Perspective | Women have always been key to the labor movement (2022)

Workers have been forming unions in a historic wave of labor organizing over the past year. Much of this activity has been in retail stores, cafes and museums, where most front-line employees are women. Indeed, women and nonbinary people have been playing a key role in these efforts.

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While men dominated labor organizing through much of the 20th century, women have long been foundational to the labor rights movement. In fact, the largest labor demonstration in the United States before the Civil War took place in Lynn, Mass., during the winter of 1860, and it wouldn’t have happened without female workers. This early milestone of the labor movement should have been a first step in steady progress toward workplace equality. Instead, it marked the first in a series of setbacks and missed opportunities.

By 1850, Lynn was on its way to becoming the shoe capital of the world, and its labor force consisted of two-thirds female workers. Eighty percent of wage-earning women in Lynn and the surrounding Essex County were working in the shoe industry, with many working part time from their homes in a system known as “outwork.” This system allowed women to support their husbands’ or fathers’ trade through piecework rather than earning separate income outside the home. Male artisans endorsed this system because it allowed women to contribute to the household income and continue to perform expected domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning and child-rearing.


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Shoemaking became more mechanized and modernized over the next decade, and the gender ratio equalized. Both male and female shoe workers met regularly to discuss labor issues. But these organizations were separated by gender — men, as well as some women, viewed women’s participation in the industry as a temporary situation that would end when they married and became mothers. When a men’s strike committee was formed, the members rejected a proposal to include an alliance of women outworkers and female factory workers in their effort.

Three thousand Lynn shoe workers walked off the job in February 1860 to protect their wages and improve working conditions. Strikers from across New England soon joined them, insisting that manufacturers agree on a universal “bill of prices” that would prevent competition between workers in different towns and ensure shoe manufacturers from other areas could not have undue influence in the market.

The Great Shoemakers Strike made national news. Even then-presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln chimed in, saying, “I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers can strike when they want to, where they are not obliged to labor whether you pay them or not.” Lincoln spoke in Hartford, where he decried the conditions under which nearly 4 million enslaved Black people worked on Southern plantations. But he was also wary of spiraling conditions for factory laborers in the North.

The extraordinary support that Lynn shoe workers experienced as they began their strike quickly evaporated as orderly marching erupted into chaos. The strikers and sympathizers hollered “Scabs!” and “Kick them out!” at the managers who continued working in their shoe shops. Many spectators along the route were drinking heavily and became violent. A strikebreaker who was spotted walking home with outwork from one manufacturer was attacked by an angry mob. The strike committee had initially vowed not to interfere with the transport of goods and materials during the strike, but crowds of people ignored this promise and attacked wagons and their drivers, destroying packages and blocking shipments. Police from neighboring areas were called in to help secure the safety of transports, and the mayor of Lynn swore in dozens of special police officers to restore order. The once-amicable relationship between city officials and shoe workers had deteriorated in a matter of days.

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This anarchy was devastating to a movement rooted in a moral code of artisanal craftsmanship, where success depended on the unequivocal approval of other area shoe towns. Earlier, smaller demonstrations that were more akin to family-friendly holiday parades and focused on early-Republic ideas of class equity and opportunity for all had bolstered community support. The goal had been a respectful and mutually beneficial arrangement between manufacturers and laborers — not antagonistic competition. One local newspaper summed up public sentiment by noting: “the lawlessness of a portion of the strikers has deprived the whole movement of a great part of its moral force and turned public sympathies against it.”

An emergency meeting of the strike committee was called and its leader, Alonzo Draper, proposed including local working women in their movement. Doing so would bring the movement back to a moral high ground, mitigate harmful images of violence and anarchy, and promote the strike as a defense of “traditional New England families” and their values.


Soon Draper addressed a meeting of hundreds of female shoe workers. He made his case for why they should strike on behalf of the men. His argument was categorically focused on the needs of male laborers, even reminding the younger women in the audience that if men didn’t make a decent wage, they wouldn’t be able to marry and support wives and children.

The women interjected with their own grievances and wage demands, countering the assumption that women’s only interest in labor advocacy was bolstering family income. Though outworkers, who outnumbered female shop workers, were very much aligned with the idea of a family wage and thereby accepted their work as subordinate to men’s, self-supporting female factory workers were not. After much spirited debate, they ultimately agreed to join the strike with the goal of raising wages for both men and women.

In early March, 1,000 female shoe workers joined 5,000 men in a procession down the streets of Lynn amid a Nor’easter that created blizzard-like conditions. Women marched wearing traditional long dresses with stiff crinoline skirts and ruffled bonnets, holding parasols in one hand and pro-labor signs in the other.

Draper’s scheme was a success. Major newspapers around the country covered the event, and a long piece in the Chicago Tribune noted, “The most interesting part of the whole affair has been the movement among the women. … Are these girls the independent, free and clear-minded women of whom we hear so much?” An article in the New York Daily Herald asserted “what was most needed now was a canvassing or rallying committee to go among the boot and shoemakers of Boston, of both branches of the work, men’s and women’s, and use their influence toward having a large meeting to aide their friends at Lynn.”

