Anderson, Mary (1872–1964)

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Anderson, Mary (1872–1964)

Swedish-born American union leader who fought for acceptance of the principles of collective bargaining and arbitration and became the first director of the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. Born Mary Anderson on August 27, 1872, on her parents' farm outside of Lidköping, Sweden; died of a stroke at her home in Washington, D.C., on January 29, 1964; daughter of Magnus and Matilda (Johnson) Anderson (both farmers); graduated from a Lutheran grammar school at the top of her class; never married; no children.

Immigrated to America (1889); worked as a domestic and briefly in the garment trade before finding work as a stitcher in a shoe factory outside Chicago; joined the International Boot and Shoe Workers Union (BSWU, 1899); elected president of women's stitchers Local 94 (Chicago, 1900); member, BSWU national executive board (1906–19); joined the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL, 1905); appointed full-time WTUL organizer (1911); named assistant director, Women in Industry Service (1918), appointed director (1919); appointed director of the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor (1920–44); named WTUL delegate to both the Paris Peace Conference and the International Congress of Working Women (1919); organized Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers (1921); given honorary degree, Smith College (1941), and Award of Merit, U.S. Labor Department (1962).

Selected publications:

(autobiography) Woman at Work (1951), as well as numerous articles.

Mary Anderson arrived in the United States in 1889, speaking no English and possessing few skills. "I had the idea that America was a promised land," she would later recall, "because I felt that there might be something other than housework that a person like me could do." In fact, the industrial growth under way in her adoptive country would both shape and be shaped by her career. It took some years for her to escape the low wages and domestic work that many working-class women of this period hoped to avoid. As a skilled factory worker, Anderson found industrial work beset with its own problems, and she became involved in serving the interests of laboring women through trade unionism and, later, government protection. Rising through the ranks of the Boot and Shoe Workers Union and then the Women's Trade Union League, Anderson eventually became the first director of a federal agency devoted to the issues of women's employment, a position she held until she was in her 70s.

Mary Anderson was born outside the small Swedish village of Lidköping on August 27, 1872, the youngest of seven children born to Magnus and Matilda Anderson, prosperous farmers living in the southwestern area of the country. A sturdy child, Anderson preferred playing outside or doing farm chores. Unlike her sisters, she avoided housework or assisting her mother with the family weaving. Anderson attended the local Lutheran grammar school for several years and graduated at the head of her class. By her own account, she was at times painfully shy, but her childhood was a pleasant one.

In the late 1880s, a severe agricultural depression hit Sweden, and Magnus Anderson lost his farm. Unable to support their children still living at home, and with no employment opportunities for women nearby except domestic work, the Andersons reluctantly allowed their youngest daughter to emigrate to America. In 1889, 16-year-old Mary departed with her older sister Hilda; they were to join their sister Anna, who had left two years earlier and found work as a domestic in Pentwater, Michigan.

Like most working-class immigrants at that time, the Anderson sisters traveled to the United States in the steerage section of the ship and suffered from seasickness for days. From New York, they had several more days of travel to Michigan on the train. In the town of Ludington, Mary Anderson found a job washing dishes in a boarding house for lumberjacks. A month later, she was hired by a Norwegian family as a housemaid. Paid $1.50 a week, she was responsible for the housework, the laundry, the cooking, and serving dinner each night, with no time off. Over the next few years, she held domestic jobs, some better than others in terms of time off and salary, for several other families. Meanwhile, she taught herself to speak English.

In 1892, when her sister Anna, now married, wrote that she and her husband were moving to Chicago, Mary Anderson jumped at the chance to join them. She worked briefly in a garment factory, then as a shoestitcher in a small company outside Chicago. After that company failed during the depression of 1893, Anderson found a job with Schwab Company, a much larger shoe manufacturer in Chicago. At age 22, Anderson had been in the United States for six years, and gone from earning $1.50 a week as a domestic worker to $14 a week as a skilled shoeworker.

At the end of the 19th century, it was considered difficult to organize women for membership in trade unions. Women were usually viewed as temporary workers who would leave their occupations once they married. They also tended to take the low paying, unskilled jobs that most of the established unions did not represent. In reality, however, many women were lifelong self-providers, and often responsible for supporting other dependent family members as well. And at a time when mechanization was changing the methods of production, women increasingly moved into skilled occupations such as printing, bookbinding, and shoemaking.

In 1899, when most locals in Chicago and elsewhere had memberships that were primarily male, Anderson joined Chicago Local 94 of the International Boot and Shoe Workers Union (BSWU), an all female local that was 150 members strong. Mary Anderson did not follow the radical political views of her day, nor did she see marriage as the ultimate source of economic security for working-class women like herself. In her words, "Through union negotiations with the employer … conditions were improved for a great many people and not just for the one person who changed to a better job." Throughout her career, her approach was pragmatic.

