Stevens, Alzina (1849–1900)
Stevens, Alzina (1849–1900)
American labor leader, journalist, and settlement worker. Born Alzina Ann Parsons on May 27, 1849, in Parsonsfield, Maine; died of diabetes in Chicago, Illinois, on June 3, 1900; daughter of Enoch Parsons (a farmer and manufacturer) and Louise (Page) Parsons; married a man named Stevens (divorced).
Organized and was first president of the Working Woman's Union No. 1 in Chicago; leader in the Knights of Labor in Toledo, Ohio; leader in lobbying for child labor laws; became first probation officer at Cook County Juvenile Court in Chicago.
Alzina Stevens was born in 1849 in Parsons-field, Maine, the seventh and last child of Enoch Parsons and Louise Page Parsons . Enoch, a veteran of the War of 1812, made a comfortable living as a farmer and small manufacturer on land granted to his father for Revolutionary War service. Following her father's death while Alzina was still a young girl, the family endured financial hardship and, at age 13, she took a job in a textile factory to ease the situation. The loss of her right index finger in an industrial accident became a visible lifelong reminder to her of the importance of improving child labor laws.
Stevens' lack of education was not a hindrance; she learned the printing trade at age 18, becoming a newspaper proofreader and typesetter. By 1872, she was working in Chicago, where she joined Typographical Union No. 16. Five years later, she established a labor group for women called the Working Woman's Union No. 1 and served as its president before moving to Toledo, Ohio, in 1882.
The Toledo Bee newspaper initially hired Stevens as a proofreader and compositor, but she advanced quickly to the positions of correspondent and editor. She soon became a driving force in the Knights of Labor in Toledo, and assisted in the formation of the Joan of Arc Assembly, a woman's local assembly. As its "master workman," a title equivalent to "president," she was also a delegate to the city-wide District Assembly and attended the national conventions of the Knights of Labor from 1888 through 1890. Her popularity in the labor movement led to her nomination as director of woman's work in 1890, a position she refused, opting instead to apply herself to her duties as master workman at the district level. She was such an important figure in the Ohio labor movement that she was chosen to represent northwestern Ohio's labor organizations at the Populist Party's national convention in 1892.
Stevens returned to Chicago in late 1892 to ownership and editorship, with Lester C. Hubbard, of the short-lived Vanguard, a weekly publication devoted to economic and industrial reform. It was at this time that Alzina also became associated with the newly established Hull House. Founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr , Hull House sought to achieve social and economic reform, and Stevens was a persuasive advocate on its behalf.
In 1893, the governor of Illinois appointed Stevens assistant factory inspector under Florence Kelley , a position created as a result of the Workshop and Factories Act. In this role, she denounced wealthy department-store owner Marshall Field for his use of sweatshop labor in his business. During the governor's four-year administration, Stevens and Kelley prepared annual reports and published other writings. Their study of child labor conditions was printed in Hull-House Maps and Papers in 1895. The two women used their collected statistics to influence lawmakers to pass more protective child labor laws and stronger compulsory school attendance laws at the close of the 19th century.
With her well-known and abiding interest in child welfare, Stevens negotiated an informal arrangement with the police station nearest Hull House to give her temporary custody over many of its juvenile offenders. This experience resulted in her becoming the first Cook County (Chicago) Juvenile Court probation officer in 1899. At first she was supported financially by the privately organized Chicago Juvenile Court Committee, and worked alone, but within a few months she was supervising a staff of six, counseling offenders, and helping people on probation find jobs.
During the mid-1890s, when the Knights of Labor had begun to lose its influence, Stevens helped organize new unions for the American Federation of Labor. She walked the picket lines during strikes, becoming a close ally of Eugene V. Debs, whom she supported after the collapse of the Pullman strike in 1894. Critical of those opposed to unions, Stevens was equally critical of those who sentimentalized the labor movement. She held both the working class and the wealthy to the same standards.
Early in Stevens' life, she married unsuccessfully. Although she retained her husband's name, she never spoke about him or the marriage. Complications from diabetes resulted in Stevens' death in Chicago on June 3, 1900, at age 51. Her funeral was held at Hull House, and her cremated remains were interred at Chicago's Graceland Cemetery.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.
Martha Jones , M.L.S., Natick, Massachusetts