U.S. labor history. Three strike leaders—Joe Ettor, Joe Caruso and Arturo Giovannitti—were charged as accessories before the fact in LoPizzo’s death. Students could learn a lot from reading about their extraordinary case.
Image and description from the Bread and Roses 1912-2012 Centennial Exhibit page.
Luisa Moreno, a Guatemalan immigrant, first experience with labor activism was in 1930 at in Zelgreen’s Cafeteria in New York City with her co-worker to protest exploiting its workers with long hours, constant sexual harassment, and the threat, should anyone object, of dismissal. Hearing that workers would picket the cafeteria, police formed a line on the sidewalk that allowed customers to pass through. Luisa, in a fur collar coat, strolled through the cordon of policemen as if she was going to enter the cafeteria. When she was directly in front of the door she pulled a picket sign from under her coat and thrust it in plain view, yelling, “Strike!” Two burly policemen grabbed her by the elbows. They lifted her off the sidewalk and hustled her into the entrance way of a nearby building. She came out with her face bleeding and considered herself fortunate that she was not disfigured.
Moreno spent the next 20 years organizing workers across the country before taking a “voluntary departure under warrant of deportation” on the grounds that she had once been a member of the Communist party. [Description adapted from San Diego Reader and SanDiegoHistory.org.]
Read more about Louisa Morena at SanDiegoHistory.org.
19th-century collar laundry workers in Troy, NY.
Irish American laundry worker Kate Mullaney became a union organizer and labor activist out of necessity in February 1864, when she was inspired by a men’s union to take her fellow laborers on strike.
From The New York State Public Employees Federation pamphlet, “Kate Mullany: A True Labor Pioneer:”
Shortly after forming the union, at noon on Wednesday, February 23, 1864, approximately 300 women went on strike from the 14 commercial laundry establishments. That afternoon Kate met with the women to discuss their demands for a 20 to 25 percent wage increase and their concerns with the introduction of the starching machines, which were scalding hot to handle. . . on February 28th a few of the proprietors gave in to their workers’ demands and the following day other employers followed.
Their first strike was successful and Mullaney continued to put pressure on the local laundry and starch-collar industry. She garnered national recognition when the National Labor Congress appointed her as an assistant secretary. In that position, she corresponded with and organized laboring women across the country.
“Any new method which the company sought to put into effect and disturb our work routine seemed to inflame the deep indignation already burning inside us. Thus, when a procedure was suggested for subdividing our work, so that each operator would do a smaller part of each glove, and thus perhaps increase the overall production — but also increase the monotony of the work, and perhaps also decrease our rate of pay—we began to think of fighting back.”
This reminiscence by Nestor described how the oppressive conditions of the glove factory pushed her to take a leading role in a successful strike of female glove workers in 1898. Soon she became president of her glove workers local and later a leader of the International Glove Workers Union. She also took a leading role in the Women’s Trade Union League, serving as president of the Chicago branch from 1913 to 1948.
“All we knew was the bitter fact that after working 70 or 80 hours in a seven-day week, we did not earn enough to keep body and soul together.”
Pauline Newman, a Russian immigrant, began working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1903 when she was thirteen years old. Finding that many of her co-workers could not read, she organized an evening study group where they also discussed labor issues and politics. Newman was active in the shirtwaist strike and the Women’s Trade Union League. She became a union organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and director of the ILGWU Health Center. Courtesy of the Kheel Center.
Read more about Pauline Newman at PBS American Experience.
On May 1, 1886, Lucy Parsons helped launched the world’s first May Day and the demand for the eight-hour work day. Along with her husband, anarchist and activist Albert Parsons, and their two children, they led 80,000 working people down the Chicago streets and more than 100,000 also marched in other U.S. cities. A new international holiday was born.
Parsons went on to help found the International Workers of the World, continued to give speeches, and worked tirelessly for equality throughout the rest of her life until her death in 1942.
Read more about Lucy Parsons in this profile by William Katz at the Zinn Education Project website.
On March 4, 1933, Frances Perkins became the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. Having personally witnessed workers jump to their death during the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Perkins promoted and helped passed strong labor laws.
Rose Pesotta arrived in Los Angeles in 1933 to organize employees in the garment industry with a workforce of 75% Latinas. The local leadership of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), mostly white men, had no interest in organizing female dressmakers, feeling that most either leave the industry to raise their families or shouldn’t be working in the first place. On October 12, 1933, a month after Rose Pesotta arrived, 4,000 workers walked off the job and went on strike. Their demands included union recognition, 35-hour work weeks, being paid the minimum wage, no take home work or time card regulation, and disputes to be handled through arbitration. The strike ended on Nov. 6 with mixed results. The workers gained a 35-hour workweek and received the minimum wage. While the end seemed less than eventful, the message sent was far more powerful than the end result. What Rose Pesotta knew all along was now clear to the garment bosses and her male union counterparts women, specifically women of color, should not be discounted. When it comes to the demands of dignity and respect, these workers would not be ignored.