Within one year of joining Local 94, Anderson was elected its president. Shortly thereafter, she was elected to serve as the Local's representative to the Chicago Federation of Labor, a citywide council comprised of both men and women labor leaders. When not on the job as a shoestitcher, she began to spend her time doing union work. As she would later recall, "My life outside the factory was devoted almost entirely to meetings."

In 1905, Anderson followed the suggestion of her friend and fellow shoeworker, Emma Steghagen , in joining the local chapter of the Chicago Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). Founded at the 1903 convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the organization was a cross-class alliance of women workers and middle-class allies to provide financial assistance and day-to-day support in organizing working-class women. The Chicago branch of the WTUL was closely associated with Hull House and its leader, Jane Addams , and Anderson's BSWU Local 94 was one of many of the women's unions

that held meetings at the settlement house. Anderson soon became friends with Margaret Dreier Robins (1868–1945), WTUL president and Chicago reformer, who according to Anderson was "the mainspring of our work." By 1906, Anderson's efforts in Chicago had brought her to the attention of the BSWU leadership. That year, she was elected to the national union's executive board, filling the seat left vacant when Steghagen became secretary of the Chicago WTUL. Anderson was to hold this position until 1919.

In 1910, hundreds of women garment workers in Chicago, though not members of a union, went out on strike against Hart, Schaffner, and Marx, the city's largest clothing manufacturer, over the issues of dangerous work conditions and low wages. The Chicago WTUL joined with the United Garment Workers and the Chicago Federation of Labor to assist the striking employees. After working all day at her job in a shoe factory, Anderson joined others each night in organizing relief funds for the strikers, and also led meetings to explain the principles of trade unionism to the strikers. When the strike ended after several weeks, part of the settlement involved the company's recognition of the women's right to collective bargaining and the establishment of methods of arbitration between the company and the workers.

Within a year of the settlement, however, it was evident that the women at Hart, Schaffner, and Marx were not functioning effectively as a union. Many were young, speaking little if any English, and without experience in trade unionism. When WTUL president Robins decided that a full-time organizer was needed, she turned to her good friend Mary Anderson.

In July 1911, Anderson quit her job as a shoestitcher to become a paid organizer for the WTUL. For two years, she worked to shore up the garment workers union among the hundreds of Hart, Schaffner, and Marx employees. She would later devote a chapter to this period in her autobiography, Woman at Work. She was particularly proud of establishing an arbitration board that forestalled, or quickly ended, several wildcat strikes in the early years of the union. For her, a strike was always to be used as a last resort, not because of the upset caused to business but due to the economic hardship it brought to workers. From 1913 to 1917, Anderson organized countless other women workers—waitresses, department store clerks, and corset makers—always stressing the function of a trade union as a vehicle of negotiation and arbitration.

Van Kleeck, Mary Abby (1883–1972)

American reformer. Born in 1883; died in Woodstock, New York, in 1972; grew up in New York City; graduated from Smith College, 1904.

In 1908, Mary Van Kleeck began her studies on the status of working women, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation. Her conclusions, and her own activities for minimum wage and protective legislation, exerted a powerful influence on labor reform. Van Kleeck's first book, Artificial Flower Makers (1913), which concerned immigrant women, was followed by Women in the Bookbinding Trade (1913), Wages in the Military Trade (1914), Working Girls in Evening Schools (1914), and A Seasonal Industry (1917). In 1917, hired to advise the army Ordnance Department and to serve as a member of the War Labor Policies Board, she helped form the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor, which she headed briefly; in 1919, she turned the task over to her assistant Mary Anderson and returned to her work with the Russell Sage Foundation.

Over the years, Van Kleeck also served on two presidential commissions on unemployment; chaired the National Interracial Conference (1928); co-authored The Negro in American Civilization (1930); and presided over the International Conference of Social Work in Germany (1932). As she grew older, she swung more to the political left, putting forth her views in Creative America (1936) and Technology and Livelihood (1944). A non-violent Socialist, she made trips to the Soviet Union following World War II and championed the presidency of Henry Wallace in 1948. In 1953, after the 70-year-old was summoned to appear before the McCarthy hearings, she retired from public life to Woodstock, New York. She died there a few days before her 89th birthday.

