As a woman in the workforce, surrounded by an extraordinary team of female co-workers, I am forever grateful to the courageous women who paved the way for us. Their tireless efforts and tenacity benefitted not only women, but workers in general.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, jobs for women were few and far between, with the exception of factories and manufacturing positions. The work was dangerous and women were often forced to work longer hours for less pay then their male counterparts. Then came the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 in New York City. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory manufactured blouses and most of the employees were women, who worked 52 hours per week for what, in today’s dollars, would be about $3.20 per hour. Management had a policy to keep the doors to stairwells and exits on the factory floor locked during the work day to keep these women at their stations. But, on March 25, 1911, fire broke out and the workers were trapped. Some jumped to their deaths . . . others succomed to the smoke and flames. All totaled, 146 garment workers, most of them women, the youngest of which was only 14, died that day.
This incident brought attention and eventually change to the work environment that women toiled in, but, it took the efforts of countless brave women to bring important changes forward. Here are just a few who led the charge:
Sarah Bagley was born in 1806 and died in 1889. During her life, she not only became the first female telegrapher, but was also a champion of women's rights. She got her start working at a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts. When the mill's management decided to increase work hours and raise the male workers’ wages but did not raise them for female workers, Bagley organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. She campaigned for shorter hours (her definition of "shorter" being a Ten-Hour Day) and better working conditions. Her work prompted the state legislature to hold the first hearings in United States history on working conditions for laborers. Bagley was eventually able to convince the mill to reduce the workday to 10 hours.
Born in 1845, Mullany, an Irish immigrant, founded the Collar Laundry Union in 1864 when she was only 19 years old. Her father had passed away and she had to get a job, working 12-14 hours per day for, and this is not a misprint, $3.00 per week. It was grueling work and the women were constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals and machinery. She led a successful six-day strike with over 300 other women to increase wages and improve working conditions. The strike led to a 25% increase in wages.
Mary Harris "Mother" Jones
Mary Harris, another Irish immigrant, was born in 1837 in Cork, Ireland. She was a dress maker, but after losing her family to yellow fever in 1867, and then her dress shop in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, she dedicated her life to the labor movement. She traveled around the country, supporting all those fighting for a better life for themselves and their families. She believed that "working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home to care for their kids." Jones was also fervently dedicated to ending child labor. In her famous “March of the Mill Children,” she organized the children who worked in mines and mills, many of whom were missing fingers and had other disabilities, to march from Kensington, PA to the summer house of President Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, NY. They had banners demanding “We want to go to school and not the mines!” In 1905 she helped found the International Workers of the World (IWW). She often called the miners “her boys” and this is when she earned the nickname “Mother” Jones.
When the United States Senate accused her of being "the grandmother of all agitators," she allegedly replied, "I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators!"
This brings us right back to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Clara Lemlich. Born in 1886, Lemlich was a Ukrainian Jew who immigrated to New York to escape persecution. She was able to find work in the garment industry. The new industrial sewing machine allowed employers to demand twice as much production from their employees, who often had to supply their own machines and carry them to and from work. Along with many of her co-workers, Lemlich protested the long hours, low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, and humiliating treatment from supervisors. After her initial efforts to improve wages and working conditions for women, Lemlich had her ribs broken by gangsters hired by factory employers. Two years later, she lost a cousin in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
Despite all this, Lemlich was a constant activist. Her most famous act was starting the "Uprising of the 20,000" when 20,000 garment workers went on strike. By the end of the strike, new contracts had been signed at almost every garment factory in New York City, each guaranteeing better working conditions.
These women got the ball rolling for all of the activists that brought us to where we are now. It just goes to show that you should never underestimate the ability of women to band together and fight for not only themselves but future generations of women as well!
On this International Day of Women, we salute you!