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Nestor, Agnes

Agnes Nestor

Agnes Nestor (1880–1948), known for her work as a union leader, spent the majority of her life actively involved in issues of human rights, especially focusing on women's rights issues. She was key in implementing the standard eight-hour work day and fought for minimum wage.

Moved from Michigan to Chicago

Nestor was born on June 24, 1880, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Thomas Nestor, an Irishborn immigrant who worked as a machinist and grocery store operator, before becoming involved in politics, and Anna McEwen, an orphan, originally from upstate New York, who worked as a cotton mill operator and shop girl. When Nestor was young, her father owned a grocery store, and her entire family pitched in to make the grocery store a success. While she was still young Nestor's father entered politics, becoming an alderman and city treasurer, and gave up the family's grocery store in lieu of a government office. Nestor, always interested in learning, gained much knowledge about the political world at his side, studying the issues involved in leadership. He was also a member of the Knights of Labor, as he was always interested in labor unions set up to protect the rights of workers that were otherwise exploited by their employers. The things Nestor's father taught her about unions would serve Nestor well later in life.

When the economy turned bad in the late 1890s, Nestor's father lost his political job. As he had sold his grocery store when he became a politician, he had no income and there was little opportunity for him to find one in Grand Rapids. With this in mind, Nestor's father moved to Chicago, Illinois, to find work, and the family followed him a short while later, in 1897.

Worked at the Eisendrath Glove Company

After moving to Chicago, the family members were forced to find work, and Nestor herself found a job at the Eisendrath Glove Company, stitching gloves. Nestor was skilled at her job, but there was a lot of unrest in the company, mainly because the girls were forced to pay for the power to run their machines, had to supply their own needles, and had to provide machine oil to keep their machines running. Also at the time, the Glove company workers, along with most factory workers, had to work a 60-hour workweek, something that was standard at the time. Nestor had said that she was so tired sometimes from the grueling schedule that she could barely get herself to work the next day, let alone run the machines with any assurance of correctness. Somehow, however, she managed to not only do the work, but to excel at it.

Conditions for the women at the factory were poor, despite the grumblings of the workers. The male cutters of the factory, who were also dealing with horrible work conditions, had organized a union just before Nestor started at the company, and they encouraged the women to join them, but at that time no one had dared to do so. All the women were afraid that if they joined the union they would lose their jobs and in a depression there were not that many jobs to be had. It was a terrifying prospect.

Became Leader of Rebellion

Finally, in 1898, unwilling to deal with their situation anymore, the female workers rebelled, with Nestor rising to lead them. She was a small woman, but very smart and quick—witted, and she was said to have the natural charisma that is necessary in a leader, as well as the knowledge she had gleaned from her father's years as an alderman. Her father who was a union man of long standing had taught her a lot about the principles of trade unionism, and her knowledge of the ways that unions worked would become invaluable. The women, to an extent, joined the male's union as an offshoot of their organization.

There was a great uproar at the glove company as the women picketed, and the owners of the factory ordered the girls to get back to work, threatening, as the women had feared, to fire them all and replace them with other workers, but Nestor and her fellow strikers refused to back down. The History Matters website quoted Nestor as having said, "We had taken a bold step. Almost with spontaneity we had acted in support of one another. Now we all felt tremulous, vulnerable, exposed. With no regular organization, without even a qualified spokesman, how long would such unified action last? If anyone ever needed the protection of a firm organization, I for one, at that moment felt keenly that we certainly did." Things looked like they might never work out, but after a week the woman's hopes began to rise. Due in large part to Nestor's calm and firm voice amidst the chaos of the rebelling, after ten days' time the women won their demands and things at the factory improved for them dramatically.

Set Up Women's Trade Union League

In 1902 Nestor suggested that the women separate themselves from the male's union. She became president of the new union of women, the Women's Trade Union League, an organization that also included her fellow Eisendrath Glove Company workers. She took her position very seriously and quickly had their small union registered with the larger International Glove Workers Union in Washington, D.C. She served as a delegate to the convention of the International Union and soon after, in her fervor to help in whatever way she could to improve the lot of women workers everywhere, became its national vice-president, a position that was voluntary.

