Women in Industry Heading

 

   


Progressive Era (1880-1930)

A family sewing artificial flowers at home, 1922
Family sewing artificial flowers at home, 1922

Manufacturing, both in the home and in factories, was third largest occupation of women in the early 20th century.  Many women were still engaged in various forms of home production.  Women home workers were involved in many types of production, including piecework sewing, cigar rolling, bookbinding, artificial flower making, and coloring picture postcards. (37)  Their work was poorly paid, and home workers were usually immigrants with families to support.  In New York these women, who were almost entirely Eastern European, Jewish mothers, were called “the Toilers of the Tenements.”(38)   In 1902 and 1908, committees of the “Toilers” boycotted kosher meat prices.  In 1907, a group of them formed “the Band of 400” and staged a rent-strike in the East End, successfully lowering their rent costs through collective action.(39)

Women who worked in manufacturing in factories composed 1/5 of the female workforce and were mostly concentrated in the garment and textile industries (in shirtwaist, cloth hat, underwear, and white goods mills, for example). Many women on the west coast also worked in canneries. (40) About 2/3 of women factory workers were first or second generation immigrants. (41) A small population of black women began to find work in southern textile mills, but faced brutal opposition from white workers.  Some even organized “hate strikes” against newly-hired black workers, such as the walk-outs at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in Atlanta that happened throughout 1897, which resulted in total racial segregation within the factory. (42)
 
Women factory workers faced frequent wage cuts, worked grueling hours, and endured horrible working conditions.  In the New York’s garment factories, women typically worked 12 to 14 hours, 7 days a week at a sewing machine in a factory without central heating, electricity, or ventilation.  There were no protections against the spread of fire.  Because of these working conditions, women often suffered from serious workplace injuries, chronic migraines and fatigue, swollen feet and ankles, and contagious illnesses that spread quickly and easily in the cramped factories
. (43)

Women working in a cannery in California
Women working in a cannery in California

Young women in a sweatshop, c. 1908
Young women in a sweatshop, c. 1908

Garment Stikers in New York, c. 1913
Garment Strikers in New York, c. 1913

New York Garment Strikers, c. 1916
New York Garment Strikers, c. 1916
These overcrowded, all-female sweatshops fostered the same feeling of community as the Lowell boardinghouses, and women joined together to share their discontent and discuss solutions. (43)  At the turn of the century, women industrial workers were nearly entirely excluded from traditional, all-male trade unions.  Only 3% of women workers were unionized in 1905, compared to 20% of men. (44)  The only mainstream union that had made a considerable effort to include women was the Knights of Labor, an organization that thrived as the largest labor union in the country in the 1880s.  Unlike most labor unions at the time, the Knights supported organization by industry rather than by trade, and they included unskilled women workers and even some domestic servants along with skilled male workers in their organization.(45) 
Women held a respected place in the Knights of Labor because they were seen as more moral and reform-minded than men. (46) Women comprised at least 10% of the Knights’ membership, and there were over 400 women’s locals. Female members of the Knights were active in organizing strikes, such as the 1884-1886 nationwide carpet-weavers strike. Two women were leaders in the Knights of Labor: Leonora Barry, the general investigator for women’s work, and Elizabeth Rogers, head of the Chicago Knights assembly. (47) Women were highly involved and valued members of the Knights of Labor, and when the organization went into decline in the 1890s, there was no longer a national union that would include women workers.
Members of the Knights of Labor
Members of the Knights of Labor
 

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Image 1 from the Library of Congress, Image 2 from the Sunnyvale, CA Public Library, Image 3 from the Library of Congress, Image 4 from the Rochester Museum & Science Center, Images 5 & 6 from the Library of Congress

 

(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007