National Women's Trade Union League

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National Women's Trade Union League

United States 1903


Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, the American workforce had a female presence. Like their male counterparts, women laborers suffered intolerable working conditions, low wages, and long hours. Unlike their male counterparts, however, they did not possess the same rights or respect in the workforce. Therefore, their interests were not represented with the same vigor as men, and women rarely held positions of union leadership.

Although female members of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) assumed an active role in union activities, the women's efforts were often met with resistance. After an AFL meeting in Boston, it became clear that the organization did not intend to embrace women in leadership roles. If women did not want to continue to be under-represented, therefore, they would have to take a bold new step. This step resulted in the formation of the National Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903. Uniting women from all classes, the WTUL was the first national association dedicated to organizing women workers. In the spirit of the social settlement, the league successfully focused on providing women with educational opportunities as well as improved working conditions through legislation and union organization.


  • 1883: Foundation of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1899: Start of the Second Anglo-Boer War, often known simply as the Boer War.
  • 1903: Anti-Jewish pogroms break out in Russia.
  • 1903: Henry Ford establishes the Ford Motor Company.
  • 1903: Russia's Social Democratic Party splits into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks and the hard-line Bolsheviks. Despite their names, which in Russian mean "minority" and "majority," respectively, Mensheviks actually outnumber Bolsheviks.
  • 1903: Polish-born French chemist Marie Curie becomes the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize.
  • 1903: One of the earliest motion pictures, The Great Train Robbery, premieres.
  • 1903: United States assumes control over the Panama Canal Zone, which it will retain until 1979.
  • 1903: Wright brothers make their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Though balloons date back to the eighteenth century and gliders to the nineteenth, Orville Wright's twelve seconds aloft on 17 December mark the birth of practical human flight.
  • 1906: Founding of the British Labour Party.
  • 1913: Two incidents illustrate the increasingly controversial nature of the arts in the new century. Visitors to the 17 February Armory Show in New York City are scandalized by such works as Marcel Duchamp's cubist Nude Descending a Staircase, which elicits vehement criticism, and theatergoers at the 29 May debut of Igor Stravinksy's ballet Le Sacrédu Printemps (The Rite of Spring) are so horrified by the new work that a riot ensues.

Event and Its Context

For many working-class women in the late nineteenth century, employment outside the home did not constitute a rebellion against their roles as wives and mothers. They worked out of necessity to escape the poverty they suffered and hoped to achieve some modicum of economic freedom. Such financial independence was often hard to find and certainly not encouraged for white married women, especially given the strength of the patriarchy. Working-class families also depended on the largely unpaid labor provided by wives and mothers, which included endless hours of sewing, cleaning, laundering, cooking, childrearing, and, in some unfortunate cases, even scavenging in the street. In fact, only a small percentage of white married women, between 3 and 5 percent, entered the labor force in the nineteenth century, and they did so primarily in response to dire circumstances such as the desertion, injury, or death of their husbands. Nonetheless, working outside the home served as more than an extension of the family economy; it helped to create informal female peer groups, women's "work space" cooperatives, and mutual support networks.

Banding together in mutual support was not uncommon for women of the time. They helped each other routinely in their domestic lives, living "simultaneously in an expressive world of female support rituals and networks and a repressive world of male-superior/female-subordinate routines." As historian Carol Smith-Rosenberg wrote, "Women revealed their deepest feelings to one another, helped one another with the burdens of housewifery and motherhood, nursed one another's sick, and mourned for one another's death. It was a world in which men made only a shadowy appearance." Certainly Smith-Rosenberg is not denying the "importance of women's relations with particular men," but there is plenty of evidence from diaries, for example, to suggest that women's relationships with one another differed dramatically in "emotional texture."

Indeed, the social norms encouraged separate roles for men and women; however, some women questioned this logic. Certainly this was true of the activists who attended a convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition of women. Recognized by many historians as the official start of the women's rights movement, the gathering served as a forum for the exchange of ideas regarding the roles of women in society. Embracing the idea that women should be afforded the same rights as men, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a treatise that called for women to have the legal right to vote. Many of her statements, considered radical at the time, became the root structure of today's definition of egalitarian liberal feminism, which correlates female subordination with the legal constraints that interfere with the ability of women to enter or succeed in the "public world." Many nineteenth-century feminist leaders believed, as do some modern feminists, that "gender justice" depends on making the rules of the game fair, and ensuring that no class of people is systematically excluded from the race for goods or stature in society.

By the late 1880s new patterns of leadership were developing that embraced inclusion rather than exclusion; the social language used to communicate ideas was shaped and redefined, allowing feminist theory to emerge anew. Women wanted access to birth control and the freedom to explore their sexual natures. They wanted to escape the confines of patriarchal language and define themselves in terms that embraced their own self-awareness. This sometimes required new modes of thinking that were outside traditional frameworks. Inherent in this female consciousness was the idea that women should have the same opportunities as men and that women should be able to define their own goals.