Ten days later, 10,000 striking workers — men and women — marched through Lynn in what was the greatest labor demonstration of its time. The labor stoppage and reduced inventory it created raised the wholesale price of shoes, and Massachusetts shoe bosses agreed to increase men’s wages.

However, manufacturers refused to sign a universal price agreement that would protect against recruitment of lower-paid migrant workers or the hiring of strikebreakers, and there was no formal recognition of the union. When men began returning to their jobs at the end of the month, the women who went on strike in solidarity were appalled and angry at being directed to return to work without signed wage agreements or agreed-upon price lists for themselves.


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When religious leaders and residents questioned the morality of single women working in Lynn and congregating at local lecture halls, restaurants and recreation areas, female workers defended themselves. They made their arguments in public meetings and in the editorial pages of popular newspapers and magazines. But it was too little, too late.

Draper and his strike committee had successfully manipulated female workers to raise men’s wages, but they had done so by exploiting cultural questions around women’s place as breadwinners. This reinforced a gender hierarchy that diminished women’s power in labor advocacy. Women would continue to advocate for themselves through the 19th century, even creating the first all-women labor union, but they would never again dominate the U.S. shoe industry in numbers.

The chance to secure a future for working women on equal footing with men had been lost. And the impact of that profound loss is still felt today well beyond the shoe industry.


How were women involved in the labor movement? ›

Some of these women came together in unions to demand fair pay and safe working conditions. They took to the streets in strikes and boycotts to make their voices heard. Others fought in courtrooms and meeting rooms for laws and policies that would protect women workers and give them a fair shake.

Was the labor movement successful? ›

The movement was impressively successful, more than tripling weekly earnings in manufacturing between 1945 and 1970.

What led to the labor movement? ›

The labor movement in the United States grew out of the need to protect the common interest of workers. For those in the industrial sector, organized labor unions fought for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions.

What led to the formation of the first women's unions? ›

In the 1830s, half a century before the better-known mass movements for workers' rights in the United States, the Lowell mill women organized, went on strike and mobilized in politics when women couldn't even vote—and created the first union of working women in American history.

What did women do during the women's rights movement? ›

They joined labor unions, held strikes for higher pay, and protested for better working conditions. Working women started seeing the vote as a way to gain more political power to further these causes.

How did labor unions help women? ›

Through unity with their male co-workers, shop floor organizing, strikes, and militancy, women demonstrated that they could secure union recognition, higher wages, and shorter work hours from their employers. For the first time, women became powerful allies in a common cause with their union brothers.

Who started the Labour movement? ›

Though the origin of labour movements was traced to the 1860s, first labour agitation in the history of India occurred in Bombay, 1875. It was organised under the leadership of S.S Bengalee. It concentrated on the plight of workers, especially women and children.

What is the definition labor movement? ›

Definition of labor movement

1 : an organized effort on the part of workers to improve their economic and social status by united action through the medium of labor unions. 2 : the activities of labor unions to further the cause of organized labor.

When did the labor movement occur? ›

The National Labor Union was the first attempt in the United States to organize a national federation of labor when labor groups met in Baltimore beginning on August 20, 1866. This is an economic perspective on the change to an 8-hour work day.

What did the labor movement protest? ›

The workers wanted more safety regulations, better wages, fewer hours, and freedom of speech and assembly. But most companies vigorously opposed the union, arguing for the right to control their private property, and to conduct business without intervention.

What happened to the labor movement in the 1920s? ›

Stripped of wartime protections and branded as anti-American, labor unions languished in the Roaring Twenties. Stripped of wartime protections and branded as anti-American, labor unions languished in the Roaring Twenties.

What were 3 major events in the women's rights movement? ›

Here are just some of the many important events that happened as women gained the right to vote.
  • 1848. First Women's Rights Convention. ...
  • 1849. The First National Women's Rights Convention. ...
  • 1851. “Ain't I a woman?” ...
  • 1861-1865. The Civil War. ...
  • 1866. Formation of the American Equal Rights Association. ...
  • 1867. ...
  • 1868. ...
  • 1870.
Nov 10, 2020

How did the women's rights movement start? ›

The 1848 Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention marked the beginning of the women's rights movement in the United States.

Why was the women's right movement important? ›

The woman's suffrage movement is important because it resulted in passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which finally allowed women the right to vote.

How did women's position contribute to the rise of a women's movement? ›

How did women's position contribute to the rise of a women's movement? Women in the 1800s had very limited rights, with low wages and no right to vote. The Second Great Awakening inspired many women to join reform movements that called for equal women's rights and abolishment of slavery.

Why women should join a union? ›

Women's participation in unions is beneficial for several reasons. Unionized women have greater earnings—$212, or 30.9 percent more per week—and higher rates of health insurance coverage than non unionized women (see chapters two and four).

