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United Tailoresses Society

United Tailoresses Society

United States 1825

Synopsis

Early nineteenth-century women by no means humbly accepted their lot without complaint despite the social restraints placed on them. Long before the Suffrage Act granted them the right to vote, women had been fighting for their rights on many levels. Of great importance were their rights in the workplace. Unfortunately, although the union movement had begun by 1820, labor activists typically ignored women and their plight. It was not until they stood up for themselves that unions finally took notice. One group that led the way in gaining public recognition was the United Tailoresses Society of New York. Protesting against unfair wages and deplorable conditions, the Tailoresses brought to light the truth about the textile and clothing industry. This act of bravery in the face of overwhelming opposition would inspire working women for decades to come.

Timeline

  • 1800: Italian physicist Alessandro Volta develops the voltaic cell, an early form of battery.
  • 1803: English chemist and physicist John Dalton develops the first modern form of atomic theory.
  • 1808: First performances of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies.
  • 1812: Napoleon invades Russia in June, but by October, his army, cold and hungry, is in retreat.
  • 1818: Donkin, Hall & Gamble "Preservatory" in London produces the first canned foods.
  • 1825: British Parliament enacts a law permitting workers to join together in order to secure regulation of wages and hours; however, other provisions in the law effectively deny the right to strike.
  • 1826: French inventor Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce makes the first photographic image in history.
  • 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
  • 1829: Greece wins its independence after a seven-year war with Turkey.
  • 1829: Overturning of the last of the "penal laws" imposed by the English against the Catholics of Ireland since 1695.
  • 1830: French troops invade Algeria, and at home, a revolution forces the abdication of Charles V in favor of Louis Philippe, the "Citizen King."
  • 1831: Young British naturalist Charles Darwin sets sail from England aboard the H.M.S. Beagle bound for South America, where he will make discoveries leading to the formation of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

Event and Its Context

Women and Labor in 1820

In the early nineteenth century, women possessed little power and even fewer rights. American society expected them to remain at home, raise children, and avoid political thinking. At the same time, economic conditions were forcing an increasing number of lower-and middle-class women out of the home and into the workplace. Once there, these women faced harsh work conditions and unfair labor practices. Even so, society expected them to be proper and restrained regardless of their circumstances. Meanwhile, men were allowed to act in their own best interests, even so far as to protest against adversity in the workplace. Unionists and social activists typically ignored working women, who faced ridicule for speaking out against employers and working conditions. Despite the restraints imposed by society, many women refused to stay quiet and unassuming. Although legal "equality" would remain almost a century in their future, American working women made sure their voices were heard. The nation soon knew of their struggle and their displeasure with the labor community.

Perhaps the greatest inspiration for early nineteenth-century female activists came from the American Revolution. During the conflict for independence, women had played vital roles in the revolutionary effort. The Daughters of Liberty, for example, became involved in enforcing the nonimportation agreements and passing resolutions. In addition to their supportive role during the War of Independence, women such as Deborah Sampson Gannett actually fought as soldiers. Having grown up hearing of these acts of female heroism told by their mothers and grandmothers, many early nineteenth-century women had the revolutionary spirit in their blood. This spirit would serve them well in their own revolution in the pursuit of social change and improvements in workplace conditions. The first true sign of this spirit of activism appeared in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

By the 1820s women had become the core of the workforce in the textile industry. Their numbers far outweighed those of men: in some mills women comprised more than 85 percent of the employees. Most of these women came from rural communities, often having been lured to the cities by the corporate agents. The women were placed in the lowest level jobs, and the men held all of the supervisory and skilled positions. The women received a predetermined wage, whereas the men were allowed to negotiate for their salaries. Much of the time, women earned less than half that of their male counterparts. Shifts commonly ran 12 or 13 hours, and sometimes longer during the summer months. The appalling work conditions were typically hazardous and unsanitary. Employers were infamous for locking shut the workroom windows to maintain the humidity, which prevented damage to the threads. As a result, workers constantly fainted from heat exhaustion. Disciplinary actions came without warning or mercy for "infractions" as simple as "questionable character." As the companies also controlled the women's boarding houses, activities outside the mill could result in termination, eviction, or reduction in pay.

