Legal Recognition of Industrial Women

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Legal Recognition of Industrial Women


By: Eleanor L. Lattimore

Date: 1919

Source: Lattimore, Eleanor L. Legal Recognition of Industrial Women. New York: Industrial Committee, War Work Council of the National Board of Young Women's Christian Associations, 1919.

About the Author: Eleanor L. Lattimore earned her doctorate degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1916.


Progressive Era reformers were most active between 1870 and 1920; highly educated reformers looked at such social issues as health, education, personal hygiene, childcare, maternity care and family planning, and the relationship between factory work, labor, and the family. Noted Progressive Era reformers such as Jane Addams and Lillian Wald established "settlement houses" for immigrants and the poor, where they offered a range of support services including food, medical care, shelter, and basic education. Organizations such as labor unions, children's protection societies, birth control and family planning groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Women's Party, and professional groups including the American Medical Association all formed during this time.

While many female leaders in the Progressive Era focused on social issues directly related to the condition of women and children, other female leaders examined the role of women in the workforce, especially in industrial settings. Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle exposed the living conditions for poor immigrants who worked in the Chicago stockyards and meat-packing plants; while the novel is famous for sparking food and safety legislation, the suffering experienced by women and children captured the hearts of Americans, and helped feed interest in social reform. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which more than 140 women and girls died during a fire in a garment factory, sparked the rise of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and brought greater attention to the role of women in factory work and the labor force in general.

By 1919, when Legal Recognition of Industrial Women was written, Congress had passed and President Woodrow Wilson had signed the 1916 Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, which provided protections for child labor in industrial settings. The United States Supreme Court had found the law unconstitutional in the 1918 decision Hammer v. Dagenhart. Other reform legislation protecting women and girls, such as mother's pensions, eight hour work days for women, and a minimum wage were sparked by female reformers in the parallel feminist movement which pushed for female suffrage.

As this excerpt from Legal Recognition of Industrial Women notes, many writers blended social reform with labor rights to open a dialogue into the role of the state in protecting female workers and their families.


Social Insurance. There are six general classes of labor legislation: social insurance, minimum wage, hour regulations, safety, sanitation and health regulations, and child welfare laws. The most far-reaching of these groups is social insurance, which simply means that injuries and misfortunes are to be cared for by the community, and which applies to men, women and children. Workmen's compensation, health insurance, maternity benefits, mother's compensation are included in social insurance and are mutually dependent. Each kind of social insurance is administered separately and the expense of each is distributed differently.

(1) Workmen's compensation. Workmen's compensation laws in the United States were first passed in 1911, by Washington, Kansas and Wisconsin, though there had been attempts at some form of compensation laws since 1902. Thirty-five other states, the Federal Government, Porto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii have adopted compensation laws. Workmen's compensation should be compulsory and should cover all occupations, hazardous or non-hazardous. It is just, however, that "casual" labor be exempted, if it is carefully defined and limited. The application of the law is usually limited to workers receiving less than a certain salary, but the phrasing of that salary limit should take into consideration the rising cost of living and the underlying principle that the object of compensation is not only the meeting of emergency expenses for illness, etc., but the maintenance of a proper standard of living.

It is evident that much depends upon the administration of compensation law, and so an industrial accident board should established. The expense of administration is borne by state, but the compensation is paid by the employer.

The justice of the claim that a workman injured in course of duty, through no fault of his own, is entitled to compensation, has not been denied, but courts have seldom granted damages, because of three defenses of the employer known as "assumed risk," "fellow servant," and "contributory negligence." The first means that when you take a job you do it voluntarily knowing the dangers involved and willing to take the risk. By "fellow servant" it is understood that the employer is not responsible if he can prove that the injury was due to the carelessness of any other of his employees. "Contributory negligence" is the court's way of saying that if the worker is in any way responsible for the accident, no matter what the other circumstances in the care are, he is not entitled to compensation. These three common law defenses arose before the days of factories and machinery, because of which workmen's compensation laws necessary. Courts have decided that workmen's compensation laws are constitutional, agreeing with the New York decision. "Surely it is competent for the State in the promotion of general welfare to require both employer and employee to yield something toward the establishment of a principle and a plan of compensation for their mutual protection and advantage."