When Poo started organizing domestic workers in 2000, many thought she was taking on an impossible task. Domestic workers were too dispersed, spread out over too many homes. Even Poo had described the world of domestic work as the “Wild West.” Poo’s first big breakthrough with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) happened on July 1, 2010, when the New York state legislature passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The bill legitimated domestic workers and gave them the same lawful rights as any other employee, such as vacation time and overtime pay. Though the bill was considered a major victory, the NDWA did not stop there, expanding operations to include 17 cities and 11 states.
Florence Reece was an activist, poet, and songwriter. She was the wife of one of the strikers and union organizers, Sam Reece, in the Harlan County miners strike in Kentucky. In an attempt to intimidate her family, the sheriff and company guards shot at their house while you and your children were inside (Sam had been warned they were coming and escaped). During the attack, you wrote the lyrics to Which Side Are You On?, a song that would become a popular ballad of the labor movement.
CHORUS: Which side are you on? (4x)
My daddy was a miner/And I’m a miner’s son/And I’ll stick with the union/‘Til every battle’s won [Chorus]
They say in Harlan County/There are no neutrals there/You’ll either be a union man/Or a thug for JH Blair [Chorus]
Oh workers can you stand it?/Oh tell me how you can/Will you be a lousy scab/Or will you be a man? [Chorus]
Don’t scab for the bosses/Don’t listen to their lies/Us poor folks haven’t got a chance/Unless we organize [Chorus]
Read more about the story of this song in the children’s book Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song.
Harriet Hanson Robinson
At the age of 10, Harriet Hanson Robinson got a job in textile Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts to help support her family. When mill owners dropped wages and sped up the pace of work, Harriet and others participated in the 1836 Lowell Mill Strike. Later as an adult, Harriet became an activist for women’s suffrage and would recount her mill work experience in Loom and Spindle or Life Among the Early Mill Girls. Harriet concludes:
“Such is the brief story of the life of every-day working-girls such as it was then, so it might be to-day. Undoubtedly there might have been another side to this picture, but I give the side I knew best–the bright side!”
Download a PDF of Loom and Spindle or Life Among the Early Mill Girls from the University of Massachusetts—Lowell.
Fannie Sellins was known as an exceptional organizer that also made her “a thorn in the side of the Allegheny Valley coal operators.” The operators openly threatened to “get her.” After being an organizer in St. Louis for the United Garment Workers local and in the West Virginia coal fields, in 1916 Sellins moved to Pennsylvania, where her work with the miners’ wives proved to be an effective way to organize workers across ethnic barriers. She also recruited black workers, who originally came north as strikebreakers, into the United Mine Workers America. During a tense confrontation between townspeople and armed company guards outside the Allegheny Coal and Coke company mine in Brackenridge on August 26, 1919, Fannie Sellins and miner Joseph Strzelecki were brutally gunned down. A coroner’s jury and a trial in 1923 ended in the acquittal of two men accused of her murder.
[Adapted from ExplorePAHistory.com and University of Pittsburgh’s Labor Legacy website.]
Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods from the documentary, “Union Maids.”
“When I look back now, I really think we had a lot of guts. But I didn’t even stop to think about it at the time. It was just something that had to be done. We had a goal. That’s what we felt had to be done, and we did it.”
“Stella Nowicki” was the assumed name of Vicki Starr, an activist who participated in the campaign to organize unions in the meatpacking factories of Chicago in the 1930s and ‘40s. Here’s a video clip of actress Christina Kirk reading Vicky Starr’s account of the conditions of working in the plants and tactics used to organize workers.
“I was arrested a number of times. I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.” Emma Tenayuca was born in San Antonio, Texas on Dec. 21, 1916. Through her work as an educator, speaker, and labor organizer, she became known as “La Pasionaria de Texas.”
From 1934-48, she supported almost every strike in the city, writing leaflets, visiting homes of strikers, and joining them on picket lines. She joined the Communist Party and the Workers Alliance (WA) in 1936. Tenayuca and WA demanded that Mexican workers could strike without fear of deportation or a minimum wage law.
In 1938 she was unanimously elected strike leader of 12,000 pecan shellers. Due to anti-Mexican, anti-Communist, and anti-union hysteria Tenayuca fled San Antonio for her safety but later returned as a teacher.
Learn more about her life and view and primary documents in the children’s book, That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice/¡No Es Justo!: La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia on the Zinn Education Project website.
Click image to read article about the bath riots from 1917.
On Jan. 28, 1917, 17-year-old Carmelita Torres led the Bath Riots at the Juarez/El Paso border, refusing the toxic “bath” imposed on all workers crossing the border. Here is what the El Paso Times reported the next day: “When refused permission to enter El Paso without complying with the regulations the women collected in an angry crowd at the center of the bridge. By 8 o’clock the throng, consisting in large part of servant girls employed in El Paso, had grown until it packed the bridge half way across.