Before 1824 the most common incidents of activism against the tyrannical conditions were work stoppages and acts of personal defiance. Most of these ended without success with the women being fired or disciplined for their efforts. In May 1824, however, approximately 100 female weavers joined male workers in a protest against wage cuts and an extension of work hours. The event sent a ripple of shock throughout New England as it went completely against the beliefs of the time. Unfortunately, the female weavers were forced to return to work under the employer's provisions only a week later. Their voices, however, had been heard by other female textile workers. Between 1824 and 1837 women participated in or led at least 12 other mill strikes. Few won their demands, but word of their efforts spread throughout the nation. In December 1828 the first all-women strike took place in Dover, New Hampshire, at the Cocheco Mill. Some 340 women from the mill protested the inception of new rules that banned talking, introduced a "blacklist," and fined employees 12.5 cents for being one minute late to work. After the public protest, the strikers eventually succeeded in having the rules rescinded. The example of the Dover women inspired a relatively unknown group of woman laborers in New York to take action. The United Tailoresses Society of New York would follow in the Dover women's footsteps and catch the public's attention with one of the most famous strikes in the New York textile industry.

Tailoresses and Their Struggle

As women struggled for better working conditions in the factories, another group of female laborers, the seamstresses, had begun to organize. Forced into the workplace by personal circumstances, thousands of women took positions in the clothing industry. In the early nineteenth century, a huge demand for ready-made clothing had developed in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Although the industry served the needs of the U.S. Army and Navy, most of the demand came from southern slave owners who required cheap, sturdy pants and shirts. Much of the garment construction process was performed in tiny stores, which were nicknamed "slop shops" because of their typically squalid, waterfront locations. Most seamstresses, however, worked out of their homes. In both cases, the women faced grueling hours of labor, which sometimes meant working 15 or 16 hours a day. These horribly long workdays stemmed from the fact that the seamstresses were paid by the piece, not the hour. In Philip Foner's book Women and the American Labor Movement, one such tailoress explained, "Think of a poor woman, confined to her seat fifteen hours out of twenty-four to make a pair of . . . pantaloons, for which she receives only twenty-five cents. And indeed, most of them are not able to make a pair in much less than two days." Employers regularly found fault with the work and reduced the women's pay by half or withheld it entirely. A proponent of the tailoresses, Matthew Carey, a Philadelphia publisher and activist, expressed his disgust and shock at the indignities these women suffered for their trade. In one of his editorials discussed in Foner's Women and the American Labor Movement, Carey said, "I have known a lady [who would] pay thirty or forty dollars on a bonnet, and fifty for a shawl; yet make a hard bargain with a seamstress . . . who had to work at her needle . . . for thirteen or fourteen hours to make a bare livelihood for herself." During this time, some of the women's committees contacted Carey to inform him that his already grim portrayals of the industry were actually understatements of the truth. The realities were actually far harsher. On average, tailoresses made $1.12 a week. Rent required two-thirds of their weekly salary, leaving these women with hardly more than 40 cents for all of life's other necessities, including food and clothing. In some cities, such as New York, rents were even higher. Considering this, it is easy to understand why many women were forced to resort to begging, stealing, and even prostitution.

Frustrated and desperate, the tailoresses realized that they needed to take action to implement change. In New York a group of tailoresses came together to do just that. What began as a simple meeting of the minds transformed into one of the first trade unions for women, the United Tailoresses Society (UTS) of New York. Following in the steps of the female strikers of Dover in 1828, the tailoresses' union would soon lead one of New York's, if not the nation's, most notable labor protests.

The United Tailoresses Society

In 1825 several tailoresses began weekly meetings to discuss the plights of their trade, the horrors of their work situations, and their possible means for recourse. They banded together in self-protection in the face of poor wages and dangerous conditions. That same year the weekly meetings led to the adoption of a full-fledged association. The women formed committees to draft a constitution and outline how they could achieve change for their fellow tailoresses and seam-stresses. The UTS gained prompt attention when its secretary, Lavinia Wright, added the issue of women's rights to the discussions. A woman ahead of her time, Wright believed that women should have the right to vote and to participate in the legislature. The organization's outspoken views on the subject stirred up public ridicule. The Boston Evening Transcript was one of the leaders in defaming the UTS's public stance on women's issues. According to John Andrews and W. D. P. Bliss's History of Women in Trade Unions, the Transcript criticized "Wright's 'clamorous and unfeminine' declarations of the personal rights of women . . . 'which it is obvious a wise Providence never destined her to exercise.'" Despite the constant criticism and slanderous reports, the UTS continued to meet and publicize the plight of their members.