How the industrial revolution changed women's roles? ›

Industrialization brought new opportunities for employment, changing ideas of work, and economic cycles of boom and bust. During this period, women's roles changed dramatically. Industrialization redefined the role of women in the home, at the same time opening new opportunities for them as industrial wage earners.

What was the most important accomplishment of the labor movement? ›

The crowning achievement of the American union movement came in 1938 with the signing of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guaranteed a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, a 40-hour workweek, and time-and-a-half overtime.

What is meant by labour movement write its different theories? ›

1. Political Revolutionary Theory of Labour Movement of Marx and Engels: This theory is based on Adam Smiths theory of labour value. Its short run purpose is to eliminate competition among labour, and the ultimate purpose is to overthrow capitalist businessman.

Why did the labor reform movement spread to other areas of life? ›

Why did the labor reform movement spread to other areas of life? The labor reform movement rapidly spread to other ares of life. Many groups, such as people who disliked slaver and women, saw the new laws being passed for the poor working in factories and wished to be treated the same way.

What does labor mean in history? ›

Labor history or labour history is a sub-discipline of social history which specialises on the history of the working classes and the labor movement.

What is the main objective of most labor unions? ›

The main purpose of labor unions is to give workers the power to negotiate for more favorable working conditions and other benefits through collective bargaining.

Who fought for workers rights? ›

The modern concept of labor rights dates to the 19th century after the creation of labor unions following the industrialization processes. Karl Marx stands out as one of the earliest and most prominent advocates for workers rights.

Which movement was a Labour movement? ›

The labour movement or labor movement consists of two main wings: the trade union movement (British English) or labor union movement (American English) on the one hand, and the political labour movement on the other.

What was the main purpose of the first labor unions? ›

Why Were Unions Created? Labor unions were created to protect employee rights and stop exploitation. Members fight together for better pay and working conditions and collectively can be influential enough to engineer change.

What is labor reform? ›

"This Act defines...the right of self-organization of employees in industry for the purpose of collective should serve as an important step toward the achievement of just and peaceful labor relations in industry."

What was the labor movement quizlet? ›

Founded in 1905, this radical union, also known as the Wobblies aimed to unite the American working class into one union to promote labor's interests. It worked to organize unskilled and foreign-born laborers, advocated social revolution, and led several major strikes.

What was an important labor reform during the Progressive Era quizlet? ›

During the Progressive era several states passed legislation helpful to labor, such as laws establishing a minimum wage for women, maximum work hours, and workmen's compensation, and abolishing child labor and convict leasing.

Which statement best describes the overall goal of early labor unions? ›

Which statement best describes the overall goal of early labor unions? D. Early labor unions wanted pay similar to that of skilled workers.

Who formed the first labor union? ›

In the United States, the first effective nationwide labour organization was the Knights of Labor, in 1869, which began to grow after 1880.

When was the first labor law passed? ›

The first landmark of modern labour law was the British Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802, sponsored by the elder Sir Robert Peel. Similar legislation for the protection of the young was adopted in Zürich in 1815 and in France in 1841.

How did labor change after the Civil War? ›

Out of the conflicts on the plantations, new systems of labor slowly emerged to take the place of slavery. Sharecropping dominated the cotton and tobacco South, while wage labor was the rule on sugar plantations. Increasingly, both white and black farmers came to depend on local merchants for credit.

Why did the 1920s hurt the American labor movement quizlet? ›

There were 3,000 strikes in 1919 because employers didn't want to give employee raises and didn't want employees to join unions. In spite of the gains made by coal miners, the 1920s hurt the labor movement badly, causing union membership to drop from over 5 million to around 3.5 million.

Who composed the labor force of the post Civil war era and what were labor's main grievances? ›

Who composed the labor force of the period, and what were labor's main grievances? The labor force was largely composed of unskilled workers, including recent immigrants and growing numbers of women and children. Some children as young as eight years of age worked twelve hours a day in coal mines and southern mills.

How did employers respond to the growth of labor unions? ›

As the unions' membership grew and they began making more demands, the employers' dislike of unions resurfaced accordingly. In other words, class conflict once again emerged, which soon led to organized opposition to unions within the very same employer associations that had been created to encourage trade agreements.

Who was the first woman to stand up for women's rights? ›

Susan B. Anthony was a pioneer in the women's suffrage movement in the United States and president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, which she founded with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Anthony's work helped pave the way for the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote.

What is the relationship between the women's suffrage movement and the labor movement? ›

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 catalyzed women to fight for their rights in the workplace and for access to the ballot box. Today, labor rights are driving some to exercise their hard-won right to vote.

How were women treated in the 1800s? ›

Women were expected to remain subservient to their fathers and husbands. Their occupational choices were also extremely limited. Middle- and upper-class women generally remained home, caring for their children and running the household.

Why did so many women join the workforce during the war? ›

Five million women entered the workforce between 1940-1945. The gap in the labor force created by departing soldiers meant opportunities for women. In particular, World War II led many women to take jobs in defense plants and factories around the country.

When did women start fighting for their rights? ›

The 1848 Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention marked the beginning of the women's rights movement in the United States.


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