“Led by Carmelita Torres, an auburn-haired young woman of 17, they kept up a continuous volley of language aimed at the immigration and health officers, civilians, sentries and any other visible American.”
Mexican laborers being fumigated with the pesticide DDT in Hidalgo, Texas, in 1956.
Learn more in this article by David Dorado Romo, author of Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez: 1893-1923.
Read the newspaper article at the El Paso Times website.
Ella May Wiggins
“She died carrying the torch for social justice.”
Ella May Wiggins was an organizer, speaker, and balladeer, known for expressed her faith in the union, the only organized force she had encountered that promised her a better life.
On Sept. 14, 1929, during the Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, a Textile Workers Union members were ambushed by local vigilantes and a sheriff’s deputy. The vigilantes and deputy forced Ella May Wiggins’ pickup truck off the road, and murdered the 29 year-old mother of nine. Though there were 50 witnesses during the assault and five of the attackers were arrested, all were acquitted of her murder. After her death, the AFL-CIO expanded Wiggins’ grave marker in 1979, to include the phrase, “She died carrying the torch of social justice.”
Her best-known song, A Mill Mother’s Lament, was recorded by Pete Seeger, among others.
Sue Cowan Williams
Sue Cowan Williams represented African-American teachers in the Little Rock School District as the plaintiff in the case challenging the rate of salaries allotted to teachers in the district based solely on skin color. The suit, Morris v. Williams, was filed on Feb. 28, 1942, and followed a March 1941 petition filed with the Little Rock School Board requesting equalization of salaries between black and white teachers. She lost the case, however she won in a 1943 appeal.
Susan B. Anthony
Susan Brownell Anthony was a feminist and reformer whose Quaker family was committed to social equality. She began collecting anti-slavery petitions when she was 17 and became an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society at age 36. In 1869, Anthony, alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, and they played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.
Susan B. Anthony was born February 15, 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts to Quaker Daniel Anthony and Lucy Read Anthony, who shared a passion for social reform. Daniel encouraged all of his children, girls as well as boys, to be self-supporting he taught them business principles and gave them responsibilities at an early age.
When she was seventeen, Anthony attended a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia, but her family was financially ruined in the Panic of 1837. Susan had to return home after only one term. They were forced to sell everything they owned at an auction, but a maternal uncle bought their belongings and restored them to the family.
In 1846, at age 26, Anthony accepted a position as head of the girls’ department at Canajoharie Academy. She taught there for two years and earned $110 a year.
In her speech at the state teachers’ convention of 1853, Anthony called for women to be admitted to the professions and for better pay for women teachers. In 1859 Anthony spoke before state teachers’ conventions in Troy, New York and Massachusetts for coeducation (boys and girls educated together), arguing there were no differences between the minds of males and females.
Anthony fought for equal educational opportunities for all regardless of race, calling for all schools, colleges, and universities to open their doors to women and former slaves. She also campaigned for the right of black children to attend public schools.
In the 1890s Anthony served on the board of trustees of Rochester’s State Industrial School and campaigned for coeducation and equal opportunity for boys and girls. She raised $50,000 in pledges to ensure the admittance of women to the University of Rochester. Fearing she might miss the deadline, she put up the cash value of her life insurance policy. The University was forced to make good its promise and women were admitted for the first time in 1900.
In 1845, the family purchased a farm on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, partly paid for with Lucy’s inheritance. The Anthony farmhouse soon became the Sunday afternoon gathering place for local activists, including prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and former slave Frederick Douglass, who became Anthony’s lifelong friend.
Susan B. Anthony played a key role in organizing an anti-slavery convention in Rochester in 1851. She was also a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, and her diary entry in 1861 stated: “Fitted out a fugitive slave for Canada with the help of Harriet Tubman.”
In 1856 Anthony became an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society, putting up posters, arranging meetings, distributing pamphlets, and making speeches. Hostile mobs and flying missiles thrown in her direction did not deter her. In Syracuse her image was dragged through the streets, and she was hung in effigy.
Women’s National Loyal League
In 1863, during the Civil War, Anthony and others organized the Women’s National Loyal League – the first national women’s political organization in the United States. In support of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would abolish slavery, the League conducted the largest petition drive in American history – nearly 400,000 signatures. Anthony worked to organize the operation of recruiting and coordinating some 2000 volunteer petition collectors.
The League also provided a platform for women’s rights by telling the public that petitioning was the only political tool available to women. With a membership of 5000, this organization developed a new generation of women leaders and provided experience and recognition for newcomers like Anna Dickinson. The League demonstrated the value of a women’s movement that had been only loosely organized up to that point, and a widespread network of women activists expanded the pool of talent that was available to reform movements after the war.
These women’s rights activists supported equal rights for women and people of any race, including the right to vote. They campaigned for the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves recently freed.
They also worked tirelessly for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” They were bitterly disappointed when women were excluded from those amendments.