In 1906 she obtained a full-fledged paid position in the union as secretary-treasurer, a position that came at a very opportune time, as she had suffered from ill health just a short time before the job was offered to her, and had been unable to return to work at the factory. She had been wondering what she would do to support herself when the offer came through. She relished her new position, as it gave her the power to try to implement the changes and improvements in women's work conditions that she envisioned. At first, her emphasis was on the glove trade, but she soon saw a need to help women and children in all fields. In a short time Nestor looked around for an organization that could help her broaden the scope of her philanthropic works. Her sights came onto work being done by the National Women's Trade Union League, and she liked what she saw. She joined the group and became president of the Chicago branch in 1913, a position she held until 1948. She also served on the executive board of the national league. This Trade Union League allowed Nestor to meet such famous persons in female legislature as Mary McDowell, Jane Addams, and Margaret Dreier Robins. She worked alongside these women willingly to help improve female conditions across the country in many areas of life.

Established the Eight Hour Work Day

Because of her work for the National Women's Trade Union League, Nestor began spending a lot of time in Springfield, the capitol of Illinois, lobbying for a maximum-hours-law for women. Remembering her struggle with the 60-hour workweek at the Eisendrath Glove Company, Nestor was eager to help others obtain a better work-life arrangement than she had had. At first the political structure of lobbying was alien to Nestor, but she became a skilled lobbyist in short order, and eventually, in 1909, brought about the law that stated that women working in factories could only work a ten-hour day. In 1911 Nestor managed to get the law expanded to include all women workers, those working outside factories, as well as within them. It was a triumph that was long in coming and would not have been possible if Nestor had not lobbied for better conditions.

It was in 1937, though, that Nestor's triumph really came through when she managed to get the eight-hour work day passed into law—it is Nestor's work that has led to the twenty-first century standard workday, quite a feat from a woman who started out stitching gloves in a factory. In the meantime Nestor began taking part in major strikes and started organizing drives among the women of several different trades in Chicago and across the country. She was involved in the great garment workers' strikes of 1909 and 1910–1911, both of which ended in improved circumstances for the workers involved. She also became an articulate supporter of women's suffrage, fighting alongside other lobbyists to push for a woman's right to vote. After all, if a woman could work and belong to unions, both of which helped the country, they should have the right to vote for the legislature of that country. She also pushed for a minimum wage, as no such thing existed at the time, and the discrepancies amongst employers was enormous, as well as for maternity health legislation.

Women's Committee of U.S. Council of National Defense

Her successes as a lobbyist led to Nestor's appointment to the National Commission on Vocational Education. During World War I, Nestor was offered a position on the Woman's Committee of the United States Council of National Defense. As part of her responsibilities in this position, she participated in goodwill missions to England and France. Then in 1928 she decided to campaign as a Democrat for a seat in the Illinois state legislature. Her bid was unsuccessful, but it showed the amount of power she had garnered that she could get herself on the ballot in the first place. She sat on the Illinois Commission on Unemployment and Relief during the Great Depression, and was part of the board of trustees of the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition from 1933 to 1934. Nestor was given an honorary LL.D., from Loyola University in Chicago, in 1929 for all her work with labor's rights. Although she had expanded her areas for concern throughout her career, Nestor continued to be a strong, active voice in the labor movement.

Nestor's health began to deteriorate in 1946. Doctors managed to diagnose the problem as being tuberculosis, and she went through an operation for a breast abscess in October of 1948 at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago. Her health, despite the operation, never improved, and on December 28, 1948, Nestor died of uremia. Her remains were interred at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Cook County, Illinois.

Books

Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4: 1946–1950, American Council of Learned Societies, 1974.

Online

"Agnes Nestor," Spartacus Educational, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAWnestor.htm (January 6, 2006).

"Agnes Nestor," Women's History, http://womenshistory.about.com/library/bio/blbio_nestor_agnes.htm (January 6, 2006).

"Working Her Fingers to the Bone: Agnes Nestor's Story," History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5728/ (January 6, 2006).

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