In 1917, with the United States' entry into World War I, Anderson joined the war effort in Washington. In April of that year, she was appointed by AFL president Samuel Gompers, the labor representative of the Advisory Commission of the United States Council of National Defense, to a subcommittee to address the concerns of women in industry. Also serving on the subcommittee was Mary Van Kleeck , then director of industrial studies for the Russell Sage Foundation. By January 1918, Van Kleeck had been appointed to direct the women's branch of the Army's Ordinance Department and invited Anderson to join her staff. Anderson, who had been commuting back and forth from Chicago to Washington, moved to the capital, where she was to reside for the rest of her life. By June 1918, she was appointed assistant director of the Women in Industry Service, a wartime agency of the Department of Labor.

Anderson was now able to put her skills as an organizer and her personal experiences as an industrial worker to use on the national level. At the same time, she learned a great deal from Van Kleeck's years of experience as an administrator and social investigator. When Van Kleeck resigned in August 1919, Anderson succeeded her as director of the Women in Industry Service. Not yet 47, she was in charge of the only federal agency overseeing the concerns of working-class women.

Despite her full-time government work, Anderson also remained active in the WTUL. In early 1919, she accompanied fellow WTUL leader Rose Schneiderman to the Paris Peace Conference as a female labor delegate. Out of that conference came the International Congress of Working Women, which held its first meeting in Washington in the fall of that year, sponsored by the WTUL, with Anderson as the union league's representative.

When World War I ended in 1918, the WTUL and other women's groups began lobbying for a permanent agency to represent the interests established under the Women in Industry Service. In June 1920, Congress created the Women's Bureau as a permanent part of the Department of Labor, and President Woodrow Wilson appointed Mary Anderson as the Bureau's first director. For the next 24 years, she held the position, through Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.

Under Anderson's leadership, the Women's Bureau collected masses of data regarding the conditions of women and labor and coordinated legislative efforts aimed at addressing the worst abuses. As the WTUL turned increasingly to legislation to meet the needs of working women, Anderson maintained her association with the league. During her earlier years in Chicago, Anderson had been too busy to take advantage of the various courses offered at Hull House, but she understood the importance of education, which remained a significant focus of the work of both the WTUL and the Women's Bureau. In 1921, she was one of the organizers of the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers through the Women's Bureau.

During the 1920s, Anderson had cordial relations with the Republican secretaries of labor, but, in 1933, she eagerly anticipated working with the first woman labor secretary, Frances Perkins , appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt. Unfortunately, Perkins and Anderson never established a close working relationship. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the challenge faced by Perkins as the first woman to hold the position of a cabinet officer. She felt that she could not be associated with issues that were seen as primarily concerned with women. Anderson had good relations with the president, however, whom she had met during World War I, and with Eleanor Roosevelt , whom she had known for years through the WTUL. Over the objections of Perkins, the president appointed Anderson chief of the U.S. delegation to the International Labor Conference of 1933.

The problems between Anderson and Perkins came to a head during World War II. As thousands of women became employed in wartime production, the responsibilities of the Women's Bureau were greatly expanded. In 1944, when Perkins refused to support an increase in the bureau's budget, Anderson resigned. At the age of 72, after 40 years of effort for the rights of women workers but lacking the support of her immediate supervisor, she felt it was time to retire.

Before and after her retirement, Anderson received many honors. In 1941, she was awarded an honorary degree from Smith College, which recognized her as a "leader in the field of industrial relations." According to Anderson, "I did not make myself a leader. If I became a leader it was only because of the support and cooperation of the hundreds of friends and colleagues with whom I had worked for so many years." In 1962, at the age of 90, Anderson received the U.S. Department of Labor's Award of Merit. Two years later, on January 29, 1964, Mary Anderson died of a stroke at age 92, in her Washington home.

In 1915, Anderson had become a U.S. citizen because she heard that Illinois was about to pass a state law granting woman suffrage. While eager for the opportunity to vote, she remained opposed to the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment throughout her life, for fear it would negate the years of hard work she had spent in securing protective labor legislation for women. After decades of union activity, Anderson understood how difficult it was to organize women workers. She came to believe that government protection was needed to ensure both the rights and the safety of women workers.


Anderson, Mary. Woman at Work: The Autobiography of Mary Anderson as told to Mary Winslow. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1951.

Conn, Sandra. "Three Talents: Robins, Nestor, and Anderson of the Chicago Trade Union League," in Chicago History. Vol. 9, 1980–1981, pp. 234–247.

suggested reading:

Payne, Elizabeth Anne. Reform, Labor, and Feminism: Margaret Dreier Robins and the Women's Trade Union League. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Ware, Susan. Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.


Correspondence, papers, and memorabilia located in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , Department of History, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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Anderson, Mary (1872–1964)

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Anderson, Mary (1872–1964)