Women’s Rights Activist
In 1851, at Seneca Falls, New York, Amelia Bloomer introduced Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who wrote this about their first meeting:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Walking home with the speakers, who were my guests, we met Mrs. Bloomer with Miss Anthony on the corner of the street waiting to greet us. There she stood with her good, earnest face and genial smile, dressed in gray delaine, hat and all the same color relieved with pale-blue ribbons, the perfection of neatness and sobriety. I liked her thoroughly from the beginning.
Anthony and Stanton became lifelong friends and partners in social reform movements, particularly women’s rights. Their relationship led Anthony to join the women’s rights movement in 1852, and she attended her first women’s rights convention in Syracuse that same year. At that time Stanton was housebound raising seven children, and Anthony often supervised the children, giving Stanton time to write.
There were hardships in the early days. The women’s movement rarely had enough money to execute its programs. And, at that time, few women had an independent source of income those with jobs were required by law to give their wages to their husbands. There were no precedents, so they created them as they went.
In 1853, Anthony organized a convention in Rochester to launch a state campaign for improved property rights for married women. In February 1856 Anthony traveled to Albany and presented petitions to the Legislature, requesting that a new law be passed to allow women to control her wages and have custody of her children. She was referred to Samuel Foote, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Foote’s incredible response:
The committee is composed of married and single gentlemen. The bachelors … have left the subject pretty much to the married gentlemen. … the ladies always have the best place and choicest titbit at the table. They have the best seat in the cars, carriages and sleighs the warmest place in winter and the coolest in summer. They have their choice on which side of the bed they will lie, front or back. …
It has thus appeared to the married gentlemen of your committee, being a majority … that if there is any inequality or oppression in the case, the gentlemen are the sufferers. They, however, have presented no petitions for redress, having doubtless made up their minds to yield to an inevitable destiny.
On the whole, the committee have concluded to recommend no measure, except that they have observed several instances in which husband and wife have both signed the same petition. In such case, they would recommend the parties to apply for a law authorizing them to change dresses, so that the husband may wear petticoats, and the wife breeches, and thus indicate to their neighbors and the public the true relation in which they stand to each other.
In 1860, after years of advocacy by Anthony and otheres, the Legislature passed the New York State Married Women’s Property Bill, which allowed married women to own property, keep their wages, and have custody of their children. Anthony and Stanton then campaigned for more liberal divorce laws in New York.
Anthony and Stanton published a weekly women’s rights newspaper called The Revolution in New York City from January 8, 1868 and February 17, 1872. Its combative style matched its name, and it focused on women’s rights, especially women’s suffrage. Anthony managed the business side while Stanton served as the editor.
After more than two years of mounting debts, Anthony transferred The Revolution to Laura Curtis Bullard, a wealthy women’s rights activist who published the paper two more years. Despite its short lifespan, the paper helped move women’s issues back into the national spotlight after the Civil War and established Stanton and Anthony as public figures whose demands for equal rights were not ignored.
Working Women’s Advocate
While publishing The Revolution in New York Anthony came into contact with women in the printing trades. In her newspaper, she advocated an eight-hour workday for women, equal pay for equal work, the purchase of American-made goods, and encouraged working women to form women’s labor organizations.
In 1870 Anthony founded the Working Women’s Association (WWA), which reported on working conditions and provided educational opportunities for its workers. The WWA concentrated in the printing industry in its early days its members included women who were employed, or self-employed, in print shops.
The Association’s membership grew to include more than a hundred working women, in addition to journalists and other women whose work was more mental than manual. When printers went on strike in New York, she urged companies to hire women. She believed this was an opportunity to show that they could do the job as well as men and therefore deserved equal pay.
Susan B. Anthony also advocated dress reform for women. She cut her hair and wore the Bloomer costume for a year before she realized that this radical dress was detracting from the other causes she supported.
Image: Susan B. Anthony House 17 Madison Street Rochester, New York In 1866, Anthony and her family moved to this house, which was to be her home for forty years. In this photograph from 1891, she and some of her fellow activists gather on the front lawn.
In 1866, Anthony and Stanton initiated the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) campaigned for equal rights for both women and African Americans. The leadership of this new organization included such prominent activists as Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone. Some abolitionist leaders wanted women to postpone their campaign for suffrage until after African American males were given the right to vote.
The AERA eventually divided into two wings. One group was willing for black men to achieve suffrage first. The wing led by Anthony and Stanton insisted that women and black men should be enfranchised at the same time they wanted to work toward an independent women’s movement that would no longer be dependent on abolitionists. The AERA effectively dissolved in May 1869, leaving two competing women’s suffrage organizations in its aftermath.
Susan B. Anthony was convinced by her work in social reform movements that women needed the vote if they were to influence public affairs. In 1869, after the demise of the AERA, Anthony and Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and began to campaign for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.
