Women in Industry Heading

 

   


Progressive Era (1880-1930)

The International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union (ILGWU) was founded in New York in 1900 as an organization for both male and female garment factory workers in New York.  Women shirtwaist factory workers were extremely active in the ILGWU.  In 1909, the union organized its first city-wide strike, and 20,000 to 40,000 women shirtwaist workers refused to work.(48) The New York police brutally beat the demonstrators and many women went to jail as a result of their activism. But they were not deterred--in 1913, the ILGWU led yet another 30,000 woman strike.(49) Read the April 2, 1926 issue of the ILGWU’s national weekly newspaper, Justice.

Labor organizations like the ILGWU used collective bargaining to achieve what they called “bread and roses,” an agenda shaped by female leaders in the ILGWU.  In addition to reforming wages, hours and working conditions, unionists wanted employers to provide them with educational and cultural opportunities and health care.(50) This approach to industrial reform was unique to Progressive-era labor organizations, and was a crucial ideal for women labor activists.  Through their activism, women in the ILGWU wanted to overcome the exploitation of immigrant women and uplift them through education—they wanted to secure women’s place as equal members of the labor force and the labor movement.
 

international ladies garment workers union
Union patch from 1900

National Women's Trade Union League Emblem
National Women's Trade
Union League Emblem

triangle factory fire
Shirtwaist factory workers preparing for a strike

Read about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that
led ILGWU to lobby for safety laws in factories.

 

The exploitation of poor, working women inspired many middle and upper class women to found cross-class organizations that would initiate and lead reform efforts. Wealthy, progressive women in Boston founded the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903 to help women in the garment and textile industries organize into unions. Through the WTUL, women workers and middle-class women worked together lobby for state-wide protective legislation for women, such as mothers’ pensions and hours limits. The organization also pushed for the establishment of a regulatory Labor Board and a Women’s Bureau in Illinois.(51)
Members of the Bryn Mawr Summer School, 1921

Through the WTUL, women workers and middle-class women worked together lobby for state-wide protective legislation for women, such as mothers’ pensions and  hours limits.  The organization also pushed for the establishment of a regulatory Labor Board and a Women’s Bureau in Illinois.(51)

Upper class women also established educational programs for working women, such as the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers at Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia.  The summer program began in 1921 and offered classes in Economics, Politics, Law, History, and Literature.  The program prepared women workers to be leaders of collective bargaining efforts and legislative labor reform, and also gave them intellectual opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment.
(52)  The WTUL and the Bryn Mawr Summer School were middle-class women’s efforts to form alliances with women workers and help them achieve the goal of “bread and roses” in industrial reform.  

1913 National Convention of the WTUL
1913 National Convention of the WTUL
 

Page 10


Image 1 from the New York Times, Image 2 from the Library of Congress Image 3 from Cornell University, Image 4 from Bryn Mawr College, Image 5 from the Library of Congress

 

(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007