Christman, Elisabeth (1881–1975)

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Christman, Elisabeth (1881–1975)

American labor leader. Born in Germany on September 2, 1881; died of cerebral arteriosclerosis in Delphi, Indiana, on April 26, 1975; daughter of Henry Christman (a laborer) and Barbara (Guth) Christman; educated in a German Lutheran school until age 13 when she began work in a Chicago glove factory; never married; no children.

Co-founded Operators Local 1 of the International Glove Workers Union of America (IGWUA, 1902); joined the Chicago Women's Trade Union League (WTUL, 1904); elected to WTUL executive board (1910–29); served as treasurer of Local 1 (1905–11) and president (1912–17); served as IGWUA secretary-treasurer (1913–31); was administrator, WTUL Training School for Women Organizers (1914–26); served as chief of women field representatives for the National War Labor Board (1917–18); elected to the WTUL's national executive board (1919); served as NWTUL secretary-treasurer and editor of the WTUL monthly journal Life and Labor Bulletin (1921–50); appointed member, the 1921 National Unemployment Conference (1921); appointed member, National Organization on Unemployment Relief (1931); became first woman appointed to a National Recovery Administration code authority (1934); appointed member, National Commission on Vocational Guidance (1936); appointed to the Women's Bureau advisory committee (1940); served as director of Women's Bureau investigation of women's wages in war industries (1942–43).

Soon after Elisabeth Christman was born in Germany on September 2, 1881, her parents immigrated to America and settled in Chicago. There, her father Henry Christman worked as a laborer and as a clarinet player in a union band. Her mother Barbara Guth Christman instilled in her six children, of whom Elisabeth was the oldest, a sense of independence and a devotion to the Lutheran faith. Elisabeth attended a German Lutheran school until the age of 13 when she went to work in the Eisendrath Glove Factory in Chicago. After years of long hours and low pay, Christman joined her co-worker, Agnes Nestor , in leading a successful ten-day strike in 1902. Out of this strike was born Glove Workers Local 1. Christman helped her local and 27 others form the International Glove Workers Union of America (IGWUA). She would serve in a number of official capacities both for her local and the International.

However, it was as a member of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) that Elisabeth Christman tirelessly sought to address the needs of working women. Founded in Boston in 1903, the WTUL was a cross-class alliance of middle- and upper-class reformers and working-class women devoted to organizing women into trade unions and educating the public regarding the frequently harsh conditions under which America's women worked in this period. As a leader in the Chicago WTUL and on the national level, Christman was one of the few working-class women who directed the day-to-day policies of the WTUL until its demise in 1950. "Good times or bad," she once said, "the Labor Movement can not afford to stand still."

Elisabeth Christman also brought her talents to government, first during World War I when she worked with the National War Labor Board. Although a lifelong Democrat, Christman was appointed by two Republican presidents to commissions addressing unemployment, in 1921 and again in 1931. She would continue to serve the government in a number of advisory positions throughout the New Deal and during World War II. For most of her long life, Elisabeth Christman devoted her energies to the organization of working women. Near the end of her life, she advised women hospital workers while she was herself a hospital patient. She died in her niece's home in Delphi, Indiana, a few months before her 94th birthday.


Boone, Gladys. The Women's Trade Union Leagues in Great Britain and the United States of America. NY: Columbia University Press, 1942.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women, The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 148–150.

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

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Christman, Elisabeth (1881–1975)

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