The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) adopted a strategy of getting the vote for women state-by-state some territories or new states in the West were the first to extend suffrage to women. The territory of Wyoming was the first to give women the vote in 1869, long before it became a state (1890). Anthony campaigned for women’s suffrage in the West during the 1870s.
Anthony, three of her sisters, and a few other women in Rochester voted in the 1872 Presidential Election. On November 18, 1872, a U.S. Deputy Marshal arrested Anthony for illegally voting. She was arraigned in Rochester Common Council chambers along with the other women voters and the election officials who had allowed her to vote .
Susan B. Anthony was tried and convicted in a highly publicized trial, which gave her the opportunity to spread her arguments to a wider audience. The judge fined her $100, and although she refused to pay it, the authorities declined to take further action.
Anthony traveled extensively and gave as many as 75 to 100 speeches per year in support of women’s suffrage. She worked on many state campaigns. By 1877, she had gathered petitions from 26 states with 10,000 signatures, and she presented them to Congress.
Susan B. Anthony Amendment
In 1878, Anthony and Stanton arranged for Senator A.A. Sargent of California to present to Congress an amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote. The women proposed a revision of the Sixteenth Amendment that would read:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
What was popularly called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment became the main lobbying strategy for suffragists committed to winning the vote through a constitutional amendment. Though Congress repeatedly rejected the revision, Sargent continued to propose it. In the years between 1878 and 1906, Anthony appeared at every Congressional session to ask for passage of a suffrage amendment.
Between 1881 and 1885 Anthony, Stanton, and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage collaborated on the multi-volume book, History of Woman Suffrage. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper edited the final volume, which was published in 1902.
In 1887 the new National American Woman Suffrage Association was created with Stanton as president and Anthony as vice-president. Anthony became president in 1892 when Stanton retired.
Anthony campaigned in the West in the 1890s to make sure that the territories that had granted women the vote were not blocked from admission to the Union. She also helped to establish the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893.
Image: Susan B. Anthony circa 1900
Public perception of Susan B. Anthony changed radically during her lifetime. When she began campaigning for women’s rights in the 1850s, she was harshly ridiculed. By 1900, she had established her worth as an activist and champion for women. That year President William McKinley invited her to celebrate her eightieth birthday at the White House that year.
Anthony never married, and she remained active until her death.
I don’t want to die as long as I can work the minute I can not, I want to go.
Susan B. Anthony died March 13, 1906 at her home in Rochester.
The Susan B. Anthony Silver Dollar was minted from 1979 to 1981 it brought a new awareness of her life in activism to the public.
A 1902 boycott in New York, where women, mostly housewives, boycotted kosher butchers over the price of kosher beef, caught the attention of William English Walling. Walling, a wealthy Kentucky native living at the University Settlement in New York, thought of a British organization he knew a bit about: the Women's Trade Union League. He went to England to study this organization to see how it might translate to America.
This British group had been founded in 1873 by Emma Ann Patterson, a suffrage worker who was also interested in issues of labor. She had been, in her turn, inspired by stories of American women's unions, specifically the New York Parasol and Umbrella Makers' Union and the Women's Typographical Union. Walling studied the group as it had evolved by 1902-03 into an effective organization that brought together middle-class and wealthy women with working-class women to fight for improved working conditions by supporting union organizing.
Walling returned to America and, with Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, laid the groundwork for a similar American organization. In 1903, O'Sullivan announced the formation of the Women's National Trade Union League, at the annual convention of the American Federation of Labor. In November, the founding meeting in Boston included the city's settlement house workers and AFL representatives. A slightly larger meeting, November 19, 1903, included labor delegates, all but one of whom were men, representatives from the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, who were mostly women, and settlement house workers, mostly women.
Mary Morton Kehew was elected the first president, Jane Addams the first vice-president, and Mary Kenney O'Sullivan the first secretary. Other members of the first executive board included Mary Freitas, a Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mill worker Ellen Lindstrom, a Chicago union organizer Mary McDowell, a Chicago settlement house worker and experienced union organizer Leonora O'Reilly, a New York settlement house worker who was also a garment union organizer and Lillian Wald, settlement house worker and organizer of several women's unions in New York City.
Local branches were quickly established in Boston, Chicago, and New York, with support from settlement houses in those cities.
From the beginning, membership was defined as including women trade unionists, who were to be the majority according to the organization's by-laws, and "earnest sympathizers and workers for the cause of trade unionism," who came to be referred to as allies. The intention was that the balance of power and decision-making would always rest with the trade unionists.
The organization helped women start unions in many industries and many cities, and also provided relief, publicity, and general assistance for women's unions on strike. In 1904 and 1905, the organization supported strikes in Chicago, Troy, and Fall River.
From 1906-1922, the presidency was held by Margaret Dreier Robins, a well-educated reform activist, married in 1905 to Raymond Robins, head of the Northwestern University Settlement in Chicago. In 1907, the organization changed its name to the National Women's Trade Union League (WTUL).