(2) Health Insurance. Health insurance is a broadening of the principle and methods of the fraternal and labor benefit societies, so that all the people instead of only a few may receive needed help. Sweden was the first country to give state aid to the voluntary health associations. Compulsory health insurance exists in Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Roumania, Serbia and Luxemburg. In the United States, eight states, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have appointed commissions to investigate health insurance, and bills providing for compulsory health insurance are before many state legislatures in 1919. To be effective, health insurance which is an extension of the principle and method of workmen's compensation, should be compulsory, the fund to be contributed by the employer, worker and the state. As with workmen's compensation, the law should be restricted to wage workers earning less than a given annual sum, but there should be no exceptions, and the dependents of the workers should be included. Health insurance supplements workmen's compensation by providing for occupational diseases, very few of which have yet been interpreted as coming under the compensation laws.

Health insurance also will provide maternity benefits, both for insured women and the non-insured wives of insured men. Under an effective bill, both medical and nursing care and cash benefits should be included. Adequate provision should also be made, either through the administration of health insurance or through the health or educational branches of the state government, or through the state labor department or industrial commission, for full and well-directed health education in personal hygiene from an industrial standpoint, in the prevention and treatment of industrial disease (including of course first-aid instruction of a most practical kind), and in such principles of general community sanitation and public health as especially apply to industrial communities. Such educational effort should avail itself of all possible help from federal and state and private agencies who specialize in health education, but special attention should be devoted to the development of sound principles of maintaining health among industrial workers and their families.

Twenty-six weeks has been named provisionally as the period during which benefits are to be provided. The administration of health insurance should be through boards, consisting of employers and employed workers, with government supervision. Incomplete figures show in New York State alone an annual loss of $40,000.000 a year in wages because of sickness.

Present methods of dealing with this sickness problem are inadequate; charity and fraternal benefit societies reach a small minority of those needing help. A community spirit and better living conditions will follow the adoption and application of health insurance.

(3) Mother's Compensation. The form of social insurance most widely adopted as yet in the United States is mother's compensation. Its growth has been rapid, thirty states having made mother's pension or compensation provisions since 1911, although the sums allotted have been insufficient to fulfill their object, which is to make it possible for the mother to devote herself to the care of her children, instead of struggling along on heavy work and poor wages.

The laws have all taken the form of direct grants of money by the state, never more than $15.00 or $20.00 a month for one child. This sum, of course, cannot support one person, but it is a help. The plan of having the fund administered through the courts seems to have been satisfactory, though there should be a local board of child welfare to advise with the judge. Mother's compensation laws should be flexible, should permit the administrators to consider the welfare of the child, as does the Colorado law, for example, which reads, "to pay such parent or parents, or, if it seems for the best interest of the child, to some other person designated by the court for that purpose,"—and in its final section, "This act shall be liberally construed for the protection of the child, the home and the state, and in the interest of the public morals, and for the prevention of poverty and crime." Mother's compensation scarcely needs discussion, since no one doubts that the future of society is dependent upon the children of today. As Judge Ben B. Lindsey says, "It is a recognition for the first time by society that the state is responsible, in a measure, for the plight of the mother."

What sickness means to an employer. One of the most serious industrial hazards an employer has to face is that of sickness on the part of his employees.

The absence of a workman, even for a short time, means an interruption of work—if piecework it means either that the progression of material through the factory is blocked by the lack of the workman to put in his particular bit of the process, or that the total production is decreased and machinery and equipment lie idle. Too much of this means loss of morale among employes, which every employer deplores.

If the illness is long or death occurs and the vacant place must be filled time and money are lost through the need of instructing and training a new worker (this is valued at from $30 to $5,000), through decreased production, through injury to machinery, accidents and delays, and through poor quality of work.

