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Marot, Helen (1865–1940)

Marot, Helen (1865–1940)

American labor activist involved in some of the most significant union actions of the early 20th century, who was especially concerned with improving working conditions for women and abolishing the practice of child labor . Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 9, 1865; died of a heart attack in New York City on June 3, 1940; daughter of Charles Henry Marot (a bookseller and publisher) and Hannah Griscom Marot; educated in Quaker schools; never married; no children.

Co-founded private library in Philadelphia (1897); hired by the U.S. Industrial Commission to investigate custom tailoring trades in Philadelphia (1899); became executive secretary of the National Women's Trade Union League in New York (1906); devoted herself to writing about labor causes (1913); joined editorial board of the Masses (1917).

Selected writings:

Handbook of Labor Literature (1899); American Labor Unions (1914); Creative Impulse in Industry (1918).

Helen Marot was born in Philadelphia in 1865 into a family of venerable Quaker heritage; her ancestors had immigrated from France to a Quaker colony in what is now Pennsylvania in 1730. She attended Quaker schools in the city, and her neighborhood playmates included Jessie Willcox Smith and Maxfield Parrish, both of whom would become renowned illustrators. Marot's father was a bookseller and publisher, and she credited him in large part for her own independence of thought. She never forgot what he had told her when she was 14: "I want you to think for yourself—not the way I do." In 1893, Marot took her first job, with the University Extension Society of Philadelphia. Three years later, she began working as a librarian in Wilmington, Delaware. She returned to Philadelphia in 1897 and with a friend founded a private library that featured books and periodicals on social and economic issues. The Library of Economic and Political Science became a gathering site for Philadelphia's more progressive citizenry.

Marot's interest in political and humane matters began to center around the fledgling labor movement. In 1899, she published her first book, Handbook of Labor Literature, and that same year began an investigation of the custom tailoring trades in Philadelphia for the U.S. Industrial Commission. She undertook the task with a friend and fellow activist, Caroline Pratt , who later founded New York City's progressive City and Country School. The horrible working conditions Marot saw in the needlework trades—long, tedious hours in unsafe working environments for low wages—impacted her greatly, and from this point on she became firmly committed to the labor movement. In 1902, along with Josephine Goldmark and Florence Kelley of the National Consumers' League, she undertook the same type of investigation for the Association of Neighborhood Workers in New York City, this time focused on underage workers. Their report resulted in the creation of that city's Child Labor Committee and the eventual passage by the New York State legislature of the Compulsory Education Act of 1903. It was one of the first such laws of its kind in the United States, passed in an attempt to make it unlawful for children under a certain age to work rather than attend school.

Marot returned to Philadelphia in 1904, when she was asked to become secretary of the Pennsylvania Child Labor Committee. She held this post until hired two years later by the recently established National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL) in New York as its executive secretary. Although the NWTUL did not initially receive much support from the male-dominated labor establishment, both because it focused on women and because it had been founded by upper-class women, the league grew in membership and influence during Marot's tenure. She did a great deal to call attention to the plight of female workers in various industries and their need to organize for better working conditions and wages. One of her greatest successes was the formation of the Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union of New York, one of the first unions for white-collar workers; Marot held one of its first union cards.

Her prominence in the labor union movement was such that the great U.S. Supreme Court justice, Louis D. Brandeis, called upon Marot, Goldmark, and Kelley to contribute to what has became known as the "Brandeis Brief," his famous decision in the case of Muller v. Oregon (1908). The court ruled that it was indeed constitutional to restrict the hours of working women (at the time, 12- to 18-hour days were not uncommon for many laborers), but the Brandeis Brief made legal history more for its introduction of sociological and economic factors into the decision-making process in constitutional law.

In 1909, Marot was involved in another notable event in American labor history as organizer of the first major walkout of shirtwaist makers and dressmakers. Held under the aegis of the newly formed International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), but directed primarily by Marot, the strike lasted into the next year. (Along with the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the strike was responsible for raising the profile, membership, and power of the ILGWU.) Marot was so drained from the often dangerous days of the strike that she afterward took a rest in France and Italy. She resigned from the NWTUL in 1913, partly to protest the lack of working-class women among its leadership. From this point onward, she devoted herself to writing about labor issues and to the work of the Fabian Society. Founded in England in 1884, this nonviolent revolutionary socialist group positioned itself against Marxism and boasted several famous members, including George Bernard Shaw and Annie Besant ; many of its tenets would eventually be incorporated in Britain's official Labour Party.

In addition to serving on the U.S. Industrial Relations Commission from 1914 to 1916, Marot wrote American Labor Unions (1914), which discussed the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies) and their belief that capitalism should be overthrown and society restructured along a socialist model. Her 1918 volume Creative Impulse in Industry: A Proposition for Educators argued that schools could be an agent for social change and the betterment of society along the socialist model. Marot also sat on the editorial board of the Masses, a groundbreaking magazine of progressive thought that was suppressed by the U.S. government in 1917, when its editorials and features advocated too ardently that America should stay out of the war in Europe. She joined the staff of The Dial in 1918 and over the next two years helped guide that publication to a greater focus on political issues. From 1920, she lived in quiet retirement in Greenwich Village, and summered in West Becket, Massachusetts, with Caroline Pratt. Helen Marot died of a heart attack in 1940, at the age of 75.

sources:

Fink, Gary M., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present. New York, NY: Dover, 1980.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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