Perhaps inspired by the Dover strike of 1828, the UTS members also began to consider the option of striking to obtain their goals. The participants had come to recognize that they would have to stand up publicly for their rights. They had already won some societal support from labor presses such as the New York Daily Sentinel. They continued their discussions on how to proceed for several years. Then, in June 1831 the union's representatives presented employers with a list of minimum wages for their services. Should the employers not agree to these proposed wages, members of the UTS would engage in a general strike. Not surprisingly, employers refused to accept the demands. In response, 1600 tailoresses went on strike.

The public reaction to the UTS strike was a mixture of ridicule and support. The employers argued that wage increases were a ludicrous notion, as women, by virtue of their gender, did not have to support families as men did. To provide them with a "man's wage" therefore made little sense. Much of the commercial press agreed with this belief. The UTS's secretary responded publicly that many women were indeed the sole supporters of their families and did not receive adequate compensation to do so; yet unmarried men spent their higher wages on no one but themselves. The New York Daily Sentinel and other labor newspapers offered an open discussion of how the tailor-esses might prevail in their efforts. Some correspondents asked the male trade unions to boycott tailors who refused to comply with the UTS's wage demands. Others pleaded for the male trade unions and the clergy to spearhead the collection of support funds from the public for the striking women.

This show of emotional support, however, never translated to financial support. Very soon the UTS members found themselves facing the harsh reality of no money. Despite the public outcry for help, the male trade unions and clergy refused to lend their aid to the UTS. The employers remained steadfast to their refusal of a wage increase of any kind. By 25 July 1831 the women of the UTS had voted to return to work. Before they did so, they addressed the public, promising to continue their fight against wage inequality and poor labor conditions in the tailoring industry. Unfortunately, their defeat appeared to be a permanent one. The last documented account of the UTS's activities came on 5 September 1831, when the New York Daily Sentinel printed what amounted to little more than a meeting announcement.

After the Strike of 1831

Although the UTS had failed in achieving its goals, the concept of unionism for women remained strong in the tailoring and textile industries. Cities outside of New York responded more favorably to the union activities of tailoresses during the subsequent years. When the Female Union Society of Tailor-esses and Seamstresses of Baltimore threatened to strike on 1 October 1833, for example, they received assurances of support from the city's journeymen tailors. In June 1835 Matthew Carey spoke at a workingwomen's convention in Philadelphia and urged them onward in their efforts toward labor organization. The same meeting witnessed the formation of the first citywide women's trade federation, the Female Improvement Society for the City and County. This trend continued over the following years. Many from this new generation of female trade unions succeeded where the UTS had failed. Tailoresses won wage increases and better working conditions and slowly advanced the labor rights of their fellow laborers.

Key Players

Carey, Matthew (1760-1839): An Irish immigrant, Carey became a publisher and well-known advocate for the "American System." He campaigned for several years to improve labor conditions and wages for women, specifically those involved in the tailoring industry.

Waight, Lavinia: Waight held the position of secretary in the United Tailoresses Society. Her speeches and writing about inequality and the difficulties faced by female workers of her time served to raise social conscience.

See also: Dover Textile Strike; Lowell Industrial Experiment; Pawtucket Textile Strike.

Bibliography

Books

Andrews, John, and W. D. P. Bliss. History of Women in Trade Unions. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Foner, Philip. Women and the American Labor Movement.New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979.

Other

Colman, David M. "A History of the Labor Movement in the United States." Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. November 2000 [cited 17 October 2002]. http:// www.iowaaflcio.org/history_book.htm#Chapter%202 .

Henry, Alice. "The Trade Union Woman." In Bread and Roses: Poetry and History of the American Labor Movement, edited by Jim Zwick. 2002 [cited 17 October 2002]. <http://www.boondocksnet.com/editions/tuw/tuw01.html>.

Lane Memorial Library. "The Lowell, Massachusetts Turn-out of 1834. 2002 [cited 17 October 2002]. http:// www.hampton.lib.nh.us/children/homework/lowellturnout1834.htm.

—Lee Ann Paradise

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