In this spirit, affluent and college-educated women opted not to marry and instead carved out professional careers for themselves. These "New Women" were socially controversial because their claims of rights and privileges that had been reserved traditionally for middle-and upper-class men also rejected the conventional female roles. Yet, conversely, what Susan B. Anthony said in an 1893 speech still rang true for many women. She hypothesized that there were not more suffragettes "because women have been taught always to work for something else than their own personal freedom and the hardest thing in the world is to organize women for the one purpose of securing their political liberty and political equality."

By the end of the nineteenth century, increased access to education allowed women access to different types of employment. The advent of the typewriter prompted a shift from male clerks to female. Unwilling to remain quietly in their homes, more middle-class women began to participate in social reform activities. Immigrant women helped to support their families by working in sweatshops, and industrialization brought women into factories and realigned some jobs along gender lines. Women of color faced racial discrimination as well as gender bias. The variety among women's situations created a need for new leadership and a diversity of organizations.

Unfortunately, women who belonged to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were rarely chosen for leadership positions. Many historians point out that the AFL chartered "ladies'" federal unions for "women's jobs," but according to historian James J. Kenneally, most affiliated unions "were not sympathetic to their needs. Some excluded women or made them feel uncomfortable or negotiated for inferior pay scales." The gender prejudice that permeated women's domestic lives was ever present in their professional lives as well. Indeed, the highly influential AFL labor leader Samuel Gompers had forged a limited agenda as far as the female workforce was concerned. His primary goal was to "organize the organizable," which meant a preference for "skilled workers who possessed leverage in the work place." Therfore, Gompers did not think it was sensible to "pour energies into enrolling less skilled, easily replaced workers." Because many female workers were unskilled and were paid significantly less than men, they were not valued in the same way as male members. Union dues were often set too high for the women. Male organizers also complained that organizing women was difficult, as social propriety inhibited them from speaking to women in private or discussing moral or sanitary issues.

The half-hearted support that was given to Mary Kenney, the AFL's first female organizer, was a testament to the AFL's unwillingness to embrace female leadership. Despite Gompers's public rhetoric that every energy would be exhausted to unite trade unions and "federate their effort without regard to . . . sex," the limited support for women in leadership roles was, according to historian Alice Kessler-Harris, "tinged with the conviction and perhaps the hope that women would get out of the work force altogether." Furthermore, although Gompers and others conceded that women should be given the "full and free opportunity to work whenever and wherever necessity requires," the slippery slope is evident in the word "requires." This wording implied that need was the only valid reason for women to work outside the home, thus erasing professional ambition from the equation.

Whether women's leaders aligned themselves with feminist ideology or not, they all recognized an urgent need to protect working women and children, which facilitated the creation of coalitions that worked together on the issue. Although the needs of self-supporting professional women tended to be complex and ambiguous, the demands of working-class women were more straightforward. They needed income stability, legitimacy for unions, legal protection against exploitation and hazardous working conditions, and some reversal of negative stereotypes in the media regarding the morality of working women. Some women workers, especially immigrants, worked in sweatshops or as domestic help and were subject to frequent indignities, such as sexual harassment and insults regarding their morality and heritage. Certainly immigrant women faced additional hurdles because of language barriers and cultural differences.

To deal with these problems, it was evident that women needed to be their own advocates, because they alone understood the complexities of their work environment and the indignities they sometimes suffered. It became clear at a 1903 Boston meeting that the AFL did not intend to include women as full members in its ranks or to work effectively on their behalf. In response, labor leaders Mary Kenney O'Sullivan and Leonora O'Reilly and settlement workers Lillian Wald and Jane Addams helped form the National Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), which was the first national association dedicated to organizing women workers. In a broadminded alliance, women from all classes united in the common pursuit of better and more equitable working conditions. With its strong reformist agenda, the WTUL was founded in the spirit of the social settlement; it strived to provide women with educational opportunities as well as improved working conditions through legislation and union organization. By 1904 the WTUL had branches in Chicago, New York, and Boston and had identified some specific focus areas such as the need for work hour and wage legislation.

Having chosen Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, as their symbol, the WTUL managed to secure protective legislation, organize women into trade unions, and educate the public about the needs of working-class women. The WTUL presidency of Margaret Dreier Robins (1907-1922) fostered many of the league's most notable achievements, including its effective support of garment industry strikes in New York and Chicago from 1909 to 1911. During the strikes, settlement house workers provided support and encouragement, women's club matrons provided money, and working-class young women provided the pickets. Help could be found on an individual or group basis, with union members, regardless of class, marching side by side to lend support. When the clothing manufacturers refused to settle with the strikers, wealthy members of the league boycotted their clothing until a settlement was reached. Robins and the WTUL were pivotal in the development of arbitration methods at Hart Schaffner and Marx, a men's clothing company in Chicago, which introduced a groundbreaking level of industrial equality.

