Women in Industry Heading

 

   


Industrial Revolution (1800-1880)

Some African-Americans domestic workers participated in active labor organizations in the Reconstruction South.  On June 18, 1866, domestic servants in Jackson, Mississippi, held a city-wide meeting and drafted a letter and a petition to the city’s mayor.  The women demanded higher, uniform wages for their organization’s members, and when their petition was ignored, they went on strike.  It is unknown whether or not the Jackson strike was successful, but it inspired similar action in at least two other southern cities over the next twenty years. 

Household servants and laundresses in Galveston, Texas, went on strike on July 31, 1877, for wages of $1.50 per day or $9.00 per week.  Some of these women lost their jobs because of the strike, and there are no records showing if other women ever received the higher wages.
 

Women boiling and washing clothes 1870s
Women boiling and washing clothes 1870s

Laundresses
Depiction of laundresses in the South

The largest instance of domestic workers organizing was in Atlanta, Georgia.  Twenty laundresses formed an Atlanta Washing Society in July of 1881, went on strike, and began canvassing door-to-door for members.  Not only did these women want higher wages, but they also demanded dominance over the city’s washing industry.  The strike lasted only ten days because police arrested and fined the participants, but the Washing Society had gained 3,000 members since its formation.  The Society planned another strike during the International Cotton Exposition, which was in Atlanta in October of 1881, but it never happened.  These three examples of African-American domestic servants organizing were not fully successful in achieving the higher wages they demanded, but they set a precedent for collective bargaining and labor reform that would continue through the next century. (24) 

During the 19th century, more and more women were beginning to have a role in public life by joining the paid labor force.  The labor opportunities available to women were in line with the agricultural and domestic work American women had always done at home. Working offered some women a higher degree of self-sufficiency, but all women workers were low-paid and exploited because of their gender. 

African American women and immigrants faced further exploitation because of racial and ethnic prejudices.   The New England strikes and petitions represent women’s first efforts to employ collective bargaining and legislation to improve their working conditions.  The “Union is Power” poem from the 1834 Lowell strike indicates that women hoped their organizational activity would not only raise their wages and limit their weekly hours, but also equalize the social and economic inequalities between men and women, and between whites and blacks.  In the 20th century, women of all races, ethnicities, and occupations continued to establish and join organizations with the goals of improving labor conditions as well overcoming gender, ethnic, and racial prejudices in favor of equality and freedom.

d

Massachusetts shoemakers strike 1860
There are no pictures of the Lowell strike, but this
is one of a shoemakers' strike in another
Massachusetts town called Lynn in the 1860s

 

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Image 1 from The New York Public Library/Schomburg Center (in "labor" category), Image 2 from the New York Public Library, Image 3 from City University of New York

 

(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007