Women’s history month is celebrated each year during the month of March in the United States. The sole purpose is to highlight the contributions of women to events in history and our society. When it comes to the labor movement their influence and contributions are still beings realized today.
We have all heard of the days of sweatshops, long work hours, low wages, and hazardous working conditions. What you may have forgotten is that the era of the sweatshops was employed by women exclusively.
In 1834 textile mill workers in Lowell Massachusetts organized a series of walkouts in pursuit of fair compensation after their pay was cut. The walkouts drew national attention and drove dialog by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, led by Sarah Bagley, to argue the case in Massachusetts General Court in 1846.
One of the most iconic figures of the 19th century labor movement was Mary Harris Jones better known as “Mother Jones”. She was fierce supporter of mining strikes around the country whenever she was asked to attend. One of her famous tactics was to use mops and brooms to fight off strikebreakers. These protests gained support with miners across the industry.
In 1900 Mother Jones causes gained ground with the founding of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In 1911 employees of New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory walked out after the firing of Garment Union members. The company tried to intimidate the picketers with physical violence which led to an industry-wide walk out of 20,000 female workers in solidarity. During this conflict, a devastating fire swept through the Triangle Factory, killing 145 women, who could not get out of the building due to inadequate fire escape routes.
Even though many women made vast contributions to uproot prejudice embedded in America, many large labor unions did not admit women into their ranks, such as American Federation of Labor. Even the United Auto Workers fought against training women until every unemployed man found work. Soon unions realized that taking a stance against women’s employment was detrimental to their membership. A company could just hire them to perform their work for less pay. With union support and the sentiment for civil rights, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 gained momentum to pass Congress. The Equal Pay Act prohibited discrimination in pay based on gender.
The battle for equal pay, workplace safety, and employment continues today and is carried on by women’s labor groups like the Coalition of Labor Women (CLUW).