What sickness means to an employee. On the side of the employee sickness means a loss of income with poverty looming ahead, the possible loss of a job, the necessity of returning to work before he is able, thus continuing the illness. It means a shortage of funds when expenses are greatest. Mr. Frederick I. Hoffman says, "It has been said, and I believe it is, that the majority of our wage workers have not a single week's wage ahead." Sometimes $10 to $15 represents the margin between independence and dependency. From 75 to 80 percent of the relief given by the Charity Organization Societies of our large cities is due to illness. In this connection we must not overlook the psychological effect upon the worker of the mental turmoil and distress incident to facing poverty and unemployment, and the dragging of a wife and family along the same path. Thus John H. was a hard working New York truck-driver, whose family consisted of a wife and three children, the youngest a baby, four months old. He contracted influenza and had to stop work. His wife nursed him for two weeks, at the end of which time their small savings had been used up. Then the three children came down with the disease, and two days later the wife became very ill. When a neighbor finally referred the case to charity they were penniless, without medical care, the baby had died and the two older children had developed double pneumonia. The family were loaned money enough to pay for the burial of the baby, nursing care and food—which meant that John mortgaged his future earnings and went back to work burdened with a load of debt. What would have happened if a health insurance bill had been in effect? John would have been insured in a mutual health insurance fund at a cost to himself of about twenty-four cents a week, his employer paying an equal amount. This would have entitled him to call a doctor as soon as he was taken ill, to receive medicine, and if necessary to secure the services of a nurse to help his wife—all paid by the insurance fund. Sound medical advice might have prevented the illness of the rest of the family and saved the baby's life. Besides medical care, John would have received, after the first three days of illness, $8.00 a week as long as he was unable to work. This would have supplied food and prevented the discouraging debt with which the family is now struggling.

To the other employees in a plant sickness among their number means not alone the possibility of contagion for themselves and families, but delay and often times loss of piece-work wages by reason of the absence of the worker who should produce the material they work upon. Under the present system of trade union benefits only a man's fellow workers share in the burden of tiding him and his family over the period of financial difficulty due to his illness; under the health insurance the whole community shares the burden as they should also share in educational and other preventive measures, in the interest of the whole community's welfare.


Lattimore addresses broad social policy themes to be funded by the government, such as health insurance, worker's compensation, maternity leave, child allowances, and other concepts that some western nations—most notably Scandinavian countries, Canada, Great Britain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Spain—began to embrace in the mid-twentieth century. In the United States such reforms were touched on with the New Deal legislation of the mid 1930s and early 1940s, but paid maternity leave, child allowances, and universal state health insurance for female workers have never been federal policy in the United States.

In 1920 the United States government created the Women's Bureau to address specific workforce concerns for female workers. Women's work in World War I expanded during the wartime economy; the Women's Bureau tackled issues such as African-American women's participation in the workforce, child care, hazardous job protection during pregnancy, and helped to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which finally created a federal law protecting child laborers.

Future laws such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 gave women equal work for equal pay, but many of the reforms suggested in Legal Recognition of Industrial Women have never been passed in the United States, despite rich debate among legislators and in civil society. The Pregnancy Discrimination Law of 1978 protects pregnant women from being fired for their pregnant status, while the 1992 Family and Medical Leave Act provides all workers in businesses with fifty workers or more with up to thirteen weeks of unpaid leave per year without job loss. At the same time, as of 2005 more than forty million people in the United States—approximately fourteen percent of the population—do not have health insurance, the United States provides no mandated paid maternity leave, and worker policies for sick leave or child illness leave are on an employer-by-employer basis in the U.S.

The year after Lattimore wrote Legal Recognition of Industrial Women women gained the vote in the United States with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women agency in government. More than eighty-five years after Lattimore laid out these policy statements, many of her recommendations remain part of the political discourse, though not part of federal policy.



Dubofsky, Melvin. Hard Work: The Making of Labor History. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Fantasia, Rick and Kim Voss. Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. University of California Press, 2004.

Felder, Deborah G. A Century of Women: The Most Influential Events in Twentieth-Century Women's History. Kensington Publishing Corp., 1999.

Rosen, Ellen Doree. A Wobblie Life: IWW Organizer E.F. Doree. Wayne State University Press, 2004.

Web sites

United States Department of Labor. "Women's Bureau." 〈〉 (accessed May 8, 2006).