Women in the workplace: labor unions

By Juliet H. Mofford, Women’s History, Spring/Summer 1996

We are starving while we work; we might as well starve while we strike!

—1909 Garment Workers’ Strike Banner

When Alexander Hamilton wrote his Report on Manufacturers in 1791, seeking ways to develop industry in the United States, he identified women and children as a source of cheap labor. Later, in the 1820s, the textile mills of New England, most notably those in Lowell, Massachusetts, hired young women from the surrounding farms as workers, viewing them as more tractable than men and more willing to earn less, since presumably they would stop working once they married.

To make matters worse for female laborers, workingmen often saw them as threats to their status, especially as new machines permitted less skilled operatives to perform tasks formerly assigned to craftsmen. Thus, it is not surprising that as men attempted to unionize in order to combat declining pay and status, their leaders often ignored female workers.

Women, however, were eager to assume roles in the fledgling labor movement. As early as the 1820s, female workers in Lowell engaged in turnouts or work stoppages when employers sought to cut workers’ paychecks.

In 1844, women from the mills formed themselves into the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA). At a time when females seldom spoke in public, the women of Lowell, led by the intrepid Sarah Bagley, testified fearlessly before the Massachusetts legislature that new requirements forcing them to tend more machines at accelerated rates were endangering their physical well-being. Their petition drive compelled the legislature to investigate for the first time the question of worker health and safety.

When their petition was denied, the LFLRA forged an alliance with the New England Workingmen’s Association, which published The Voice of Industry. Through this medium, the two unions declared that in view of our condition—the evils already come upon us, by toiling from 13 to 14 hours per day, confined in unhealthy apartments, exposed to the poisonous contagion of air, vegetable, animal and mineral properties, debarred from proper Physical Exercise, Mental Discipline and Mastication cruelly limited, and thereby hastening us on through pain, disease and privation, to a premature grave, pray the legislature to institute a ten hour working day in all of the factories of the state.

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.

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.

One of the ways that working women sought to overcome male indifference or hostility was to join forces with upper-class women in the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), an organization founded in the United States in 1903. Initially, the WTUL hoped to persuade male-dominated unions to take women workers more seriously. Female sewers in the shirtwaist factories, dismissed in 1909 for union activity, were joined on the picket line by their upper-class allies. When both groups were hauled before judges, public sympathy turned a localized strike into New York City’s Uprising of the 20,000.

The strike began after a meeting held at New York’s Cooper Union in November, 1909, at which Gompers cautioned workers against a general strike. But Clara Lemlich, a young immigrant woman, stood and recited her hardships as a working girl, galvanizing the audience with her call for action. The impassioned crowd affirmed its solidarity by taking the old Jewish oath, If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.

Unfortunately, although women provided the backbone of the two-month-long strike, labor leaders settled it without due attention to worker safety. Shirtwaist workers were still crowded into lofts where the few existing fire escapes either were inaccessible or stopped several stories above the pavement. On March 25, 1911, as Frances Perkins—then a young New York City researcher and social reformer, but later Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor—was visiting a friend, she suddenly heard the clanging of fire engines close-by. Rushing out to the street, Perkins saw the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company engulfed in flames. She watched with horror as workers, mostly young women, leaped to their deaths. The tragedy, which claimed 146 lives, touched the conscience of Americans and led to the passage of more stringent laws governing working conditions.

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.

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 most female workers are still congregated in sex-segregated jobs. Perhaps the charismatic Leonora O’Reilly, who worked tirelessly in organizing women into labor unions at the beginning of the twentieth century, gave the best advice for future progress. Fearing the possibility that women would be divided by class, she wrote to her friend and fellow WTUL worker, Mary Dreier: Women, real women, anywhere and everywhere are what we must nourish and cherish. In a world in which the work force is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, it might be well to heed her wisdom.

—Shirley Leckie [editor?]

Sarah G. Bagley (dates unknown)

Bagley, a native of New Hampshire, began work in a Lowell, Massachusetts, factory in 1836 and by 1844 had begun organizing female operatives into the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) to combat deteriorating working conditions. The organization quickly grew to include five hundred workers, and Bagley served as its first president. She also spearheaded the petition drive that forced Massachusetts legislators to investigate conditions in the mills, the first-ever governmental investigation into labor conditions. During the legislative hearings in February 1845, she argued in favor of the ten-hour day, which by then was a full-fledged cause among workers. Bagley testified that in addition to suffering physically from their long hours in the mills, female workers lacked sufficient time to improve their minds, an activity she considered essential for laborers in a republic. When the legislature ruled against the women, Bagley was farsighted enough to recognize that male and female workers needed to cooperate to advance their cause and sought affiliation with the New England Workingmen’s Association. As one of the editors of that organization’s Voice of Industry, she developed a female department, under the title, As is Woman, so is the Race. Little is known of Bagley after she left both the LFLRA and the mills in 1846 and went to work as a telegraph operator, perhaps the first woman to hold that job. Although her time in public life was brief, Bagley raised issues relating to the health of workers and their need for sufficient leisure to fulfill civic duties that remain important today, as is her insistence that women are entitled to be heard and our rights acknowledged . . . .

Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972)

A native of Russian Poland, Schneiderman immigrated with her family to New York City’s Lower East Side in 1890. When she was 13 years old, poverty compelled her to work long hours to help support her family. A veteran worker in a cap factory by the time she was 21, Schneiderman helped organize the first female local of the Jewish Socialist United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers Union. By 1906, she was the vice president of the New York Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), despite her initial suspicions of its upper-class members. A compelling speaker, she soon emerged as the WTUL’s chief organizer and played a crucial role in the garment workers’ strike of 1909-10. Following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, Schneiderman touched a strong chord among fellow workers when she told a rally, The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 140-odd are burned to death. Realizing that male union leaders lacked enthusiasm for organizing female workers, Schneiderman concluded that women needed the vote in order to have the power to force legislators to pass laws ameliorating the most exploitative labor conditions. She campaigned indefatigably for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment that in 1920 finally guaranteed women’s right to vote. Schneiderman also devoted herself to her strongest passion—the WTUL—serving as national president from 1926 to ’49. A friend of both Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, she deepened their understanding of labor issues.

Leonora O’Reilly (1870-1927)

Born to Irish immigrants in New York City, O’Reilly (shown on right) worked in a collar factory when only 11 years old. She joined the Knights of Labor at 16 and later organized a female chapter of the United Garment Workers of America. Earning the friendship of wealthier reformers, she received help that enabled her to attend Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. She underscored her conviction that women needed to improve their skills to advance by teaching in the Manhattan Trade School for Girls from 1902 to 1909. When O’Reilly joined the Women’s Trade Union League, she won the enduring affection of her upper-class allies as the organization’s great stump orator. A source of strength during the Great Uprising among garment workers in 1909-10, she later led an investigation into the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that took 146 lives. Concluding that women could never obtain legislation improving the conditions of their work without the vote, she presided over the Wage Earners’ League, which campaigned for woman suffrage.

Caroline Gleason (Sister Miriam Theresa) (1886-1962)

In 1912 Gleason began a sociological survey that would eventually affect every laborer in the country. As part of a study for the Oregon Consumers’ League, Gleason interviewed thousands who worked in abominable conditions to earn a mere $8.25 for a 54-hour week. Although she was considered an outrageous socialist by employers, Gleason had the satisfaction of seeing her data prompt passage of the country’s first enforceable wage-hour law, which became the model for the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. In 1916, she found another way to promote social justice—she became a teaching nun. As Sister Miriam Theresa, she supervised the social sciences department at Oregon’s Marylhurst College for thirty years, urging students to work for society’s good through the Peace Corps, Volunteers In Service To America, and in schools and prisons. Upon her death, she was eulogized before Congress.

Elinore Morehouse Herrick (1895-1964)

As a divorced, 26-year-old mother, Herrick found herself supporting two boys on low wages. She accepted employment at DuPont’s rayon plant in Buffalo, New York, where she rose rapidly from pieceworker to training supervisor. In 1923, she moved south with the company, becoming production manager of its new factory in Tennessee. Under her direction the plant’s output equaled or exceeded those elsewhere, but knowing that she would not be promoted beyond her current level, Herrick moved her family to Ohio. There she attended Antioch College, financing studies in economics by running a boarding house with her mother’s help and taking part-time jobs. After her graduation in 1929, Herrick became executive secretary of the New York Consumers’ League, which monitored labor conditions for women in that state. While with the League, Herrick produced perceptive reports on female workers in canneries, laundries, and candy factories. When the Wagner Act of 1935 created the National Labor Relations Board, she was appointed regional director of the northeast district; the nation’s busiest, it handled twenty percent of all cases to come before the Board. Herrick’s negotiating skills led to the settlement of most disputes without litigation. During World War II, she became personnel director for Todd Shipyards and was responsible for integrating women and minorities into the wartime work force. Recognizing that the arrival of peace would force many women out of industrial jobs, she argued that society should maintain employment opportunities for all who want to work or for all who must work irrespective of sex. Her appeals went unheeded, however, as female workers were dismissed from wartime industries when veterans returned home. Herrick left Todd Shipyards to become personnel director for the New York Herald Tribune and continued writing on labor issues during the postwar era.

Mabel Edna Gillespie (1877-1923)

Gillespie was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and educated at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She became interested in labor problems through settlement-house work. When Massachusetts became the first state to mandate a minimum wage in 1912, Gillespie was appointed to the Minimum Wage Commission, serving from 1913 to 1919. Aware that the needs of women workers differed from those of men, in part because occupations held predominantly by females tended to offer less chance of upward mobility, she organized and became the first president of the Stenographers’ Union in 1917. A year later, she was the first woman elected to the executive board of the Massachusetts State Federation of Labor and joined the National Women’s Trade Union League, serving on its executive board from 1919 until 1922. Interested as well in the educational needs of women workers, Gillespie also helped to establish the Boston Trade Union College in 1919.