Women campaigned for Prohibition—then many changed their minds
Flush with the accomplishment of winning the vote, some women focused their newfound political power on reversing the Constitutional ban on alcohol.
In late October of 1931, some 18,000 laborers, fraternal organization members, and veterans took to the streets of Newark, New Jersey. Their cause, stated simply on the signs they carried, was clear: “We want beer.” It’d been 11 years since Prohibition had begun—and since the protestors or their fellow Americans had enjoyed a (legal) drink at their neighborhood saloons.
Flag-waving men with their starched-collared shirts and irreverent signboards became the iconic image of the anti-Prohibition movement. Yet the people who led this march—and indeed much of the movement to repeal the 18th Amendment—were not men in ties and long coats. They were some of the very same women who had supported Prohibition in the first place—and who had won the right to vote the same year it was enacted.
Anti-alcoholism had long been seen as a woman’s cause. A century before the 18th Amendment became law in 1920, women had begun joining church groups to preach the ills of alcohol. They had reason to be concerned. Alcoholism was rampant throughout the 19th and early-20th century, especially among men: At its peak in 1830, the average American's liquor consumption reached the equivalent of 90 bottles of vodka per year. Women paid the price. Barkeepers would cash men’s checks, allowing them to deplete their savings on alcohol and sometimes forcing their families to go hungry. Alcoholism also contributed to widespread domestic violence. (Discover humanity's 9,000-year love affair with booze.)
Concerned about their safety and what they saw as alcohol-induced social ills, some women began to craft anti-alcohol campaigns that would reach beyond their churches and appeal to the mostly white, all-male electorate. Alcohol was tearing families apart, argued groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which was founded in 1874. Prohibition would provide what they called “home protection.”
Though women’s support for temperance was strong across races, some leaders of the mainstream movement valued political expedience over solidarity, and used racist messages to make their case. One WCTU state director called alcohol a “racial poison” capable of destroying the white family. Frances Willard, the organization’s national president, claimed that alcohol fueled “great, dark-faced mobs” who threatened the safety of white women and children. (She was expertly taken to task for this comment by activist Ida B. Wells, who pointed out that Willard was long silent about the white mobs who lynched Black Americans.)
Eventually, temperance proponents realized that what they needed was enfranchisement. With the vote, the thinking went, women could prohibit alcohol and protect the (implicitly white) family. In many states, the women’s temperance movement became almost synonymous with women’s suffrage.
For that reason, liquor industry leaders lobbied mightily against suffrage. But in 1920, both the temperance women and the suffragists were victorious. That year, the 18th Amendment (prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”) and the 19th Amendment (declaring that the right to vote could not be denied “on account of sex”) became enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. (Black women still had to fight for the vote after the 19th Amendment passed.)
It would be a massive understatement to say that the 18th Amendment had unintended consequences. Rather than erasing widespread drunkenness, Prohibition sparked a rise in crime and corruption. Saloons were supplanted by speakeasies, complete with secret passwords and off-the-menu hooch. Deadly organized crime ran rampant in cities and small towns as moonshine developed into a lucrative underground industry. The Great Depression only made things worse. The federal government spent a fortune trying in vain to enforce Prohibition, while simultaneously losing the potential revenue from taxing alcohol. (Meet the female sheriff who led a Kentucky town through Prohibition.)
In 1929, New Yorker Pauline Morton Sabin, the daughter of a railroad executive, decided she had had enough. Like many wealthy, white mothers, she had initially supported Prohibition because she thought it would be good for her sons. But the opposite proved to be true: Unregulated speakeasies freely serving alcohol to young people. To combat the problem, Sabin formed the bipartisan Women’s Organization on National Prohibition Reform.
“She, and by extension her organization, argued that Prohibition was a failure and actually ended up worsening the situation of youth and children, who she thought were now more likely to be exposed to alcohol and crime,” says Alison Staudinger, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “It was essentially ‘home protection redux’—except this time in opposition to federal Prohibition.”
A skilled organizer, Sabin published articles and toured the country speaking to women in support of the anti-Prohibition cause, often to sold-out crowds. “Her wealth and charm were a boon to her work,” says Staudinger. She even made the cover of Time magazine. By Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, her organization had well over a million members.
Fellow New Yorker M. Louise Gross—working class, college educated, and single—took a more radical approach. In 1922, Gross created an all-women repeal club named for Molly Pitcher, a Revolutionary War hero who, as the legend goes, stepped in for her husband on the battlefield when he could no longer fight. “Gross and the Molly Pitchers were much more likely to argue on their face for the right of women (and others) to drink alcohol,” says Staudinger. “They also made arguments connected to ideas of personal liberty [and] constitutional rights.” (During prohibition, nightlife thrived at these clubs.)
Though the organization was relatively small, the Molly Pitchers helped to overturn a New York State Prohibition enforcement law. In a 1930 speech, Gross said that the government’s prohibition of alcohol was an overreach. She pleaded with enfranchised women to use their newly earned vote to elect congressional representatives who would overturn the 18th Amendment.