The WTUL published its own journal, Life and Labor, and successfully combined feminist theory and reform unionism. The support it provided, especially in the early twentieth century, had an empowering effect on women. In fact, there was a new consciousness regarding self-supporting women at all levels of society, which found expression not only in the WTUL and the ranks of settlement house workers, but also in the public image of the New Woman. Feminist ideology was being openly articulated and began to define the relationships between women and society in ways that broadened the cultural concept of liberty to encompass independence as economic self-support, artistic self-expression, freer sexual development, and conscious choice between career or marriage.

Even the language changed to reflect the progress of women in society. Early activists used the singular term woman to symbolize the identity and unity of the female gender, but twentieth-century activists increasingly used the plural term women to denote the united diversity of their causes. Harriet Stanton Blanch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, noted that the basis of unity among women had shifted to the workplace and their numerous roles in it. Equal rights activists found themselves at home in the WTUL. Having learned successful ways to lobby elected officials, propose referenda, and conduct publicity campaigns, some WTUL members married their collective skills to promote causes other than work-related reform, such as the suffrage campaign.

Interestingly, in 1923, three years after the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote, the AFL officially acknowledged competition as a primary motivating factor for organizing women. According to the AFL, "Unorganized [women] constitute a menace to standards established through collective action. Not only for their protection, but for the protection of men . . . there should be organization of all women." So, in other words, according to the AFL, women needed to be controlled and guided or they might interfere with the status quo. This prejudicial way of thinking was unacceptable to women activists who knew that self-organization and female leadership would empower them to accomplish work reform that specifically benefited their gender.

The torch of leadership within the WTUL soon passed to a new generation of women, and the established generation took up the role of mentor. The WTUL embraced a form of social feminism by concentrating on "unity and integration." To WTUL president Robins's credit, she made a point of recruiting members from all sectors of the community without regard to class standing. It was therefore not surprising that by the mid-1920s, the WTUL's leadership had transitioned from affluent middle-class women to those with working-class backgrounds. Although financial difficulties associated with the Great Depression took their toll on the league, it stayed solvent primarily from member resources until it was dissolved in 1950.

Key Players

Addams, Jane (1860-1935): After founding Hull House with Ellen Gates Starr, Addams became a vocal suffragette. She was later the vice president of the National Women's Suffrage Association. She also helped to establish the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). An accomplished author and pacifist, Addams wrote several books about peace, democracy, and her experiences at Hull House. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Anthony, Susan B. (1820-1906): A political writer and social reformer, Anthony worked closely with Elizabeth Cady Stanton to champion women's rights. Unafraid to question authority, she was often the target of abuse by the press. Nevertheless, she worked zealously to improve the status of women, especially with regard to their marital and political rights. She believed strongly that women should strive for personal freedom and gender justice.

O'Sullivan, Mary Kenney (1864-1943): In 1892 Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, appointed Kenney as the AFL's first female general organizer. Highly motivated, Kenney successfully organized garment workers in New York and shoemakers, weavers, and printers in Massachusetts. She was a cofounder of the WTUL and a champion of women's rights in the workplace.

Robins, Margaret Dreier (1868-1945): As president of the WTUL from 1907 to 1922, Robins was extremely effective. She helped to organize numerous strikes against the garment industry. Robins believed strongly that women were suited for positions of leadership. She played a pivotal role in developing a highly successful training program for women leaders and served as the editor of the league's journal, Life and Labor.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1815-1902): Stanton, a social reformer and suffragette, is considered by some to be the mother of the women's rights movement. Considered radical in her day, Stanton worked tirelessly in pursuit of social and political reforms for the equality of women. In 1848, at the famous women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, she presented the Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled after the Declaration of Independence. In her treatise, she called for sweeping social reform, including legislation that would give women the right to vote.

See also: American Federation of Labor.



Kessler-Harris, Alice. "Where Are the Organized Women

Workers?" In A Heritage of Her Own, edited by Nancy F. Cott and Elizabeth Pleck. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

Kinneally, James J. "Women in the United States and Trade Unionism." In The World of Women's Trade Unionism: Comparative Historical Essays, edited by Norbert C. Soldon. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Licht, Walter. Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Paulson, Ross Evans. Liberty, Equality, and Justice: Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and the Regulation of Business, 1865-1932. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carol. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

——. "The Female World of Love and Ritual:Relationships Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America." In A Heritage of Her Own, edited by Nancy F. Cott and Elizabeth Pleck. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

Tong, Rosemary. Feminist Thought. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989.


"Women's Trade Union League, 1903-1950, Organization."Women in American History. Encyclopedia Britannica. 1998 [cited 19 October 2002]. http:// www2.britannica.

—Lee Ann Paradise

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