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Women and the Labor Movement

Women have always been active in the labor movement, especially by advocating for other working women. This section highlights a few of the women who have fought for workers' rights to a fair wage, dignified working conditions, and freedom to organize.

Lavinia Waight and Louise Mitchell 

In 1825, two seamstresses formed the first all-women's labor union, the United Tailoresses of New York, to protest 16-hour days that did not guarantee a living wage. Women shoemakers and textile workers began to strike across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania through the 1830s in protest of declining wages and twelve-hour days. Unions at the time were usually short-lived and focused around specific issues, but the recognition of women's groups as politically potent was radically controversial at the time.

Sarah Bagley (1808-1883?) 

The woman who would later become the first woman telegrapher became famous earlier as a tough organizer of the women of Lowell Mills. The mill was the first factory to employ large numbers of women, so to reassure the parents of these young women living away from home, the mill supervised the workers around the clock. However, when more factories began to employ women and competition grew fierce, management responded by cutting wages and increasing expected output. Workers walked out in 1834, 1836, and 1842, but gained nothing until 1846 after Bagley formally organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. The Association, which claimed hundreds of members, sought support from the community and government. They prompted the state legislature held hearings to investigate labor conditions for the first time, and the mill eventually began to shorten the workday.

Informative online game that has students act as if they were a Lowell Mill Girl like Sarah Bagley.  

Analyze primary source documents including Bagley's letters.

Kate Mullany (1845-1906)

When she was only 19 years old, Kate Mullany organized Collar Laundry Union within 14 separate laundries in the town of Troy, NY in1864. The town generated 90% of the collars in the country, and the women worked 12 to 14 hour days using harsh chemicals and hot, dangerous machinery. With support from the men's union, Mullany led a successful strike for improved wages and working conditions. One of the first sustained women's unions, the Collar Laundry women worked to improve the standing of the working class in Troy for six years, lasting twice as long as other women's unions at the time. They offered benefits to their members and helped train women to lead and organize other unions.

Kate Mullany National Historic Site provides a brief history about Mullany and includes a video of Hillary Clinton, recipient of the Kate Mullany Medal.

Agnes Nestor (1880-1948)

Agnes Nestor worked in a glove factory in Chicago, Illinois, which charged its employees for their materials, such as machines, needles, and oil. In 1898, she organized the women in her shop to strike for not only better working conditions, but also for raises for the lowest-paid workers and the right to a union shop. She went on to become president of her new Women Gloves Workers local union, an organizer in other women-dominated industries, and a campaigner for the eight-hour day.

Written by Agnes Nestor, this is a firsthand account of the oppressive conditions she experienced that pushed her to take a leading role in a strike of female glove workers in 1898.

Mother Jones (1830 or 1837-1930)

Claiming her birth year to be 1830 to enhance her reputation for wisdom, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was a labor leader particularly known for organizing women and children. In 1890, she convinced the families of striking United Mine Workers to demonstrate on behalf of their husbands and fathers. In 1903, she led the "Children's Crusade" to the home of President Teddy Roosevelt to protest child labor in mills and mines. A self-described "hell-raiser", she was notorious as the "grandmother of all agitators" for her tireless labor activism until her death at age 93.

Jones' full autobiography as an e-book.

Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972)

A Polish immigrant to the Lower East Side, Rose Schneiderman began working in New York City at the age of 13. As a lining stitcher in a hat factory, she organized the first women's local of the United Cloth and Hatmakers in 1903. Schneiderman became the Vice-President of the New York Women's Trade Union League and is most famous for coining the phrase "Bread and Roses", which refers to women and labor's need for both fair wages and dignified working conditions. The phrase was used to describe a 1912 strike of immigrant workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which defied conventional wisdom that female and ethnically diverse workers could not successfully organize.

Written by Rose Schneiderman, this is a first-hand account of her fight for labor rights.

Margaret Dreier Robins (1868-1945)

Born to German immigrants in New York City, Margaret Dreier Robins presided over the New York Women's Trade Union League during its most influential years, from 1907-1922. She led the union to national prominence by organizing, educating, and training working women to be activists and leaders. The league supported massive strikes during this time through money, food, legal defense, and public education. They also advocated for legislating limited hours, a minimum wage, and safe working conditions.