Even Sabin, with her privileged social position and palatable arguments of “home protection,” ended up explicitly advocating for women’s place in politics. Her group built on the momentum of the 19th Amendment, imploring women through pamphlets and posters to engage in the political process. One such message: “Have you impressed upon your senators and congressmen that you demand unqualified repeal? … as citizens—as voters—it is our job.”
On December 5, 1933, Prohibition was overturned. Breweries immediately sprang back to life (with beer readied for sale). Bars became neighborhood fixtures once again. And women across the country raised a glass to their accomplishment.
Anti-prohibition men had been “defeatist,” explained William Stayton, a repeal advocate quoted in a Baltimore Sun article titled “Man Who Really Busted Prohibition Gives All Credit to the Opposite Sex.”
“The women knew better,” Stayton said. “When they went to bat for the 19th Amendment more than 13 states were against them, but they won nevertheless. They believed from the start that they could win again, and they were right.”
Women’s History Month: Exploring the Important Role of Women in Labor History
The history of America’s working women is a history of advocating for the abolition of slavery, the right to vote, the right to unionize, the welfare of children, and the extension of human rights to all. Women were among the first workers to bear the hardships of the industrial revolution, and among the first to unionize.
Women have participated in the labor movement in both a lead and supportive role through its entire history, but the movement has not always been friendly in return.
Tintype of two young women in Lowell, Massachusetts, circa 1870. (Public Domain.
Source: Center for Lowell History,
University of Massachusetts Lowell Libraries)
When young women were hired to tend the power looms of New England’s early factories, they became some of the earliest workers exposed to the rigors of the industrial workplace. As early as the 1830s, women who worked in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, took action to protest their arduous working conditions and low wages.
The “Mill Girls,” daughters of propertied New England farmers between the ages of 15 and 30, started their days at 5 a.m. and finished at 7 p.m., putting in regular 14-hour shifts. The noise and heat were often intolerable. Pay cuts in 1834 prompted the girls to walk out, a strike that gained national attention. The Lowell women’s organizing efforts were notable not only for the “unfeminine” participation of women, but also for the political framework used to appeal to the public. Framing their struggle for shorter work days and better pay as a matter of rights and personal dignity, they sought to place themselves in the larger context of the American Revolution. In 1846, the workers formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in order to press for a 10-hour day.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was a nineteenth-century Chicago seamstress who converted her resentment of the uneven distribution of wealth in society into a lifetime of activism on behalf of labor unions. “I’m not a humanitarian,” she declared, “I’m a hell-raiser.” (Photo by Bertha Howell. Source: United States Library of Congress)
After the Civil War, which saw the deaths of more than 600,000 men and the maiming of countless others, it became necessary for women to enter the work force in increasing numbers. Some journalists and labor leaders called for the creation of a Women’s Bureau to oversee conditions of female labor. But that agency, later formed as part of the federal Department of Labor, did not actually materialize until 1920. In the meantime, even African-American women in the South had begun to unionize. Newly freed black women, working as laundresses in Jackson, Mississippi, formed a union and struck for higher wages as early as 1866. Married or single, these women participated in the paid labor force to a far greater extent than other American women, largely because racial discrimination limited economic opportunities for black men.
The Knights of Labor, established in 1869, was the first large-scale national labor federation in the United States. In 1881, its members voted to admit women. The organization grew significantly in the mid-1880s after a series of successful strikes. Stressing equal pay regardless of sex or color, the Knights relied heavily on the organizing efforts of women such as the beloved widow, Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones.” By the 1890s, the Knights of Labor, weakened by lost strikes, poor investments, and battles with the newly formed American Federation of Labor (AFL), no longer carried much weight in the labor movement. Its early demise, however, could not detract from the unprecedented role played by the Knights of Labor in the promotion of women in the work force.
“Look for the Union Label…” When ILGWU founders met on June 3, 1900 and named their union, they immediately adopted a label for it. Early results were encouraging but use remained limited and after 5 years the first label drive ended with only one company in Kalamazoo continuing to use the label. ILGWU called for use of a union label at its first convention. Its use was slow to take hold however, as it was optional and seen as being of limited use. (Cornell University ILR School / Kheel Center ILGWU Collection)
The tradition of women’s involvement in the labor movement continued. In 1900 women in New York organized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The industry was hard to unionize because many workers were isolated in tenement sweatshops. But in 1909 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City walked out to protest the firing of union members. The walkout ignited frustration across the shirtwaist industry (a shirtwaist was a type of dress). Company brutality against picketers was met by a mass strike of 20,000 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, in the garment industry. An arbitrated settlement proved a partial victory for the ILGWU, but the three-month strike, known as the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand,” energized the union movement.
