views updated

Butler, Elizabeth Beardsley (c. 1885–1911)

American labor investigator. Born around 1885; died of tuberculosis on August 2, 1911; graduated Barnard College, 1905; never married; no children.

Was executive assistant, the New Jersey Consumers' League and the New Jersey Child Labor Committee (1905); was assistant secretary, Rand School of Social Science (1907). Selected publications: Women and the Trades, Pittsburgh, 1907–1908 (1909) and Saleswomen in Mercantile Stores, Baltimore, 1909 (published posthumously in 1912).

Little is known about Elizabeth Beardsley Butler, who died at the young age of 26. Yet before her death she wrote two of the most comprehensive examinations of women's labor conditions in pre-World War I America. Her 1909 publication Women and the Trades set a standard for investigation and interpretation of industrial conditions. A "convinced socialist," Butler railed against the exploitation of the women workers she studied and advocated protective labor legislation and vocational training as a way to address the inequities of industrial capitalism.

Elizabeth Butler graduated from Barnard College in 1905 and then, like so many women college graduates interested in social reform, lived for a time at a settlement house. While at Whittier House, in Jersey City, she worked for the Consumers' League of New Jersey as well as that state's Child Labor Committee. She also investigated the conditions of labor in sweatshops and department stores around New Jersey. In New York City, she worked for the New York School of Philanthropy's Bureau of Social Research and for the Rand School of Social Science.

In 1907, Butler went to Pittsburgh to investigate women's work conditions. As part of the privately funded Pittsburgh Survey, she joined a team of similarly minded Progressive reformers who sought to expose the harsh conditions of labor and life for America's predominately immigrant and urban working class. In two years, Butler visited over 400 places of employment, collecting a massive amount of data that demonstrated not only the need for reform but the varied occupations of American women workers. Shortly after conducting a similar study of Baltimore retail clerks, a 26-year-old Butler died of tuberculosis in 1911. This highly contagious disease was one of the leading causes of death for young working-class women in this period, though it is not certain that Butler contracted the disease while conducting her investigations. During her short life, Elizabeth Beardsley Butler exposed the world to the harsh conditions faced by working women in turn-of-the-century America.


Butler, Elizabeth Beardsley. Women and the Trades, Pittsburgh, 1907–1908. Introduction by Maurine Weiner Greenwald. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1984.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Butler, Elizabeth Beardsley (c. 1885–1911)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article