Clara Lemlich (1886-1982)

This Jewish Ukrainian woman, who fled to New York City to escape persecution, worked in a garment factory and used her courage and charisma to organize fellow women workers. At a 1909 union meeting on the Lower East Side to discuss a general strike in the shirtwaist industry, Lemlich grew frustrated with the cautious speeches of male leaders, and spoke at the podium despite broken ribs incurred while picketing on behalf of striking workers. She immediately called for a general strike which would later be known as the Uprising of 20,000. Over the next two days, 20,000 of 32,000 workers in the industry walked out in protest of the low wages and poor conditions in the factories, including locked exits in high-rise buildings which contributed to the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Lemlich worked for progressive causes for the rest of her life. During her last years in a home for the elderly, she convinced the management to join the United Farm Workers' boycott of grapes and lettuce, and she encouraged the local staff to form a union.

Cornell University Web site dedicated to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

Frances Perkins (1882-1965)

A talented student who defended in court her right to keep her maiden name, Frances Perkins became a social reformer after visiting a factory while in college. She was particularly concerned with labor issues after she witnessed 146 garment workers die inside or jumping from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Working under then-Governor of New York Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she successfully shortened the workweek to 48 hours for women and sought minimum wage and unemployment protections. In 1933, she became Secretary of Labor, the first woman to hold a cabinet position and be included in the line of presidential succession. She was instrumental in creating the Social Security Act of 1935.

Columbia University Web site with interviews, photos, and other information about Francis Perkins.

Luisa Moreno (1907-1992)

After renouncing her Guatemalan society status, moving to American, and being impoverished by the Great Depression, Moreno worked as a seamstress in Spanish Harlem, New York. There, she organized her co-workers into a garment workers' local union and translated union literature into Spanish. After the depression, she remained active in the AFL-CIO and was known for encouraging other women to become leaders and organizers, as well as championing the rights of migrant Mexican workers in California.

Historical account of Moreno's life and work with the labor movement, with images.

Women of the Pawtucket textile mills

The first strike to include American female workers occurred in textile mills in 1924 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, after management extended the workday for all workers but cut wages only to young women weavers. The Pawtucket Textile Strike, during which the women held separate meetings, closed all the mills in the village and was supported by community members, who took to the streets in a rowdy fashion. Eventually the owners offered a compromise settlement.

Emma Tenayuca (1916-1999)

After being arrested for labor activism before even graduating high school, Emma Tenayuca worked to organize and advocate for Mexican-American workers in Texas throughout the 1930s. She was the original strike leader in a 1938 strike at the Southern Pecan Shelling Factory in San Antonio where 12,000 shellers, mostly Hispanic women, walked out to protest a wage cut and poorly lit, unsanitary factories. She worked to organize and represent the repressed for the rest of her life. In her eulogy, writer Carmen Tafolla said "La Pasionaria, we called her, because she was our passion, because she was our heart -- defendiendo a los pobres, speaking out at a time when neither Mexicans nor women were expected to speak at all."

History of the ACLU in Texas, describing Tenayuca's role in its formation.  

Dolores Huerta (1930-present)

Dolores grew up in a California farming community and became active in the 1950s organizing migrant workers. She founded the heavily Filipino Agricultural Workers Association in 1960 and co-founded the mostly Mexican-American National Farm Workers Association in 1962 with César Chávez. The two unions would eventually merge to become the United Farm Workers. Huerta directed their 1965 grape boycott, which eventually led to a collective-bargaining contract for over 10,000 of the country's lowest paid migrant workers in 1970. She remains politically active, lobbying on behalf of agricultural workers, the Hispanic community, and women.

Timeline, photos, and video about Dolores Huerta.

Linda Chavez-Thompson (1944-present)

She began work hoeing and picking cotton at the age of 10. She became involved in organizing public employees throughout the 1960s and 1970s and was elected executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO in 1995. She is the first woman elected officer of the AFL-CIO, as well as the first person of color and the first Hispanic. She is active in the union's political work, and is credited with helping reform the organization's position on immigration policy.

Detailed biography of Chavez-Thompson.