Two years later a fire broke out at that same Triangle factory. At least one of the exit doors was locked, and some of the fire escapes were inaccessible. As a result, many women were trapped. Some burned to death. Others leaped from the ninth floor, in some cases holding hands with a friend or sister as they fell to their deaths. In all, 146 young women died. The 1911 tragedy shocked the country. To many Americans, it laid bare the greed and excesses of industrial capitalism and made clear the need for the reforms unions were calling for.
The most successful union at the turn of the twentieth century was the AFL. Unfortunately for women workers, Samuel Gompers, its first president, shared society’s belief that a woman’s place was in the home. It was the union’s stand that “it is wrong to permit any of the female sex of our country to be forced to work, as we believe that men should be provided with a fair wage in order to keep his female relatives from going to work.” If women engaged in paid work, it was felt, respect for them would diminish and they would “bring forth weak children who are not educated to become strong and good citizens.”
In 1942, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller was hired by the Westinghouse Company’s War Production Coordinating Committee to create a series of posters for the war effort. One of these posters became the famous “We Can Do It!” image—an image that in later years would also be called “Rosie the Riveter,” though it was never given this title during the war. It was only later, in the early 1980s, that the Miller poster was rediscovered and became famous, associated with feminism, and often mistakenly called “Rosie The Riveter.” (Illustrator: J. Howard Miller. Public Domain)
During FDR’s New Deal, which sought to revive the depression-riddled economy through a series of innovative regulations, Congress passed the Wagner Act of 1935, which created the National Labor Relations Board and required private employers to deal with unions and not discriminate against union members. Guaranteeing workers the right to collective bargaining, it also oversaw union elections and the settlement of labor disputes.
As the unemployment rate during the Great Depression exceeded 25 percent of the work force, many Americans came to believe that only men were entitled to jobs. Although many wives sought to help with the family finances by seeking work when their husbands were laid off, some public and private employers refused to hire married women. Because sex segregation in the workplace was so prevalent and unemployment was so much greater in higher-paying heavy industries, these women often had to rely on traditionally female jobs that were scorned by men.
The profile of the female wage earner was changing as the percentage of married women in the work force, increasing since the 1920s, actually rose during the thirties by more than 25 percent. The participation by the United States in World War II accelerated this change. Six million new women workers entered the labor force and took heavy industry jobs formerly available only to men. A popular song, “Rosie the Riveter,” and a Norman Rockwell painting of Rosie that was commissioned for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 were invaluable symbols to weapons and munitions manufacturers.
When the war ended, many women had to give up their high-paying jobs to make room for returning veterans. However, even though the entertainment and advertising industries portrayed the American wife and mother as totally devoted to domesticity, increasing numbers of women poured into the work force, taking positions in office work, retail sales, teaching, nursing, and other so-called feminine occupations.
Through its 53 offices nationwide, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission works to stop and remedy sex-based barriers to equal employment opportunity such as hiring discrimination and harassment. In 2014, EEOC staff resolved roughly 26,000 charges of employment discrimination based on sex and recovered $106.5 million for individuals along with substantial changes to employer policies to remedy violations and prevent future discrimination – without litigation.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Sex discrimination cases were low on the EEOC agenda until prodding by groups such as the National Organization for Women brought them to the fore. By 1970, when the courts had invalidated protective legislation, women found themselves eligible for many jobs formerly closed to them.
The world looks brighter now, but no one denies that women still face discrimination or that many female workers are still congregated in sex-segregated jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while only about one-third of all women participated in the paid labor force in 1950, approximately 60 percent did by 2004. Married women increased their participation from 24 to 61 percent in that same period. Major changes took place between 1950 and 1990, with women’s labor force participation leveling off since then. We have even seen a slight decrease in participation rates among white married women with infants in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but that appears to be primarily because of the recession and difficulty in finding work.
Before National Secretaries Week was appropriated by the working women’s movement, florists encouraged employers to give their secretaries flowers. The working women’s movement built upon the feminist insight that acts of chivalry created a smokescreen to mask women’s insubordination, and the slogan “Raises, Not Roses” was born.
In a recent article, “Raises, Not Roses,” published in the Huffington Post, AFSCME President Lee A. Saunders raises the issue that women in the workplace – and even in union workplaces – still do not receive equal pay:
“Their work is worth every dollar a man makes, but their earnings do not reflect that. Women make 79 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man makes, and the shortfall is even worse for women of color: Black women make 60 cents, and Latinas make 55 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic male makes.
“The disparity is even more damaging, since women are more overrepresented in low-wage jobs, making up two-thirds of low-wage workers.
“This is wrong. Pay equity is the fair thing to do for women. It is also the right thing to do for families. Women comprise half the workforce, so in most families a woman either shares the economic lead or is the sole breadwinner. Every cent counts for working families.”
The history of America’s working women is a history of advocating for the abolition of slavery, the right to vote, the right to unionize, the welfare of children and the extension of human rights to all. Despite the obstacles, despite the stereotypes imposed by society, America’s working women have persevered. Theirs is a revolution still in the making.
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